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Human Rights Developments

      During 1991, pressure mounted on the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to improve human rights conditions in Mexico. Americas Watch and other international human rights organizations, in cooperation with an expanding network of non-governmental human rights activists in Mexico, focused national and international attention on numerous ongoing abuses in the country. These include murder, torture and other abuses by federal and state police; violence associated with electoral fraud; violations of labor rights; rural violence; threats against human rights monitors and journalists; and impunity for just about everyone who engages in such abuses.

      The pressure came as Mexico and the United States proceeded with negotiations of a free-trade accord. Ratification of a North American Free Trade Agreement, a goal announced by the two nations in June 1990, is a cornerstone of President Salinas's economic policy. His government has worked hard to anticipate and deflect criticism from Washington concerning Mexican domestic policies. One component of this effort has been an extensive campaign to improve Mexico's human rights image.

      Following the May 1990 murder of human rights activist Norma Corona Sapién, the Salinas government instituted a series of reforms, including the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and the implementation of legal and institutional reforms and personnel changes. In a handful of serious, high-profile cases, progress has been made toward identifying and prosecuting those responsible for violent abuses.

      Despite these reforms, many steps that are necessary to realize permanent human rights improvements have not been taken.21 The Salinas government has paid scant attention to rights abuses that do not relate to the administration of justice. Rural violence, particularly unannounced forced evictions of peasants from their homes by police working in cooperation with local rural bosses, is ongoing and unchecked. Human rights activists and journalists have been threatened, and labor activists who oppose government-affiliated unions have found their right to freedom of expression trampled. The fraud and corruption that marred the August 1991 mid-term elections contributed to a highly charged political climate, which in the past has sparked violence.

      More fundamentally, the Salinas government has not reversed Mexico's long-standing policy of impunity for those who commit human rights abuses. Hundreds of cases of disappearance _ some more than twenty years old _ remain unsolved and their perpetrators unpunished. The use of torture by federal and state police _ notwithstanding the many reforms introduced to combat the practice _ remains routine. Adequate investigation of torture allegations is rare. Even when a serious investigation occurs, the will is often lacking to prosecute and punish the responsible officers and their superiors. If the human rights reforms introduced by the Salinas government are to succeed, they must be supported by a firm and consistent determination to throw the book at all those responsible for torture and other human rights abuses.

      A positive development in the face of a worsening human rights situation was the June 1990 formation of the National Human Rights Commission, a government agency headed by respected Supreme Court Justice Jorge Carpizo, who reports directly to President Salinas. The CNDH has some three hundred staff members, including approximately sixty lawyers responsible for investigating complaints. As of September 1991, the commission had received more than two thousand admissible complaints of recent serious violations of human rights by government agents, including numerous cases of illegal deprivation of liberty, torture, death threats and homicide.

      In that time, the commission had issued 119 recommendations. Many concerned highly publicized cases or cases on which non-governmental human rights groups had focused. Other cases, many equally serious, first received public attention as a result of the CNDH recommendations. While the majority of the recommendations have been directed to state government officials, thirty were sent to the federal attorney general and another three were sent to the Defense Ministry. Many called for the prosecution of agents who had committed the abuse and their superior officers.

      The CNDH lacks prosecutorial powers and depends on publicity and the influence of Dr. Carpizo, backed by President Salinas, to enforce its recommendations. President Salinas has decreed that all prosecutors, police and other government agencies are to cooperate fully with commission investigations. In some cases, he has condemned human rights violations under consideration by the CNDH or called for a CNDH recommendation to be implemented. But President Salinas has avoided public confrontation with state government officials or agencies of the federal executive branch that ignore or reject CNDH recommendations.

      During its first year, the CNDH was routinely stymied by Federal Attorney General Enrique Alvarez del Castillo and a number of state officials who refused to comply with CNDH recommendations or did an end run around the CNDH by promising to "investigate" a CNDH recommendation while in fact doing nothing.22 In several highly publicized cases involving abuse by officers of the Federal Judicial Police, Attorney General Alvarez del Castillo either impeded the commission's investigation or refused to carry out its recommendations.23

      Since Alvarez del Castillo was replaced by Ignacio Morales Lechuga in May 1991, there have been significant developments in several highly publicized cases, including some in which Alvarez del Castillo had defied CNDH recommendations. Antonio Valencia Fontes, the attorney for relatives of the November 1989 disappearance victim Sergio Machi Ramírez, was released a month after Morales Lechuga became federal attorney general. Shortly after the disappearance, Valencia Fontes and four friends and relatives of Machi Ramírez had been arrested, held incommunicado and tortured. They were incarcerated on trumped up charges for a year and a half before Morales Lechuga dropped the charges and the five were freed. Valencia Fontes is seeking indemnification for wrongful imprisonment and mistreatment.

Morales Lechuga moved to clean up the human rights mess left by Alvarez del Castillo. He took action in the May 1990 Aguililla case, which resulted from a heavy-handed anti-narcotics raid in Michoacán.24 President Salinas in December 1990 publicly expressed his support for a November 1990 CNDH recommendation that had called for a complete investigation into the events in Aguililla, the release of four men imprisoned following the raid, and the punishment of all police who committed human rights abuses. Two of the men were released in December 1990, but two others remained incarcerated until Morales Lechuga dropped charges against them on June 26, 1991. Morales Lechuga's office announced in late September that it had taken criminal action against a Federal Judicial Police commander, a Public Ministry agent in Michoacán state, and others responsible for human rights violations related to the raid.

      But there has been no resolution in one of the most brutal cases in which the CNDH and the federal attorney general's office collided. On January 14, 1990, agents of the Federal Judicial Police murdered in cold blood Erick Dante, Jaime Mauro and Héctor Ignacio Quijano Santoyo.25 One year later, the CNDH issued a recommendation calling on the federal attorney general to begin an immediate full-scale investigation into the murders and asked that named Federal Judicial Police agents be investigated. It further called on the attorney general to suspend the suspects from duty and to begin criminal proceedings against all who participated in the crimes. However, none of the agents named in the case has yet been charged for the murders, including one who was arrested in December 1990 in a separate case for leading Federal Judicial Police anti-narcotics agents in killing six civilians in Angostura, Sinaloa. Indeed, in December 1990, one of the officers _ Roberto Velázquez Quiroz _ was promoted to first regional commander of the Federal Judicial Police in Reynosa, Tamaulipas.26

      The May 1991 dismissal of Federal Attorney General Alvarez del Castillo, who had come under increasing domestic criticism, was welcomed by human rights groups. His highly publicized battles with the CNDH had inspired opposition members of Congress to sponsor a bill of impeachment.27 Although the connection was never proved, many Mexicans took for granted that the federal attorney general's office was responsible for the April 1991 bugging of the CNDH offices.28 And in the weeks immediately preceding his ouster, Federal Judicial Police officers under his authority were implicated in the bloody takeover of the prison in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Eighteen inmates were killed in ending the thirteen-day revolt by prisoners loyal to drug kingpin Oliverio Chávez Araujo.29

      Since Morales Lechuga's appointment, relations between the CNDH and the Federal Attorney General's Office seem to have improved. In July 1991, the CNDH was granted by decree the authority to carry out "visits and acts of monitoring and observation in each and every area" of the office. The new federal attorney general also has promised prompt replies to past and future CNDH recommendations, and has appeared publicly with CNDH President Carpizo to address human rights issues. In addition, during the summer and fall of 1991, the federal attorney general endeavored to restructure his office, with the publicly stated goal of ensuring greater observance of citizens' rights and institutional accountability.

      It remains to be seen whether Morales Lechuga will significantly contribute to the improvement of human rights in Mexico. Already his tenure has been marred by allegations of serious abuse by police and prosecutors who report to him. In July 1991 Víctor Manuel Oropeza, a homeopathic physician and a columnist for Diario de Juárez and Diario de Chihuahua, was found stabbed to death in his medical office. He was well known for his outspoken opposition to and willingness to publicize electoral fraud, police abuse and other violations of civil and political rights. According to his wife, Oropeza and his family previously had received death threats.

      Prosecutors handpicked by Morales Lechuga took charge of the Oropeza murder investigation. Although members of the respected Human Rights Commission of Juárez, Chihuahua (COSYDDHAC) were invited to observe the official interrogation of suspects, allegations abounded of torture and due process violations. Suspects were picked up for questioning without warrants and, according to COSYDDHAC, appeared at official interrogation sessions covered with bruises. One suspect told an Americas Watch investigator that he had been tortured into making a statement that he had murdered Dr. Oropeza after a homosexual liaison. When other evidence refuted this, he said police offered him a five hundred dollar bribe to point a finger at someone else. On July 12, two suspects in their early twenties were arrested. They told Americas Watch that they, too, had been tortured into confessing to the crime.

      Maria Teresa Jardí Alonso, Attorney General Morales Lechuga's human rights staff officer, traveled to Chihuahua in July to investigate allegations that suspects had been tortured. Upon her return to Mexico City, she told the press, "what we saw again was the manufacture of guilty persons through the use of torture." On August 22, Jardí Alonso resigned from the attorney general's office.

      In February 1991, Mexico adopted legal reforms that cover a range of topics, including the right of indigenous persons who do not understand Spanish to have an interpreter in criminal proceedings, a liberalization of the circumstances under which stays of proceedings may be requested; and a restriction of the circumstances under which confessions are admissible as evidence in criminal proceedings. In September, the CNDH proposed additional reforms. While these reforms are welcome, they have been introduced into a political climate in which the rule of law is often ignored. Only when coupled with strict enforcement of existing laws can such new legislation contribute to improving human rights conditions in Mexico.

The Right to Monitor

      Americas Watch is especially concerned about threats to human rights activists in Mexico. The murder of Norma Corona Sapién in 1990, and her predecessor, Jesús Michel Jacobo, in 1987, both while they were serving as president of the Commission in Defense of Human Rights in Sinaloa, are frightening reminders to human rights activists of what might happen to them.30 A month before her murder, Corona told the press that she had received death threats warning her to discontinue her investigation of Federal Judicial Police agents for the torture and murder of four persons in Sinaloa. In late September 1991, the Mexican government announced that a Federal Judicial Police commander had been arrested and charged with the Corona murder. There have been no arrests in the Jacobo murder.

      On September 18, 1991, four state judicial police agents in civilian dress detained Father Joel Padrón González in his house in Simojovel, Chiapas. The officers did not identify themselves or present an arrest warrant. The judge assigned to the case refused to hear testimony on behalf of Father Padrón before ordering his pre-trial detention, and state authorities initially refused to grant CNDH investigators access to the case files. Father Padrón was charged formally with crimes relating to a Simojovel land conflict. On November 5, a federal judge ordered Padrón's release, citing the arresting police officers' failure to identify themselves or present an arrest warrant, and the trial judge's failure to file charges within the required three days.31 Padrón was released the next day. The respected Chiapas-based Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center believes that Father Padrón was targeted in retaliation for Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz's outspoken criticism of the deplorable state of human rights in the region.

      In September 1990, the CNDH issued a recommendation in the case of Jesús Manuel Martínez Ruiz, who was tortured and murdered by Tabasco State Judicial Police in September 1989.32 The CNDH called on the governor of Tabasco to guarantee the physical integrity of members of Martínez Ruiz's family, who feared police reprisal for denouncing his torture and murder. Ana María Martínez Ruiz, Jesús Manuel's sister, complained of continued harassment by police well into 1991.

      Journalists critical of human rights abuses and the government also have been threatened. In the most publicized case, Jorge Castañeda Gutman, a journalist, leading political pundit and board member of the non-governmental Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, received indirect death threats in June 1990 through his secretary, Mariana Rodríguez Villegas, who twice was terrorized by gun-toting men on a Mexico City street.33 At a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in September 1991, Federal Attorney General Morales Lechuga publicly attempted to discredit Rodríguez Villegas's account of the incidents.

U.S. Policy

      The Bush Administration's human rights policy toward Mexico is wanting. Apparently determined not to allow human rights violations in Mexico to stand in the way of passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or U.S. efforts to fortify Mexico's anti-narcotics capabilities, the Administration in 1991 avoided all opportunities to criticize the Salinas government publicly for serious human rights abuses. In January, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Richard Shifter made his first official visit to Mexico. After his return, he reported to an Americas Watch representative that he was "very, very positive" about human rights reforms there. Yet during his brief visit, he never left Mexico City, nor did he hold substantive meetings with representatives of any Mexican non-governmental human rights organizations.

      At a hearing in March before the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Bernard Aronson testified that "[U.S.-Mexican] cooperation in the war against drugs has never been better," but did not comment on the range of abuses committed by Mexican police and security agents charged with waging that "war." Rather, when asked about human rights in Mexico, Secretary Aronson commended President Salinas for the positive steps he had taken. In a similar hearing on April 18 before the Senate Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, Secretary Aronson again did not broach the topic of human rights. The State Department informed Americas Watch that it did discuss human rights concerns with Attorney General Morales Lechuga during his visit to Washington in September.

      The NAFTA negotiations are proceeding without any public discussion of human rights conditions on either side of the U.S.-Mexican border. Subjects such as human rights, labor rights and other social issues are explicitly excluded from the talks. Such exclusion flies in the face of a statement made by the State Department to Americas Watch: that initiatives like the free trade negotiations tend to encourage a fuller dialogue on human rights concerns.34

      In May, the U.S. Congress acceded to the Bush Administration's demand that the NAFTA negotiations be placed on a "fast track." By doing so Congress lost the opportunity to write human rights provisions into the agreement. The Administration has the opportunity to negotiate the inclusion of such standards, which have been advocated by many labor and human rights groups, but to date has shown no inclination to do so.

      While Americas Watch takes no position on the NAFTA, we are disappointed that both governments are ignoring this extraordinary opportunity for bilateral cooperation in focussing attention on and ending human rights abuses on both sides of the border. The failure of the Bush Administration to insist publicly on human rights improvements in Mexico before opening its border to free trade is surprising since, according to the State Department, Americans frequently fall prey to police abuse in Mexico. The Mexican government's failure to raise the issue is also surprising, since it has sent numerous diplomatic protests regarding the abuse of Mexican nationals by agents of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and other government agencies _ involving more than seventy-five victims since 198535 _ without receiving satisfactory responses. Americas Watch calls on both governments to use the historic opportunity presented by the free trade negotiations to fulfill their obligations under the United Nations Charter to work together to promote respect for and observance of human rights in both countries.

      In the anti-narcotics area, the United States continues to support Mexican anti-narcotics forces with training and equipment, despite ongoing abuses by these forces. On May 3, 1991, the United States and Mexico formally ratified a law enforcement accord, known as the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, designed to help law enforcement personnel in the two countries prosecute cross-border criminal cases including narcotics trafficking. For fiscal year 1991, the United States gave Mexico $18.3 million in International Narcotics Control funds; the State Department has requested that $26 million be appropriated for fiscal year 1992. These funds (to be provided in kind, primarily in the form of aviation maintenance and field support) are, in effect, direct aid to the Federal Judicial Police's abusive anti-narcotics division. The Bush Administration also provided $400,000 in International Military Education and Training (IMET) assistance to the Mexican military in fiscal year 1991, and is seeking another $430,000 for fiscal year 1992. These funds are intended primarily to train the Mexican military to operate more effectively in the anti-narcotics arena. The Administration's request for International Narcotics Control and IMET funds was presented with no mention of the unrelenting and extremely serious human rights abuses committed by the Federal Judicial Police and other police and security personnel charged with stopping narcotics trafficking.

      This lack of concern about human rights is particularly troubling in light of the November 7 drug-related confrontation between Federal Judicial Police and the Mexican army, in which seven police agents were shot dead. Characterized as a "tragic error" by the Mexican government, The Los Angeles Times reported that autopsies revealed three of the victims had been shot at close range, including one police agent shot at point-blank range in the mouth.36 Compelling evidence indicates that, rather than a mistaken firefight, soldiers, intending to protect a plane laden with cocaine landing at a clandestine strip in Veracruz state, assaulted and overwhelmed police officers pursing the plane.37 Three persons aboard the plane escaped. Under orders from President Salinas, the Defense Ministry has enlisted the National Human Rights Commission to investigate the case.38 Asked a serious of questions about the incident on November 21, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler lamented the police agents' deaths, but added that "[t]he Bush Administration has been very pleased with [Mexico's] cooperation" in the drug "war" in general.

      Americas Watch believes that the United States should make crystal clear that all police and security forces engaged in preventing drug trafficking must adhere strictly to international human rights norms. To that end, the United States should stop funding any police or security agency _ including Mexico's Federal Judicial Police _ that does not unequivocally prevent and punish human rights abuses by its officers. The United States, in continuing to fund abusive forces, becomes party to the human rights violations committed by them.

The Work of Americas Watch

      In January and February, an Americas Watch representative visited regions along the U.S.-Mexican border to investigate violence committed by U.S. border agents against foreign citizens attempting to migrate to the United States.

      In February, an Americas Watch delegation conducted a week-long fact-finding mission to Angostura, Sinaloa and Mexico City. It met with state and federal government officials, National Human Rights Commission President Jorge Carpizo, members of the non-governmental human rights community, opposition labor leaders and victims of human rights abuse.

      In March, in conjunction with the Prison Project of Human Rights Watch, Americas Watch released Prison Conditions in Mexico. The report described massive overcrowding, deteriorating physical facilities, poorly trained and vastly underpaid guards and other prison officials, a system-wide culture of corruption and a lack of adequate funding.

      In August, an Americas Watch representative visited Chihuahua to research the July murder of journalist Víctor Oropeza. Also in August, upon Americas Watch's suggestion, the Congressional Friends of Human Rights Monitors wrote to the Mexican government to express their concern over the delays and limited progress in the investigations into the May 1990 murder of Norma Corona.

      In September, an Americas Watch representative met with Federal Attorney General Ignacio Morales Lechuga during the latter's trip to Washington. Americas Watch also published Unceasing Abuses: Human Rights in Mexico One Year After the Introduction of Reform, which updated the June 1990 report, Human Rights in Mexico: A Policy of Impunity.

      On October 16, an Americas Watch representative testified on human rights in Mexico before the House Subcommittees on Western Hemisphere Affairs and Human Rights and International Organizations. Also in October, a representative traveled to Mexico to speak on human rights documentation at a conference of the newly formed National Democratic Lawyers Association, a nationwide group which is committed to representing victims of human rights abuses in legal proceedings.

      Americas Watch and Yale University Press are preparing a comprehensive study of human rights conditions in Mexico. The book is to be part of the "Human Rights Watch Books" series published jointly by Yale and Human Rights Watch. In addition, Mexico's Planeta publishing house will soon release a Spanish-language anthology consisting of Americas Watch's three published reports on Mexico.

For a more detailed description of reforms taken in 1990, see Americas Watch, Unceasing Abuses: Human Rights in Mexico One Year After the Introduction of Reform, September 1991, pp. 3-8.

The federal attorney general heads the Procuraduría General de la República (PGR). The investigative branch of the Procuraduría is the Federal Judicial Police.

See Americas Watch, Unceasing Abuses, pp. 3-5.

See Americas Watch, Unceasing Abuses, p. 10; and Americas Watch, Human Rights in Mexico: A Policy of Impunity, June 1990, pp. 15-16.

See Americas Watch, Unceasing Abuses, pp. 12-13. See also the case of Francisco Quijano García, father of the victims and a vocal critic of police misconduct, who disappeared in June 1990. The PGR would not allow a CNDH investigator access to police detention facilities immediately following his disappearance. Quijano García's corpse was found in a private residence in March 1991. (Ibid., pp. 3-4.)

See Americas Watch, Unceasing Abuses, pp. 17-18.

The motion was defeated by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but the publicity surrounding it embarrassed the Salinas government.

To date, there have been no arrests for the bugging.

For a description of the melee between rival drug bands and the ensuing standoff between police and Chávez's men, see Americas Watch, Unceasing Abuses, pp. 18-21. In relieving Alvarez del Castillo of his law enforcement duties, the Salinas government failed to take the one step that would have signaled to those engaged in human rights abuses that such conduct will not be tolerated: Alvarez del Castillo was not investigated, charged, or tried for human rights abuses committed by agents under his command. Instead, he was awarded a position of trust as head of Mexico's rural development bank.

See Americas Watch, A Policy of Impunity, pp. 12-13, and Americas Watch, Unceasing Abuses, pp. 10-11.

Candelaria Rodriguez, "Jailed Priest Accused of Leading Peasant Revolt is Freed," Associated Press, November 7, 1991.

See Americas Watch, A Policy of Impunity, pp. 19-20.

See Human Rights Watch, Persecution of Human Rights Monitors, pp. 72-3.

Letter of October 3, 1991 to Americas Watch from Richard Howard, director of the Office of Mexican Affairs.

Edward Cody, "Mexico Protests Alleged Border Aggression by U.S Agents, The Washington Post, October 4, 1991.

Marjorie Miller and Douglas Jehl, "Mexico Soldiers Accused in Drug Agent Killings," November 20, 1991.

Ibid. The Federal Judicial Police was alerted to the plane by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents monitoring the plane's flight by a U.S. Customs surveillance plane. Airborne Customs agents apparently videotaped the shootings.

"Mexico insists killing of drug agents was accidental," United Press International, November 21, 1991.

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