Human Rights Developments
In contrast to the political climate of just a few years ago, in which human rights in Mexico provoked little governmental, public or media interest, the topic of human rights pervaded public debate in 1992 and prompted significant nationwide governmental and non-governmental activity. Yet, the human rights landscape in Mexico continued to be marred by cases of torture; election-related violence, including extrajudicial killings; limitations on the right of assembly of workers, peasants and indigenous peoples; attacks on journalists; and impunity for those responsible for all these acts.
According to credible reports received by Americas Watch, serious human rights violations continued to be committed by Mexican police in 1992. For example, on August 2, San Luis Potosí State Judicial Police agents shot Magdaleno Barrón with a high-powered rifle. Barrón was attempting to flee after the police threatened to "let him have it" when he asked them why they were detaining his companion, Juan García. Bystanders who witnessed the shooting were dispersed by gunfire, and the police fled from the scene. Barrón was not arrested; he died in a hospital the following week.
Another serious case involved the torture of 17-year-old Pablo Molinet, from Salamanca, Guanajuato. Molinet was arrested on March 24 by state and federal police after he found his family's maid dead in their kitchen. He was held incommunicado, tortured, and forced to confess to the crime. Immediately following the arrest, police and prosecutors publicly announced that Molinet murdered the woman as part of a satanic cult ritual. The basis for the accusation was that the youth, who was educated in Mexico City, writes poetry and has quotations from Gabriel García Márquez painted on his bedroom wall. Americas Watch is concerned not only about the use of torture to extract a confession, but also about Molinet's right to a fair trial in light of the prejudicial statements made to the press by the authorities.
Partisan violence continued to haunt Mexico's elections. Following the hotly contested July 12 gubernatorial race in Michoacán, a stronghold of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (prd), four prd members were machine-gunned to death in an ambush near the town of Tiquicheo. Claiming that the killings were politically motivated, the prd filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission (cndh), the governmental human rights agency. According to prd reports, between July 27 and October 16 five other party activists were killed in Michoacán in election-related incidents, and prd deputy-elect Wilburth Rosas's house was fired on.
Individuals concerned with the integrity of the electoral process expose themselves to other dangers as well. On September 13, Michoacán-based researcher and election observer Morelos Marx Madrigal Lachino was kidnapped in Mexico City by two armed men wearing caps like those often used by police. The kidnapping occurred as he was heading for the airport to fly to Ecuador to attend a religious conference. Madrigal was held incommunicado, beaten and interrogated for three days about his ties to the prd and the non-partisan Convergence of Civil Organizations forDemocracy, which had coordinated independent election monitoring in Michoacán. He was then dumped, blindfolded, on a Mexico City street.
Another violent election-related incident occurred in the border town of Matamoros following elections in the Tamaulipas state. In those elections, the two major opposition forces, the National Action Party (pan) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution, supported a single gubernatorial candidate in a rare alliance. On November 11, the evening on which election results were to be released, citizens assembled outside the Electoral Committee office clashed with anti-riot police; during the melee, the Electoral Committee office was set on fire with Molotov cocktails and all the recently cast ballots were burned. Both the pan and the prd blamed the government and the ruling pri party for the incident, arguing that those in power stood to benefit from it more than the opposition. The pri and the government, for their part, blamed the pan and the prd. Authorities detained 30 people allegedly involved in the incident, including Juan Gutiérrez Vázquez, a local prd activist who claims that he was beaten by police forces. The Federal Attorney General's office requested that the Foreign Relations Ministry seek the extradition of the son of the coalition's gubernatorial candidate and the pan candidate for mayor of Matamoros, both of whom crossed the border to the United States, for their presumed role in the Electoral Committee incident.
Workers in Mexico continue to risk physical violence when they attempt to exercise their rights of freedom of expression and association during labor disputes. In July and August, workers at the Volkswagen plant in Puebla struck in an attempt to block a reorganization of the work force that would set higher productivity standards. A controversial decision by the government's Conciliation and Arbitration Board supported Volkswagen management by throwing out the collective contract. This move triggered the firing of the plant's 14,000 workers and the rehiring of most workers under terms more favorable to Volkswagen. On August 20, police with trained dogs and billy clubs attacked dissident workers who were demonstrating peacefully near the plant. Twelve protesters were injured.
Similar abuse was visited upon 120 members of the Democratic Peasants Union (ucd) who demonstrated peacefully against layoffs and inadequate severance payments in the square in front of the governor's palace in Mérida, Yucatán on June 25. As more than 200 police stood in the square, members of the government-supported National Peasant Confederation burst in and broke up the demonstration. The police then arrested nearly 50 demonstrators, all from the ucd, including ucd leader Severino Salazar Castellanos, who was beaten by uniformed state and local police, held incommunicado for four days at the local penitentiary and, according to his wife, tortured. He reports that Yucatán authorities have offered to release him if he would claim responsibility for the violence, but he has refused, and is now being held without bail on multiple charges. Despite a nine-day hunger strike by his wife and an appeal to the National Human Rights Commission, Salazar remains in detention.
Others involved with popular organizations also expose themselves to violence. On October 15, the body of José Luis Rodríguez Morán, a social worker and adviser to the San Juan Copala Handicrafts Cooperative, was found on a median strip near his home in Mexico City. Although the corpse had stab wounds, there was no blood at the site where it was found, suggesting that the body had been brought there after the killing. In the six months prior to his death, Rodríguez Morán had received anonymous telephone calls telling him to "pull out" or be "hurt"-apparently references to his work with the cooperative. Mexico City police detained two suspects, a man and a woman. Reports indicate that the latter was held incommunicado for two days following her arrest. After two days of physical mistreatment and intimidation, she was induced to sign a confession which she subsequently retracted. Both defendants remain jailed.
Indigenous persons encounter violence and unjust treatment when they seek to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association. For example, on December 26, 1991, three hundred indigenous peasants began a peaceful demonstration at the central square of Palenque, Chiapas, demanding the elimination of corruption in the civil registration process, tax reductions, interpreters in the prosecutor's office, and an end to arbitrary detentions. After two days, 200 agents of the Chiapas Public Security Police and the State Judicial Police forcibly removed the protestors. Some 103 demonstrators were arrested and five were seriously injured as a result of beatings with clubs. Those arrested were held incommunicado without food or water for 30 hours and, they report, threatened with torture if they refused to cooperate. Most were then released. Nine leaders were retained in custody and charged with crimes from Chiapas's new penal code, including sedition and rioting. Eight were released a month later; the ninth was released several months later.
Attacks and intimidation continue to plague journalists in Mexico. On November 13, journalist Ignacio Mendoza Castillo was shot dead as he returned home from a protest gathering of journalists at the Foreign Journalists Club. Mendoza Castillo, publisher of La Voz del Caribe, a newspaper in the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, had denounced a pattern of intimidation directed at him by the governor of that state. The threats and intimidation against Mendoza Castillo were severe enough to prompt him to relocate in Mexico City. Among the assaults was one in which bullets were fired at Mendoza Castillo's sons by unidentified assailants. Mendoza Castillo had denounced these threats to the National Human Rights Commission, and had participated in various activities to bring the plight of journalists in Quintana Roo to national attention. According to Mendoza Castillo, his denunciations to Interior Ministry officials were ignored.
In mid-July 1992, Carlos Menéndez Navarrete, director of the independent Diario de Yucatán, was the target of two attacks following his newspaper's critical coverage of the government's handling of the ucd demonstration led by Severino Salazar Castellanos. Early on July 21, unidentified persons pelted Menéndez's house with stones, attempted to force open the front door, and damaged two automobiles. The following week, a bomb wasfound on the premises of the Diario de Yucatán. Police have released no information about the progress of their investigation.
In response to petitions from journalist associations, the federal government's human rights office, cndh, undertook to investigate 55 attacks on journalists. By late 1992, recommendations were issued in 15 of the cases but, according to the cndh, none of the recommendations has been implemented in full.
In August, the cndh issued its first recommendation in a case of media censorship. The grievance was filed by two members of the Mexican Human Rights Academy, Sergio Aguayo Quezada and Oscar Ortiz, who were cut off the air by imevision, a state-owned television station, in August 1991 during a question-and-answer segment of a program about non-partisan election monitoring. The cndh found the censorship was without legal basis, and recommended that imevision broadcast the complete interview and investigate and discipline the employees who were responsible for interrupting the transmission. In late August, imevision aired the program in full but, according to Ortiz, it still has not investigated or sanctioned the station officials who were responsible for the censorship.
The problems of police abuse, electoral violence, restrictions on the right of assembly, and attacks on journalists are compounded by the impunity which those responsible for these crimes enjoy. This lack of criminal prosecution for abusive officials continues to dominate the human rights panorama and undermines the efforts of governmental and non-governmental groups to advance the protection of fundamental rights.
The government's failure to act in response to the recommendations of the cndh highlights the problem of impunity. The cndh, created in June 1990, lacks prosecutorial authority and is thus limited to making nonbinding recommendations to state and federal governmental agencies. In June and again in September 1992, the cndh blasted numerous state and federal government agencies for failing to comply fully with 113 out of 289 recommendations, including many calls for investigation and prosecution of those responsible for human rights abuses. Fourteen of these recommendations were in homicide cases-including several multiple murders and the slaying of a Ford Motor Company union activist-and three involved disappearances during the tenure of current President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
Twenty-five of the unfulfilled recommendations were directed at the Federal Attorney General's office and pertain to agents of the Federal Judicial Police the cndh found were involved in torture, illegal detention, and other serious abuses. Notorious among them is the March 24, 1992 recommendation calling for the prosecution of more than a dozen people, including 11 members of the Federal Attorney General's staff, alleged to have been involved in the January 1990 murders of Hector Ignacio Quijano Santoyo and his brothers, Jaime Mauro and Erick Dante, as they surrendered to Federal Judicial Police at their home near Mexico City.
Other recommendations were unfulfilled by state authorities. For example, the disappearance of José Ramón García Gómez on December 16, 1988 remains unexplained even though President Salinas personally asked the cndh to investigate. The cndh has issued tworecommendations in the case, the second of which called on Morelos Governor Antonio Riva Palacio to apprehend the former State Judicial Police director, Antonio Nogueda Carvajal, and the former state political investigation chief, and to prosecute two men charged as accomplices in the crime. Nogueda fled before he could be arrested. On February 10, 1992, Daniel Estrella Valenzuela, a member of García Gómez's opposition Revolutionary Workers Party, was appointed Special Prosecutor to investigate the case. On March 20, Estrella Valenzuela and other officials took off in a helicopter to try to locate and arrest Nogueda Carvajal in a mountainous region of the Guerrero state. The helicopter crashed, reportedly due to a power loss, killing three and injuring Estrella Valenzuela and another. The Revolutionary Workers Party of which Jose Ramon Garcia was a member officially requested that the cndh investigate the crash, noting that the helicopter's engine was new and that its pilot had received death threats from the Federal Judicial Police.
The official response to the July 1991 slaying of Ciudad Juárez journalist Víctor Manuel Oropeza Contreras was similarly inadequate. The cndh recommended that Chihuahua state authorities preliminarily investigate officials alleged to be responsible, including department chiefs and agents of the state attorney general's office. To date, no action has been taken.
Despite the often disappointing official response to its work, the cndh maintained its high profile during 1992. To date, it has issued hard-hitting recommendations in more than 300 cases. In January, Article 102 of the Mexican Constitution was amended to grant the cndh independence from the Interior Ministry. But at the same time Article 102 shrank the scope of the cndh's mandate. Before passage of the amendment, the cndh voluntarily chose not to investigate cases involving labor rights, irregularities during elections, and cases under the jurisdiction of courts; now it is constitutionally prohibited from doing so.
In addition, each of Mexico's 31 states has until January 1993 to set up a state human rights commission to investigate grievances about abuses by state authorities. Once a state establishes such a commission, the cndh will lose primary jurisdiction to investigate abuses in that state, though it will retain the power to review alleged failures of the state commissions to adequately investigate claims of abuse. As of late October 1992, state commissions were operating in Baja California, Coahuila, Colima, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Morelos, Nayarit, Sonora, Tamaulipas and Veracruz. This diffusion of authority to investigate human rights abuses will make it difficult for watch-dog non-governmental groups to monitor state government responses to human rights abuses.
Other human rights initiatives taken by the Mexican government in 1992 include the appointment of former federal deputy and prominent Democratic Revolution Party member Leonel Godoy as special prosecutor to investigate the unresolved 1988 assassinations of Xavier Ovando and Román Gil, coordinators of the election monitoring effort for the 1988 presidential bid of opposition candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas; the efforts of the Federal Attorney General's office (pgr) to professionalize the Federal Judicial Police and Federal Prosecutors offices; and therelease from jail of 473 indigenous persons in 12 states.
The Right to Monitor
The activities of both non-governmental and governmental human rights organizations throughout Mexico increased significantly in 1992. Almost 200 independent non-governmental human rights monitoring and advocacy groups now flourish in more than a dozen of Mexico's 31 states, an increase from 65 such groups in 1991. Thirty of these groups have joined together in a national human rights network, "All Rights for All," to defend and publicize urgent cases and to exchange information and resources on issues of civil, political, labor, women's and indigenous rights.
Some of these human rights activists faced threats for their work in Mexico. María Teresa Jardí Alonso, a lawyer and one of Mexico's best known human rights activists, received several written death threats in October. Jardí was responsible for exposing human rights abuses as part of the investigation into the July 1991 murder of Dr. Víctor Manuel Oropeza. At the time she was Attorney General Morales Lechuga's human rights staff officer. In 1989, while working for the Mexican Human Rights Academy, she pressed for the prosecution of Miguel Nazar Haro for his involvement in torture, political disappearance and other human rights abuses committed between 1977 and 1981 while he was chief of the Federal Security Directorate, a secret police force under the Interior Ministry. Jardí's investigation followed Nazar Haro's appointment as head of a new intelligence division of the Mexico City Judicial Police. He resigned shortly thereafter, amid public outcry and following the disclosure that he was involved in wrongdoing in the United States. Her actions with respect to the Nazar Haro case, though, cost Jardí her job at the Mexican Human Rights Academy.
Despite strong relations between Mexico and the United States, human rights issues were not the focus of bilateral relations in 1992. The Salinas and Bush administrations worked together to resolve the remaining contentious issues in a North American Free Trade Agreement (nafta), which was initialed by the Mexican, U.S. and Canadian governments in October and is awaiting ratification. The agreement contains no provision on human rights, despite the obvious relevance of labor rights in the context of trade negotiations.
As a result of these close relations, each government hesitated to criticize the other about human rights violations. Thus, although the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1991, issued in January 1992, identified numerous serious violations but also praised the Salinas administration's effort to promote human rights. By adopting the position that President Salinas has Mexico's human rights situation under control, the Bush administration failed to seize upon the improved bilateral relations to press for genuine improvements in human rights conditions. Similarly, Mexico failed to capitalize on the improved relations to raise its concerns about U.S. mistreatment of Mexican nationals who illegally enter the U.S. (Seethe chapter on the United States for a description of the human rights violations committed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service against undocumented migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.)
The one serious glitch in bilateral relations occurred in June when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in United States v. Alvarez Machain. The Court held that the extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico did not explicitly bar U.S. government agents from kidnapping a Mexican citizen in Mexico for prosecution in the United States, even though Mexico formally protested his abduction. The Court's ruling, which patently misconstrues international law, legitimized the kidnapping and forced transport of Humberto Alvarez Machain to the United States to stand trial for complicity in the 1985 torture and murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (dea) Special Agent Enrique Camarena Salazar.
Mexico vociferously protested the ruling in public but tempered its diplomatic reaction, leaving the impression that its response was intended to quell domestic and Latin American outrage rather than to weaken its ties with the United States. Hours after the ruling it suspended anti-narcotics cooperation with the United States, but provisionally reestablished it the following day. Mexico demanded that the United States renegotiate the extradition treaty, but backed down after President Bush promised that U.S. agents would not carry out future abductions in Mexico. Mexico also required clarification of the role and authority of the 39 dea agents working in Mexico and announced that it would no longer accept U.S. anti-narcotics law enforcement economic assistance.
However, anti-narcotics cooperation was not interrupted. dea agents continue to operate in Mexico and, according to the State Department, the termination of U.S. law enforcement assistance had been discussed for a year prior to the cut-off announcement and was a result of Mexico's ability to finance the program itself. (During fiscal year 1992, Mexico received $20 million in anti-narcotics law enforcement assistance, but is slated to receive only $4.5 million in fiscal year 1993. In addition, through transfers and leases, U.S. aircraft will continue to be made available for Mexico's counter-narcotics activities.)
Americas Watch maintains that the bilateral goals of the United States and Mexico to integrate their economies and combat drug trafficking must be pursued with consistent attention to the protection of human rights on both sides of the border. The United States and Mexico should use their close relationship to press actively for human rights improvements on both sides of the border.
The Work of Americas Watch
Americas Watch filed an amicus curiae brief with the United States Supreme Court in the Alvarez-Machain case in which the Court examined the legitimacy of the kidnapping by U.S. agents of a Mexican national in Mexican territory and his subsequent prosecution in U.S. courts. In the amicus brief, Americas Watch urged that the kidnapping be declared illegal because the U.S. action interfered with Mexico's duty to protect the human rights of its citizens in criminal prosecutions.
In November, representatives of Americas Watch met with seniorfederal government officials and representatives of the cndh, attended a meeting of the nationwide non-governmental human rights network, All Rights for All, and participated in a press conference organized by the Planeta publishing house to promote the release of the first three Americas Watch reports on Mexico in a Spanish-language edition. Work continued on the forthcoming Human Rights Watch/Yale University Press book on human rights in Mexico, and articles on human rights conditions in Mexico and the human rights implications of the Alvarez Machain case are scheduled for publication in upcoming volumes of Current History and the World Policy Journal.