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Human Rights Developments
Although President Ernesto Zedillo recognized in the abstract that human rights violations took place in Mexico, his government failed to develop a strategy to respond adequately to individual cases of abuse, strengthen human rights safeguards, or promote the rule of law. Long-simmering human rights problems received government attention only after becoming national and international scandals, while other deeply troubling practices—such as torture, rural violence, abuses by the military, and attacks against human rights monitors and journalists—continued apace. At the same time, the Zedillo administration undertook two initiatives that undercut human rights protections, establishing new restrictions on international human rights monitors and initiating constitutional reforms designed to fight crime through the limitation of the rights of criminal suspects. As the international community paid increasing attention to human rights concerns in Mexico, the government selectively reacted to what it deemed foreign intervention in Mexican human rights affairs—strongly rejecting some human rights entities while demonstrating an openness to dialogue or work with others. Authorities consistently failed, however, to implement recommendations made by United Nations and Organization of American States human rights monitoring bodies.

President Zedillo’s fourth year in office began with intense national and international scrutiny of human rights violations in the southern state of Chiapas, following the December 22, 1997 massacre by pro-government armed civilians of forty-five people in the mountainside hamlet of Acteal, in Chenalhó municipality. In the context of intense community conflict over resources and political loyalty, an estimated sixty armed civilians gathered on the morning of the attack and converged on the community, opening fire on and killing mostly women and children. The victims were unaffiliated with either of the two political groups with the strongest backing in the municipality: the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) and supporters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), the leftist guerrilla group that launched an uprising in Chiapas in January 1994.

The immediate motive for the massacre appeared to have been revenge for the murder of a PRI supporter just days before, part of a pattern of tit-for-tat attacks between PRI and EZLN supporters. Nineteen partisans of the ruling party had reportedly been killed in the municipality during the year prior to the massacre, more than twice the number of murdered supporters of the EZLN.

Even though violence in the municipality had been two-sided, the state government had repeatedly favored supporters of the PRI. Before the massacre, for instance, Chiapas state security police had given protection to PRI supporters, accompanying them for safety to their fields for harvesting. Moreover, at least one commander had helped the civilians who carried out the attack obtain weapons. Government officials who were warned of the impending massacre on the morning of December 22 downplayed initial reports, ensuring that no effective actions were taken to stop the bloodbath. During the massacre, state security police in Acteal didnothing to impede the bloodshed; when state officials arrived afterward, they failed to preserve the crime scene.

As in other areas of Chiapas, the state justice system had consistently failed over the years to handle cases of rural violence properly in Chenalhó; prosecutors responsible for investigating crimes, for instance, did not do so. Between May and December 1997, for example, at least thirty-four incidents of violence were reported in Chenalhó municipality, including murders, expulsions from communities, and kidnappings. All members of the community suffered, regardless of political affiliation. According to the Office of the Federal Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR), however, none of the cases had been properly investigated, despite formal complaints lodged with prosecutors. Atypically, federal investigators who had assumed responsibility for the cases following the massacre had reportedly made progress in gathering evidence for prosecution of the unresolved rural violence incidents from Chenalhó.

Although the massacre fit the patterns of violence and impunity found in other regions of Chiapas, it was dissimilar in one fundamental way. Unlike other areas of Chiapas, such as the state’s northern zone, the state justice system in Chenalhó had failed for supporters of the PRI as well as partisans of the EZLN. The relative strength of the EZLN in Chenalhó may have posed as strong a deterrent to prosecutions of their supporters as PRI support did for its followers throughout the state.

Following the massacre, the federal government assumed jurisdiction of the case, acting swiftly to investigate and jail the material authors. By May 1998, the PGR had taken legal action against 124 people, sixty-nine of them for their alleged active participation in the killings and the others for aiding or covering up for the aggressors. Unfortunately, like their state counterparts, federal officials had ignored signs that the massacre was imminent. Just three weeks before the killings, a group of national and international human rights defenders visited Chenalhó and warned of impending violence. At almost the same time, the government’s own National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) had also issued a decree calling on the Chiapas state governor to provide protection to likely victims of violence in the municipality.

Put on the defensive after the massacre, the federal government responded not by reining in PRI supporters willing to use violence but by aggressively moving against EZLN supporters and international observers in Chiapas. Pro-EZLN communities known as autonomous municipalities were raided by state and federal police acting with army backup. The communities, which had been set up in areas where guerrilla supporters refused to recognize the legitimacy of local governments controlled by pro-government politicians, had established independent government structures that were not officially recognized by state authorities. On April 11 and 13, for instance, authorities dismantled an autonomous municipality within Taniperla, called Ricardo Flores Magón by EZLN supporters, detaining sixteen Mexicans and twelve foreigners. The former were charged with crimes ranging from usurpation of authority to kidnapping. Among the Mexicans detained were several human rights defenders. The foreigners—like others before and after them—were summarily expelled from the country in violation of basic due process principles.

The CNDH reviewed the April 11 and 13 detentions, confirming the allegations of Mexican nongovernmental human rights organizations of a lack of evidence against the detainees. Chastising the state government for prosecuting the detainees without even showing that any crime had taken place, the commission suggested that authorities desist in their prosecution. At this writing, all but four or five of the detainees had been released on bail, but the prosecutions continued.

Officials in the Ministry of Government expelled the foreigners, whom they accused of participating in the creation of a Zapatista autonomous municipality, and barred them from ever returning to Mexico—despite a court order providing them injunctive relief against expulsion. According to Mexico’s Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos “Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, or PRODH), which filed the request for injunction, authorities were notified of the court decision in time to ensure that it was enforced for most of the foreigners. During the year, there were other troubling expulsions made without due process guarantees. They included French priest Michel Chanteau, who worked in Chenalhó; Tom Hansen, an American working in support of indigenous communities in Chiapas; and Peter Brown, a U.S. citizen supporting an education project. In September, Hansen won a constitutional challenge to his expulsion, but the Government Ministry vowed to appeal the decision.

Mexico’s human rights problems extended far beyond the occurrences in Chiapas. In many parts of the country, serious human rights violations, including torture and illegal arrests, continued to take place in incidents related to counterinsurgency, drugs, and common crime.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Nigel Rodley issued a report on Mexico in early 1998, following an onsite visit the prior year. He determined, “Torture and analogous mistreatment occur with frequency in many parts of Mexico, although the information received by the Special Rapporteur does not permit the conclusion that it is a systematic practice in all parts of the country.” The special rapporteur concluded that torture often took place during efforts by authorities to gather information that would allow prosecution of the victim and that the institutional safeguards designed to protect against torture routinely failed.

Abuses tended to take place in three interrelated stages in human rights cases: violations of individual guarantees prior to violent abuse, including illegal arrest and detention in excess of legally mandated limits; the violent human rights violations that followed, such as torture and “disappearance”; and due process violations in subsequent criminal procedures, including the use of coerced confessions. In case after case studied by Human Rights Watch, prosecutors seemed disinterested in evidence of illegal arrests, detentions in excess of legally mandated limits, ill-treatment, and torture. They failed to ensure that statements made by witnesses or defendants had not been coerced. Judges, too, overlooked evidence of illegal or prolonged detention and well-founded allegations of torture in order to find the victims guilty.

Given the lack of effective safeguards for detainees in Mexico, a set of government proposals to fight crime promised only to complicate human rights problems. Faced with a growing incidence of common crime, President Ernesto Zedillo sent several newanti-crime proposals to the Senate in December 1997, arguing essentially that human rights guarantees constituted a straitjacket in the fight against increasingly sophisticated crime. Among the most questionable proposed reforms were changes in the requirements for obtaining an arrest warrant and for a judge to jail a suspect. If ultimately approved, the reforms would make it much easier for police and judges to act on weaker evidence—a serious problem in a country noted for illegal arrests, fabrication of evidence, and an ineffective system of public defenders.

Mexico’s armed forces continued to engage in abusive practices in fighting insurgency and common crime. In retaliation after a soldier’s weapon was stolen in Jalisco state, elite soldiers, some trained in the United States, arbitrary detained and tortured some twenty people between December 14 and 15, 1997. One of the victims was killed. The soldiers, from the Mobile Air Special Forces Groups (Grupos Aeromóviles de Fuerzas Especiales, GAFE), planned the attack in advance and tortured the victims at the military base. They were arrested but faced trial in military, not civilian, court. On June 7, soldiers engaged in an alleged armed confrontation with an offshoot of the leftist Popular Revolutionary Army (Ejército Popular Revolucionario, EPR) calling itself the Popular Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (Ejército Popular Revolucionario del Pueblo Insurgente, ERPI). According to PRODH, which, investigated the clash in El Charco, Guerrero state, the army appeared to have extrajudicially executed some of the eleven people killed. The official investigation into the incident was plagued by irregularities, PRODH reported.

As in past years, independent labor activists and journalists came under government pressure during 1998. In part, the government’s system of labor tribunals limited freedom of association, as happened in the Baja California union struggle within Han Young, a factory that assembles truck trailer chassis for Hyundai. In a report on the incident issued in April under the authority of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S. Department of Labor determined that the state labor tribunal had engaged in manipulation to favor the pro-government union. The department found, “It is apparent that independent unions can experience difficulty in obtaining registration and collective bargaining rights.” Other labor rights violations included widespread sex discrimination in export-processing factories and the government’s failure to address the problem ( see Women’s Human Rights section).

At least one journalist was killed in retaliation for his work during the year, and others were threatened, physically attacked, prevented from doing their jobs, or questioned by immigration authorities. Luis Mario García Rodríguez, a reporter for the Mexico City daily La Tarde , was shot to death on February 12; he had reported on corruption in the federal attorney general’s office. Jesús Blancornelas, editor of the Tijuana, Baja California weekly Zeta , was luckier. He survived a shooting attack on November 27, 1997. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reporters covering insurgencies in Chiapas and Guerrero states suffered restricted access to the scenes of clashes. CPJ also complained to President Zedillo of broad restrictions placed on reporters, writing in a July letter, “We have received a number of complaints from journalists in the Untied States who have requested visas at Mexican consulates. According to journalists’ reports, consular officials questioned them about who they planned to interview and what they planned to write about. Often their visas are held up for weeks.”













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Human RIghts Watch