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Mexico: President’s Disappointing First Year on Human Rights

Abuses Continue with Impunity under Peña Nieto

Washington D.C., November 26, 2013


Dear President Peña Nieto:

As you approach the end of your first year as president, I am writing to express our deep disappointment with your failure to make progress on addressing serious human rights abuses in Mexico.

When you assumed the presidency, Mexico was in the grips of a human rights crisis, with near total impunity for widespread abuses—including torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances—committed by security forces in the context of efforts to combat organized crime.

You have stated repeatedly that human rights are a priority for your government. In your inauguration speech, you pledged to “transform into reality the human rights enshrined in [Mexico’s] Constitution.” Your “Pact for Mexico” committed to making respect for human rights an official “state policy,” and, on your first day in office, you issued a directive to the military which “prohibits the use of torture, cruel, inhuman and/or degrading treatment at all times,” according to your government.

When you took office in December 2012, Human Rights Watch urged you to accompany these statements with a concrete, detailed plan of action to address the human rights problems you inherited. We made clear our understanding that these were intractable, complicated issues that were not of your making, and that they would take time to resolve. We also acknowledged the legitimate public security threat posed by organized crime, and the government’s responsibility to protect citizens from these groups.

In the last year, your government has taken certain positive steps on human rights. It enacted a Victims Law to provide justice and reparations for victims of crime, although the law still lacks implementing legislation. Your administration recognized the scale of the problem of disappearances, and set up an investigative unit dedicated to this crime. Your government has said it is developing a National Program on Human Rights, though the details have yet to emerge.

However, one year on, the shift in your approach to human rights remains largely confined to rhetoric. Your government has not demonstrated meaningful progress in investigating past abuses, and serious new violations continue to take place with impunity.

New Abuses by Security Forces

Human Rights Watch has found evidence that security forces continue to commit serious abuses with impunity under your presidency. These include enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture in states across the country, carried out by all branches of the security forces, at the federal, state, and municipal level.

These include the case of Armando Humberto del Bosque Villarreal, who was detained by the Navy near Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, on August 3. His father, who witnessed the detention, reported speaking to a Navy captain who assured him that Armando would be released shortly, though the captain in question later denied the detention had occurred. Armando’s body was found a few kilometers from a nearby Navy base on October 3.

Another example is the killing of three political activists in Guerrero. They were found dead on June 3, after being abducted along with five others on May 30. The day before their abduction, members of their organization had filed a formal complaint with authorities, expressing fear that the local mayor and police chief might have them killed. An eyewitness who was among those abducted, and survived, said in a statement that the mayor and police chief visited the site where he and the other captives were being held, and that the mayor ordered their torture.

Despite evidence of the involvement of state agents, no officials have been charged in these cases.

Your administration has yet to take sufficient steps to enforce the prohibition on the use of evidence obtained through torture, such as improving the implementation of the new justice system, and the practice of torture persists in some parts of the country in spite of this broad reform meant to protect basic rights.

Continuing a Failed Security Strategy

At the outset of your administration, you acknowledged that the strategy for dealing with organized crime “must change.” Members of your administration have consistently criticized former president Felipe Calderón’s “war on drugs”—a policy which failed to reduce violence and led to a dramatic increase in human rights violations.  However, while you have repeatedly stated that the priority of your security strategy is to reduce violence, you have not set out a concrete plan for how this is to be achieved.

On the contrary, when violence has necessitated a federal intervention, your strategy has appeared virtually indistinguishable from your predecessor’s. For example, in response to increasing drug violence, you have deployed thousands of soldiers to Michoacán. These troops join thousands more deployed in counternarcotics operations across the country, who have no clear mission or timetable for withdrawal (other than the vague directive to restore security), and little civilian oversight.

As the term of your predecessor demonstrated, military force alone cannot restore rule of law and deliver lasting citizen security, especially if soldiers routinely commit human rights violations, which exacerbate a climate of lawlessness and undermine public trust in the government.

The Presumption of Guilt

Your administration has also continued the Calderon government’s practice of dismissing victims of violence as criminals, without evidence to support such a conclusion. For example, your administration has issued several press releases reporting the number of killings “related to organized crime,” and stating that the vast majority of these victims were “allegedly responsible for crimes.” In July, for example, your administration reported that, of 869 victims of homicides related to organized crime in the previous month, 830 were themselves allegedly responsible for crimes. In the absence of rigorous, objective investigations to establish such criminal wrongdoing, this classification contradicts the presumption of innocence. Moreover, it may send the message that such homicides do not merit investigation, when in fact the state has an obligation to prevent and punish violence against its citizens irrespective of whether they may be involved in criminal misconduct.

Addressing the Senate in November, Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong said that the Calderón administration’s parading of suspects before the media “meant that many of these criminals had to go free because their human rights had been affected,” and added, “I think it wasn’t because some or all of them weren’t criminals.” Such statements undermine the administration’s professed support for human rights, suggesting that they undermine the pursuit of justice by protecting criminals, and presume the guilt of individuals who were never convicted of a crime. The minister went on to refer to “a very well-known recent case” that fit this pattern, which could reasonably be read as alluding to the Supreme Court’s highly publicized freeing, two days prior, of Israel Arzate Meléndez. Arzate was tortured by the military to confess to taking part in a multiple homicide, and held for more than three years. Human Rights Watch found that the only evidence against Arzate was derived from this false confession, and from his subsequent presentation as the culprit.

Failure to Respond to Disappearance Crisis

Human Rights Watch’s February 2013 report, “Mexico’s Disappeared,” documented the participation of security forces in widespread disappearances, as well as the routine failure of authorities to investigate those cases or search for the missing. We called on you to address this crisis, improve the response to new cases, and ensure that past disappearances are adequately investigated. We made clear that an enforced disappearance is a continuous crime under international law: it persists, and continues to inflict suffering on the victim’s family, as long as the fate of the missing person is unknown or concealed. This makes prompt and thorough investigation of these crimes especially urgent. 

Following the release of the report, your administration acknowledged the existence of a list of over 26,000 people reported disappeared or missing, compiled by the previous administration, and said it would “purge” many cases that had already been resolved. Your government established a unit in the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (PGR) dedicated to these cases, and you proposed a reform to the Federal Criminal Code to bring the definition of enforced disappearances into line with international standards.

However, your government has failed to set out its methodology for revising the list of disappeared, or to produce a national registry of unidentified human remains. Authorities in many parts of the country continue to delay investigations and searches for the disappeared, omit basic investigative steps, and make baseless allegations that victims were linked to crime. Indeed, the Prosecutor General for Human Rights, Ricardo García Cervantes, said publicly that the administration’s response to this “humanitarian crisis” lacked commitment, and that the search for the disappeared had “become less of a priority, unfortunately,” for the current administration.

Human Rights Watch has met on four occasions with the newly created Federal Prosecutor’s Office unit assigned to investigate disappearances, and found that its cases are moving with an alarming lack of speed, and that there are serious omissions in its efforts. Of the cases cited in our February report which are being handled by the unit, none have seen state agents charged for enforced disappearances. In addition, the unit is not equipped to handle all federal disappearance cases, and there are no clear criteria for which cases it takes on.

Failure to Adequately Investigate Past Abuses

Your government has failed to demonstrate meaningful progress in investigating past cases of enforced disappearance, torture, and extrajudicial killing.

One example is the disappearance of Jehú Abraham Sepulveda Garza, who was detained by transit police in Nuevo León in November 2010, and handed first to investigative police, and then the Navy. No officials have been charged in connection with the case, despite Human Rights Watch and the National Human Rights Commission finding compelling evidence that that Sepulveda was forcibly disappeared by state agents.

Nor have officials been charged in the case of four men in Baja California, mentioned in our letter following your inauguration, who were arbitrarily detained in June 2009 and tortured at an Army base until they signed confessions. The men are still in detention awaiting a ruling on the criminal charges against them, have been denied adequate medical and psychological attention, and still suffer from serious injuries sustained during their torture. Their case has been accepted by the UN Committee Against Torture.

Similarly, federal prosecutors have failed to demonstrate progress in the investigations into the high-profile extrajudicial executions of two students at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in March 2010, or of the 5- and 9-year-old Almanza siblings in Tamaulipas in April of that year. Both cases involved the army shooting unarmed civilians, then manipulating the crime scene.

Impunity for Military Abuses

Rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Mexico’s Supreme Court have mandated that all cases of alleged human rights violations committed by military personnel against civilians should be investigated and prosecuted in the civilian justice system—a standard that members of your administration have recognized should be met.  

Nonetheless, we are deeply concerned by efforts to weaken a promising proposal to reform the Military Justice Code, currently before the Senate Justice Committee, to the degree that it may no longer meet the standard set by the courts’ rulings. The fact that your administration has neither put forward a legislative proposal to meet this standard, nor expressed public support for one that would, could reasonably be read as suggesting that you do not consider this issue a priority.

Your administration has stated that over 500 cases have been transferred from the military to the civilian justice system, but has provided no list of the cases that would permit verification. Assuming these cases have been transferred, they would represent only a small portion of the more than 5,600 investigations into alleged abuses by soldiers against civilians opened by the Military Prosecutor’s Office from January 2007 to mid-2013, according to data Human Rights Watch obtained through public information requests. In addition, transferring individual cases to civilian jurisdiction ad hoc does not represent a lasting and systemic solution to the problem.

Journalists, Human Rights Defenders Remain at Risk

Journalists and human rights defenders in Mexico continue to face serious risk because of their work. The federal Protection Mechanism for Journalists and Human Rights Defenders, established under the previous government, represents an important initiative, and your administration deserves credit for implementing it with the participation of civil society. Yet its ability to fulfill its mandate has been seriously undermined by a lack of funds and political support at all levels of government, both of which are critical to establishing the mechanism as a reliable tool and earning the trust of those it is meant to protect.

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with various journalists and human rights defenders who have sought protective measures under the mechanism in the last year, as well as civil society representatives with seats on the mechanism’s board and council, and government officials. We found that the process of assessing risk and dictating protective measures suffered from lengthy delays, sometimes lasting months. When protective measures were dictated, they were often inadequate, slow to arrive, or were not fully implemented by local authorities. Delays in delivering the mechanism’s operational budget mean that there has been a lack of resources dedicated to the design and provision of long-term security measures, a lack of consistent assistance to displaced journalists and human rights defenders, and a failure to provide continuity of attention to cases.

Time for a New Approach

Mexico’s human rights crisis is not over. Yet, in the first year of your presidency, you offered little evidence that you are prepared to go beyond rhetoric and take concrete action to stop widespread abuses endemic to your predecessor’s “war on drugs”—abuses that persist with impunity to this day.

Any argument that efforts to improve human rights conditions can be put aside while you focus on other reforms—or worse, abandoned in order to win political support for those reforms—would not only demonstrate a lack of commitment to this issue, but would represent a serious breach of Mexico’s obligations under national and international human rights standards.

To prevent serious human rights violations from continuing, it is necessary to investigate those that have taken place. With five years left of your term, you still have ample time to change course, promote accountability for past abuses, and demonstrate a real commitment to preventing new ones. The longer you wait to address such abuses, the more entrenched the practices will become, and the more difficult it will be to address them.

José Miguel Vivanco
Director, Americas Division
Human Rights Watch

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