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Human Rights Watch Backgrounder on US-Mexico Ties
(New York, February 12, 2001) When George W. Bush visits President Vicente Fox in Mexico this Friday, the two leaders will discuss issues that have important implications for human rights in the region-including migration, trade and the war on drugs. This briefing outlines some of the human rights problems that should be addressed in their meeting and includes questions to be put to the two presidents at their joint press conference.
Migration and Human Rights
U.S. Border Patrol Abuses: Over the last decade, Human Rights Watch has published several reports documenting abuses committed by the U.S. Border Patrol, including beatings and sexual assaults. There have also been several cases of border-crossers being shot by agents, with the agents often claiming later that the border was throwing, or reaching for, a rock. Last May, for example, agents shot a man in the leg even though he was on the Mexican side of the border. They claimed the man threw a rock in their direction.
Human Rights Watch has also documented how the U.S. government often fails to investigate and punish abuses by U.S. border agents. The dramatic growth in the size of the Border Patrol in recent years has only exacerbated the problem of effective oversight. Officials from the Office of the Inspector General have complained of severe understaffing that makes it impossible for them to investigate all the complaints they receive of border abuses.
Questions for President Bush:Migrant Border Deaths: In the mid-1990's, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began implementing a new border enforcement strategy, enhancing its presence at traditionally busy crossing areas near population centers. As a result, Mexican migrants without documentation began crossing into the U.S. through more remote border areas. There they have encountered forbidding terrain (where, according to Mexican officials, over 1,400 crossers have died from exposure since 1995) and the hostile reception of private landholders. They have been shot at, and in some cases killed by ranchers. Last May, for instance, a rancher near Brackettville, Texas shot a border-crosser who had asked him for water; the 23-year-old man bled to death at the scene. The rancher was originally charged with murder, but was eventually indicted on a downgraded charge of deadly conduct. The separatist group, Republic of Texas, announced plans last December to send armed patrols to the Texas border region this spring to apprehend undocumented migrants and return them to the border.
Questions for Bush:US Death Penalty and Mexican Citizens: There are now forty-six Mexican nationals on death row in the US, including eighteen in Texas and three in the federal system. According to Mexican officials, none of the forty-six were notified of their right to contact consular representatives, as required by Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in 1999 that such executions violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights-a treaty ratified by the U.S.
Questions for Bush:Migrant Workers and Abusive Employment Practices: Many foreign migrant workers in the United States work in industries with low wages and long hours, few benefits, and unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. Their efforts of undocumented workers to exercise their right to unionize are easily thwarted by managers who threaten to retaliate by reporting them to the INS. The fear of deportation also discourages these workers from filing unfair labor practice charges. Migrant workers with visas often fare no better. For example, since the immigration status of H-2A agricultural workers depends on their on-going employment with a sponsoring employer, these workers cannot legally change jobs to escape abusive labor conditions. If they try to unionize, they can be fired, causing them to lose their immigration status. [See "Unfair Advantage," Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards."]
Many migrant children, both documented and undocumented, also labor in the U.S. agricultural sector, working long days, suffering injuries and exposure to pesticides, and often earning less than minimum wage. U.S. law gives child farm workers less protection than youth working in safer occupations, and the U.S. government fails to enforce adequately the existing minimum age, wage and hour, and health and safety protections. [See "Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers."]
Questions for Bush:NAFTA and Labor Rights
Both Presidents Bush and Fox have stated their commitment to expanding free trade in the Americas. Members of Congress have in the past expressed concern that efforts to expand free trade, such as by providing the president "fast track" negotiating authority, not be undertaken at the expense of vulnerable workers outside the U.S. In 1993, a labor side accord (North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, or NAALC) was attached to NAFTA in order to address that concern.
More than seven years later, the mechanisms established by the side accord to protect labor rights have proven weak and, for the most part, ineffective. The offices that review alleged violations often fail to render findings or even address issues raised in the complaints brought before them. Though the offices may recommend consultations between labor departments from the two countries, these consultations have rarely produced concrete results. When, for example, U.S. officials found widespread pregnancy-based discrimination in Mexico's maquila factories, the consultation between representatives of the two governments produced only an agreement to sponsor public outreach sessions, without requiring the Mexican government to end the practice. Today Mexican maquilas continue to conduct illegal pregnancy testing without government sanctions. [See "A Job or Your Rights: Continued Sex Discrimination in Mexico's Maquiladora Sector."
Questions for Presidents Fox and Bush:The Drug War and Abusive Law Enforcement
President Fox has indicated his willingness to strengthen cooperation with the United States in combating international drug trafficking and drug-related crime. He recently announced his government's intention to fight a "war without quarter" against traffickers. Any such aggressive approach runs the risk of aggravating human rights problems already plaguing Mexico's criminal justice system.
Abusive Law Enforcement in Mexico: Arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, torture, and extrajudicial executions of alleged criminals are common practices in Mexico today. [See "Systemic Injustice: Torture, "Disappearance," and Extrajudicial Execution in Mexico." The willingness of Mexican courts to use evidence gained through torture, in violation of the Convention Against Torture, encourages unlawful practices against persons in detention. The increasing involvement of the Mexican military in fighting the drug war is likely to increase the number of abuses-in part because soldiers are trained and equipped for warfare more than for policing, and in part because they are not subject to prosecution in civilian courts for the crimes they commit against civilians. Abuses committed by army personnel can only be prosecuted in military courts-and these courts have generally failed to investigate and prosecute violations adequately in the past.
The case of environmental activists Teodoro Cabrera García and Rodolfo Montiel Flores illustrates the problem. Soldiers detained the two men in Guerrero state in May 1999, killing another man at the time. The men were held illegally for two days and forced, under torture, to sign statements confessing to drug-related offenses. Last August, they were convicted and sentenced to prison on the basis of those confessions, as well as evidence that, according to the government's National Human Rights Commission, had been planted by the military. The two remain in prison today, and no action has been taken against the soldiers involved in their detention and torture.
Questions for Fox:Chiapas
Finally, the conflict in Chiapas, which has long generated human rights abuses, has reached a critical juncture. President Fox and the leader of the Zapatista rebels, Subcomandante Marcos, have both expressed their commitment to renew peace negotiations and bring an end to violence in the region. The coming weeks will test their ability to follow through on this pledge.
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