Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


Human Rights Developments

Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León ended his first full year as president unable or unwilling to halt Mexico's triple evils of political killings, military and police abuses, and impunity. In February, Zedillo himself kicked off a crackdown on guerrillas in the southeastern state of Chiapas, but despite his assurances that security forces would respect human rights, government officials arbitrarily detained, tortured, and forced confessions from suspects. Investigators appeared to make headway in the official probe into the 1994 murder of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, though new high-profile killings added to a growing list of such deaths, including Abraham Polo Uscanga, the judge in a politically charged union case, and seventeen peasants gunned down by police in Guerrero state. Throughout the country, labor and human rights activists also suffered attacks.

The crackdown on the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) exposed a breach between presidential words and governmental actions. On the one hand, President Zedillo recognized the problems of human rights violations and impunity, stating in his first state-of-the-union address, "The frequency of crimes and the impunity of those who break the law are an affront to society; and people have every reason to feel exasperated when they see that the very people who are entrusted with safeguarding order and imparting justice are in many cases those who disregard it." However, Zedillo's government continued to commit the very abuses that he himself condemned.

In Chiapas, an uneasy stand-off between the EZLN and the government ended suddenly on February 9, when Zedillo ordered the army to recover by force territory in which the EZLN had operated since January 1994. In a televised address from the presidential palace, Zedillo informed the nation that he had ordered the army offensive to assist the attorney general's office in carrying out arrest warrants against five alleged EZLN commanders, whose names he read on the air, including that of the EZLN leader, "Subcommander Marcos."

During the crackdown, combined police and army operations netted more than twenty people, whom prosecutors later charged with crimes such as "terrorism" and "rebellion." All except two of eighteen February detainees interviewed in prison by Human Rights Watch/Americas reported that they gave coerced statements to government officials after being blindfolded, subjected to incessant and loud music, and deprived of liquid or food for up to forty-eight hours. Initially, none had adequate legal assistance. At least four of seven people detained in Yanga, Veracruz, suffered severe torture and, under threat, signed confessions incriminating themselves. One of them, Alvaro Castillo Granados, told Human Rights Watch/Americas that police forced him into the back of a car, stuffed a rag into his mouth, and forced mineral water up his nose. The police who interrogated Castillo shocked him with an electric baton and almost suffocated him with a plastic bag. In committing the seven for trial, a judge dismissed the torture allegations, claiming that even if proved, they would not detract from the value of the detainees' confessions. In October, a judge reviewing the earlier decision threw out several of the charges after finding that the attorney general's office failed to substantiate the government's allegations; but as of this writing the prisoners remained in detention. The judge did not refer to the treatment received by the detainees.

The Fray Bartolomé Human Rights Center (Centro para los Derechos Humanos "Fray Bartolomé de las Casas"), in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, reported dozens of cases of torture, beatings, and intimidation committed by government officials in the context of the crackdown. Most of the abuses occurred as army troops rounded up and questioned villagers about the Zapatistas. An agreement reached between the government and EZLN in September paved the way for future negotiations between the warring parties. In October, discussions began on the topic of indigenous rights and culture.

The detentions during the crackdown and previous military abuses in Chiapas made clear that existing Mexican safeguards designed to eliminate torture and forced confessions would only be effective if political leaders, including President Zedillo, issued clear directives to their subordinates that such laws must be followed and that any breach would be fully and immediately prosecuted.

The war in Chiapas exacerbated the longstanding conflict between ranchers and the state's largely landless indigenous population. Indigenous groups, drawing inspiration from the EZLN, continued to occupy farming land across the state, while landowners and ranchers reacted by arming and training their own private police, known as guardias blancas, or white guards. In some cases, police sided openly with the guardias, which human rights groups have identified as responsible for serious human rights violations. On January 10, for example, guardias blancas in Chicomuselo, along with municipal police and ranchers, participated in a clash against members of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD), leaving seven people dead and several others wounded. Despite a report by the National Commission for Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) on the incident that identified collusion between the white guards and uniformed police, the federal Ministry of Government reported that it could find no evidence of guardia blanca activity in Chicomuselo. During the run-up to October local elections in Chiapas, guardias blancas killed some nineteen PRD activists, according to the Fray Bartolomé Human Rights Center. Three members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) were kidnaped or murdered, according to the New York Times, which cited the PRI.

Another indication of tensions in Chiapas came with the expulsion in June of three priests working in the state: Argentine Jorge Barón Gutlein; U.S. citizen Loren Riebe; and Spanish national Rodolfo Izal Elorz. Without warrants for their arrest, state judicial police detained the priests in different parts of the state on June 22. While at the airport, the priests learned that they had been accused of encouraging land occupations and preaching about national politics, which they firmly denied in later interviews. Human Rights Watch/Americas recognized the government's right to decide which foreigners to admit and which to exclude, but also found that the government failed to fulfill its obligation to provide due process. Following the expulsions, the Mexican government refused to allow two other foreign Chiapas-based priests to re-enter the country after they had voluntarily departed.

Four months after the crackdown on suspected EZLN members, the national government found itself faced with another human rights crisis of national and international dimensions, this time in the southern state of Guerrero. On June 28, members of several communities in the state made their way toward Atoyac de Alvarez to attend a protest called by the Southern Sierra Peasant Organization (Organización Campesina de la Sierra del Sur, OCSS). Outside the town of Aguas Blancas, state judicial police and public security officers, also known as policía motorizada, erected a roadblock and stopped two trucks heading in the direction of the protest. Police opened fire on one of the vehicles, killing seventeen people and wounding fourteen others. Two police officers were wounded by a machete. After the killings, the police planted weapons on the victims and claimed they had returned fire in self-defense. In the months prior to the massacre, authorities and members of indigenous communities had clashed frequently, and attacks by unidentified assailants left more than three dozen people dead, including political activists, police, and peasants.

In a detailed report on the incident, the CNDH determined that even if the peasants had opened fire (which the CNDH doubted), the police had reacted in a "disproportionate, irresponsible, and illegal" manner. The CNDH found overwhelming proof that police and other state officials tried to cover up the incident, and documented evidence of at least one extrajudicial execution at the scene of the massacre.

On July 1, the state attorney general accused ten police officers of manslaughter and abuse of authority, but after the CNDH released its report in August, several of the state's top political leaders_including the attorney general_lost their jobs pending investigation, in fulfillment of a recommendation made in the report. Only the governor remained in his post. Three special prosecutors have been named to head the case, but none made progress on resolving the killings. By the time this report went to press, several important questions remained unanswered, including the identity of the occupants of a helicopter that flew above the massacre and the degree to which government officials planned the killings.

Federal officials maintained that they would not and could not intervene after the massacre because the federal system of government in Mexico prohibited them from doing so. Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch/Americas believes that based on the American Convention on Human Rights, to which Mexico is a state party, the national government cannot hide behind federalism to justify state or local violations of its international obligations. The convention's federal clause, article 28, holds that national governments shall "immediately" take steps to "the end that the competent authorities of the constituent units may adopt appropriate provisions" for the fulfillment of the convention.

Although the governor made a commitment to fulfill a CNDH recommendation to restructure the police, Human Rights Watch/Americas' field investigations revealed that the state government had taken no effective steps to address impunity or restructure the police to prevent future abuses.

The government of Mexico committed human rights violations in the context of labor issues, including limiting freedom of association and failing to live up to its international obligations to prevent discrimination. A labor tribunal refused to re-register the independent union of the former Fishing Ministry, which the government transformed in December 1994 into the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources, and Fishing. Following several questionable legal rulings, a pro-government union federation called new elections and eliminated the independent union members from the new union's Leadership. Human Rights Watch/Americas began to study other cases in 1995, including the government's confrontation with the Union of Route 100 Urban Transportation Workers, commonly referred to as Ruta-100. The government declared a publicly-financed bus company bankrupt, declared the union dissolved, and jailed several of its leaders. Three people have lost their lives so far in the struggle, including Judge Abraham Polo Uscanga. Polo denounced threats from court officials after he refused on legal grounds to issue arrest warrants for Ruta-100 leaders, and subsequently sought leave from the court. On June 19, assailants shot him dead in Mexico City. Two days earlier, unidentified gunmen shot to death the government's special prosecutor in the Ruta-100 case. In April, Mexico City's transportation secretary, the official in charge of breaking the union's control over city transportation, died after receiving two gunshots in his chest. Government investigators ruled the death a suicide.

Throughout northern Mexico's maquiladora sector, the government also failed to enforce statutes contained in domestic and international laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender. The Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project documented routine discrimination against women in the maquiladora industry, which required prospective women employees to reveal their pregnancy status and denied jobs to pregnant women. In addition, the Women's Rights Project documented cases in which private maquiladora companies mistreated or fired women who became pregnant (see the Women's Rights Project section).

As has been the case in past years, journalists in Mexico faced danger or harassment for reporting on sensitive issues. On July 24, gunmen shot and wounded Tijuana-based journalist Dante Cortez as he traveled to a press conference to denounce alleged drug traffickers in Baja California. Cortez had been investigating his son's murder in June, which he believed took place at the hands of drug traffickers. In March, Veracruz state officials closed Radio Huayacocotla, arguing that technical deficiencies at the station posed life-threatening danger to its employees. According to station employees, government officials had accused Radio Huayacocotla of instigating violence among Veracruz's indigenous population, a serious allegation within the context of the guerrilla war in nearby Chiapas. For decades, Radio Huayacocotla had broadcast educational and community-oriented information.

The Right to Monitor

Attacks on human rights monitors took place throughout the country during 1995. On February 13 and 14, news media citing official sources reported that police had discovered an arsenal being shipped to Arturo Lona, the bishop of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, who is also president of the Tepeyac Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos "Tepeyac"). On June 29, two men shot at Bishop Lona, hitting the truck he was driving with eleven bullets. Oaxaca officials ruled the attack an attempted robbery, but the harassment suffered by Bishop Lona earlier in the year led Human Rights Watch/America to suspect a political motive.

In March, the Binational Human Rights Center (Centro Binacional de Derechos Humanos) discovered that someone had wiretapped its offices, after private investigators contracted by the center conducted a thorough sweep of the group's Tijuana installations. The investigators found tapped phone lines and an expensive microphone in a telephone handset.

In August, the Rev. David Fernández, a priest who heads the Mexico City-based Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos "Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez", known as Prodh), received a series of threats against him and his family. Prior to the threats, Proceso magazine published a hard-hitting interview with Father Fernández, who severely criticized the government's handling of human rights issues. In September, Prodh personnel received several additional threats. José Lavanderos, a human rights lawyer working on the cases of the alleged Zapatistas detained during the crackdown, received threats in October.

An October report by the human rights coordinating group National Network of Human Rights Groups (La Red Nacional de Organismos de Derechos Humanos "Todos los Derechos para Todos," known as La Red) documented a series of threats or attacks against human rights monitors throughout Mexico, including the Mahatma Gandhi Regional Human Rights Commission (Comisión Regional de Derechos Humanos "Mahatma Gandhi") in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca; the Miguel Hidalgo Human Rights Committee (Comité de Derechos Humanos y Orientación "Miguel Hidalgo") in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato; Citizens in Support of Human Rights (Ciudadanos en Apoyo a los Derechos Humanos) in Guadalupe, Nuevo León; the Tabasco Human Rights Committee (Comité de Derechos Humanos de Tabasco); and the Northern Sierra Human Rights Committee (Comité de Derechos Humanos de la Sierra Norte de Veracruz) in Huayacocotla, Veracruz. Human rights activists in Guerrero working on the June massacre also received threats. In most of the cases documented by La Red, the identity of the people making the threats could not be confirmed.

U.S. Policy
As it has in the past, the Clinton administration went out of its way to avoid criticizing the Mexican government on human rights issues. In its public statements on Mexico, the United States showed great support for the Zedillo government, rallying to provide billions of dollars in a financial package for Mexico after the peso collapsed in December 1994. Repeated praise for the Mexican government in the context of the financial package and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with virtually no public mention of human rights problems, made it clear that the economic relationship between the two countries mattered to the United States far more than human rights problems.

Throughout 1995, the State Department made only one public statement focusing on human rights in Mexico. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City made none. On February 10, as the crackdown on alleged Zapatistas continued, acting State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelly justified, "Governments have the right and responsibility to protect their citizens against violence, while, at the same time, respecting their human rights." When it became clear that the Mexican government had flagrantly violated the rights of suspected guerrillas, the United States issued no follow-up comment. To his credit, U.S. Amb. James Jones did meet with Mexican human rights activists on at least one occasion.

The U.S. Agency for International Development continued to plan a rule-of-law program in Mexico, with a pilot initiative to focus on judicial reform in the state of Hidalgo. The State Department requested $2 million to assist with judicial reform issues in Mexico in 1996, including training for Mexican jurists and police, and sought another $1 million for the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET), up from $200,000 in 1994 and an estimated $400,000 in 1995. U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry visited Mexico in October and publicly announced the IMET program.

In an interview in Mexico City, Ambassador Jones assured Human Rights Watch/Americas that the United States raised human rights concerns "at the highest levels of government" in Mexico, though he emphasized that it never did so publicly. "Our message is that respect for human rights is a factor in whether people will invest in Mexico," he said. "The most effective tool is the investment community." The ambassador cautioned that nationalism in Mexico would cause the government to reject any public criticism made by the United States. Human Rights Watch/Americas found the caution to be misplaced because U.S. statements on Mexico that ignored serious human rights issues yet praised other developments effectively helped the Mexican government avoid responsibility for the violations committed by its agents. Reporting on Mexico in the Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994 noted serious problems in Mexico, including "extrajudicial killings by the police, torture, and illegal arrests," but the existence of such violations appeared not to be factored into U.S. policy on Mexico. Further, since the State Department requested $3 million in aid to train Mexican soldiers, police, and jurists in 1996, the U.S. government should have been particularly careful to issue public criticism of human rights abuses in Mexico. By doing otherwise, the United States sent the message to Mexican officials that not only did committing or tolerating human rights abuses carry no cost, but the United States would continue to provide financial support to state agencies responsible for violating human rights.

The United States encouraged the Mexican government to accept donated helicopters and airplanes to strengthen the ability of the attorney general's office to interdict illegal drugs. In October, the United States transferred twelve Huey helicopters to the attorney general's office on a no-cost-lease basis and slated another twelve to be sent for spare parts.

During 1995, the U.S. Labor Department reviewed one complaint about labor rights violations in Mexico. The department's National Administrative Office (NAO), created in 1994 by the NAFTA accord, released a report on a complaint filed the previous year by three U.S. groups and one Mexican organization. The complaint alleged that Sony Corporation had violated freedom of association, the right to organize, and minimum employment standards. The NAO deemed "plausible" a complaint of wrongful dismissal and recommended further study of the problems. The labor ministries of Mexico and the United States agreed to study the problem of union registration in Mexico and educate Mexicans about their labor rights. While the process highlighted the lack of enforcement mechanisms in NAFTA's labor side agreement, it also showed positive signs of facilitating much-needed discussions of important labor rights issues in Mexico. At this writing, the U.S. Congress had yet to debate a Republican-sponsored bill that would effectively curtail presidential authority to include labor rights side agreements in future trade accords in cases where the president wanted fast-track negotiating capabilities.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Americas
Human Rights Watch/Americas continued to focus attention on human rights abuses committed in the context of the Zapatista uprising, but also sought during the year to highlight broader human rights problems in Mexico, such as impunity for violations committed by the police and military and torture. In addition, with the goal of submitting cases to the National Administrative Office of the Department of Labor, we began to investigate freedom of association cases related to Mexico's labor unions.

In April, Human Rights Watch/Americas sent a fact-finding mission to Mexico to investigate abuses committed during the February crackdown on alleged Zapatistas and, as part of its ongoing focus on impunity in Mexico, to gather new information about the 1994 Ocosingo clinic massacre in Chiapas. In June, Human Rights Watch/Americas published Army Officer Held "Responsible" for Chiapas Massacre: Accused Found Dead at Defense Ministry. Based on internal military documents, the report analyzed the army's handling of the massacre, finding serious methodological flaws in the military's investigation. In publishing the report, Human Rights Watch/Americas sought to bring attention to continuing military impunity and urged that an exhaustive investigation by civilian authorities lead to the punishment of those found responsible for the killings. In addition, we urged the adoption of legislation to ensure that the investigation and prosecution of crimes involving military personnel that may constitute human rights violations are conducted under strict civilian jurisdiction.

Human Rights Watch/Americas called for a cut-off of U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS), estimated at $3,500,000 in 1995 and $3,600,000 in 1996, until the Mexican army completes adequate investigations into human rights violations committed by the army during the Chiapas uprising and until prosecutions of those found responsible are underway. IMET funding should be used as a lever to reach these same goals; if progress is not made, the administration should seriously consider cutting off IMET.

In August and September, Human Rights Watch/Americas conducted another fact-finding trip in Mexico to gather further information on the February crackdown, research labor rights cases, and investigate the June massacre of seventeen peasants in Guerrero state. The resulting analysis of the torture and other ill treatment during the February crackdown was being prepared for publication at this writing.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page