Prosecutors and judges deserve much of the blame for human rights violations that occur in Mexico, including torture and "disappearances," according to a new report by Human Rights Watch Systemic Injustice:Torture, "Disappearance," and Extrajudicial Execution in Mexico .
"Mexico's justice system is far more likely to prosecute a torture victim, using evidence obtained through abuses, than it is to send the torturer to prison," commented José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch's executive director for the Americas. "Far from leading to justice, that creates injustice."
Based on case studies drawn from five Mexican states, the report is the result of two years of investigation. It scrutinizes incidents of torture, "disappearance," and extrajudicial execution, then analyzes the judicial processes that followed. The report draws cases from the poor and predominantly rural south of Oaxaca state, the industrialized central region of Morelos and Jalisco, and the northern border states of Baja California and Tamaulipas. Demonstrating the variety of circumstances in which the justice system fails, it scrutinizes incidents related to counterinsurgency, drugs, and common crime.
Despite a well-developed formal system of human rights protections, the Mexican government has failed to reduce, much less resolve, the serious, seemingly intractable human rights problems suffered throughout the country. Systemic Injustice: Torture, "Disappearance," and Extrajudicial Execution in Mexico concludes that, faced with widespread human rights violations, the government has opted to treat human rights as an issue to be managed politically, countered with facile statistics, or handled through insufficient reforms or initiatives.
To its credit, the government of President Ernesto Zedillo has recognized that human rights violations take place, and it has called in general terms for greater attention to human rights issues. The report also notes important human rights initiatives undertaken by this and prior governments, including the creation of the National Human Rights Commission in 1990, passage of the Federal Law to Prevent and Punish Torture in 1991, legal reforms strengthening human rights protections in 1990 and 1993, and the recent decision of the Mexican government to recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The report concludes that when confronted with specific cases of human rights violations, authorities are much more likely to close ranks and deny that abuses took place than they are to insist that human rights violators be brought to justice. At the same time, prosecutors are encouraged to use evidence obtained through abuse because they face no penalty for doing so—their bosses do not punish them and judges do not reject their cases.
Both in practice and by law, Mexico's justice system is fundamentally ambiguous about what to do with evidence obtained during or following human rights violations, including illegal arrests and searches, prolonged detention, and torture or other forms of coercion. The Constitution and laws on the books give grounds to dismiss evidence obtained through human rights violations and to require the prosecution of public officials guilty of accepting or admitting such evidence. The law is often vague on these issues, however, and courts often rule in favor of accepting impugned evidence.
The report calls on the Mexican government to eliminate evidence that is unreliable because it was coerced or fabricated. The government must establish a system of accountability for public servants, including police, prosecutors, and judges. Human Rights Watch calls on Mexico's Congress to play a more active role in promoting human rights, and it urges greater involvement by the United States, European Union, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and United Nations.
For Further Information:
In Mexico between January 13 and 15, 1999:
José Miguel Vivanco: (525) 207-3933, or cellular: (525) 109-6070
Joel Solomon: (525) 207-3933, or cellular: (525) 109-6017
In London: Urmi Shaw (44-171) 713-1995
In Washington, D.C.: Anne Manuel (301) 588-2328