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While Mexican government officials and opposition politicians trumpet their disdain for foreign intervention on human rights issues, foreign governments—particularly the United States and members of the European Union—are increasingly active in monitoring and commenting on Mexico’s human rights abuses, especially those related to the troubled southern state of Chiapas. Similarly, the human rights bodies of international organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States are playing a greater role in Mexico now than at any time in the past.

Raising the sovereignty flag, however, is a politically expedient method for Mexico to deflect criticism, sidetrack debate, and raise the political stakes for countries that do speak out on the country’s human rights record. On numerous occasions in 1998, for instance, Mexican authorities successfully deflected foreign concern over human rights problems by engaging in political debates on sovereignty, thereby eliminating all discussion of the substance of the underlying human rights issues. Such was the case when, during a U.S. Senate hearing on June 16, 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright answered a query from Sen. Patrick Leahy by replying that Mexico was aware of U.S. concerns about Chiapas and noting that the U.S. was “pressing” Mexico for a peaceful solution. A diplomatic row ensued, covered intensely in the Mexican press, over whether the secretary meant to say the United States was pressuring Mexico or was simply voicing concern. Absent from the debate was any focus on the human rights violations that had occurred in Chiapas. Similarly, the government’s expulsion of foreign monitors in Chiapas in April 1998 shifted the debate from what the foreigners had observed to the fact that they had done so.

The Mexican government has strongly criticized Human Rights Watch for calling on foreign governments to express public and private concern about human rights conditions in Mexico. In April 1997, on the day that Human Rights Watch published Implausible Deniability: State Responsibility for Rural Violence in Mexico, the Mexican Foreign Ministry responded to what it described as the “curious” timing of the report, since President Bill Clinton planned to visit Mexico two weeks later:

Moreover, in the press release it issued today, Human Rights Watch/Americas suggests that the visiting head of state underscore during his visit the importance of strengthening the rule of law in the country and the need to end impunity for political violence. This organization seems to forget that Mexico is a sovereign country and,therefore, that it does not receive instructions from any foreign government at all.42

A yawning gap exists, however, between receiving orders from abroad and acknowledging criticism or even suggestions on issues related to internationally recognized human rights standards. It is the province of all people and governments to support the protection and promotion of human rights in any country, and Mexico’s compliance or failure to comply with international human rights standards is a matter of public interest both within and outside Mexico’s borders. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a cornerstone of international human rights standards, proclaims, “. . . every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance. . . .”43 Raising human rights concerns abroad becomes even more necessary when countries increasingly integrate their economies, coordinate cross-border initiatives such as anti-narcotics measures, and agree to cross-border training of military personnel, as have Mexico and the United States. Indeed, Human Rights Watch believes that these realities confer on the United States the responsibility to encourage greater respect for human rights in Mexico, and on Mexico to promote greater respect for human rights in the United States. Similarly, by signing a trade, political, and cooperation agreement with the European Union, Mexico has expressly committed itself to cross-border scrutiny of its human rights practices.

United States Human Rights Policy Toward Mexico

Policies and assistance

The State Department is well aware of the serious human rights violations that take place in Mexico. The most recent Country Reports on Human Rights Practices noted,

Major abuses included extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, illegal arrests, arbitrary detentions, poor prison conditions, lengthy pretrial detention, lack of due process, corruption and inefficiency in thejudiciary, illegal searches, violence against women, discrimination against women and indigenous persons, some limits on worker rights, and extensive child labor in agriculture and in the informal economy.44

The State Department has also held important meetings with Mexican human rights organizations and carried out human rights fact-finding missions headed by State Department officials from Washington, D.C. These efforts send a pro-human rights message to Mexican government officials and human rights monitors alike. When it comes to establishing U.S. policy toward Mexico, however, human rights occupies a place on the bilateral agenda far behind trade, immigration, and drugs. The State Department treads very lightly with respect to human rights in Mexico, failing to take public positions on key human rights issues, such as the arbitrary expulsion of U.S. citizens from Mexico. When two U.S. citizens were expelled in April 1998, U.S. officials only raised with their Mexican counterparts concern over whether U.S. embassy personnel had been adequately notified. No concern was raised over the arbitrary expulsion itself.

At the same time, the United States armed forces are increasingly training Mexican soldiers and providing assistance to Mexican civilian agencies involved in counternarcotics initiatives. Mexico receives more International Military Education and Training (IMET) funding than any other Latin American or Caribbean country, at an estimated cost of U.S. $1 million for 190 Mexican trainees in 1998, with a similar amount requested for 1999. Another $5 million is expected to be spent during 1998 on International Narcotics Control initiatives in Mexico; $8 million has been requested for the following year. These funds will be disbursed to the PGR, the Northern Border Response Team (a joint civilian-military task force), and other Mexican agencies.

The Pentagon also spent more than $28 million training Mexicans in 1997, and it is expected to spend slightly more than $20 million for training in 1998. These funds—known as Section 1004, after its location in the 1991 Defense Authorization Act—are for counternarcotics initiatives only, including U.S. military training of foreign police forces. However, the Defense Department is not required to break down its spending by category. Under this program, the United States trained 829 Mexicans, many of them from Mobile Air Special Forces Groups (Grupos Aeromóviles de Fuerzas Especiales, GAFE).

The United States has also delivered aircraft and helicopters to Mexico under the president’s Emergency Drawdown Authority (EDA). In 1996 and 1997, theUnited States transferred fifty-three UJ-1H helicopters and three C-26 aircraft. Another twenty helicopters were transferred through the Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program. End-use monitoring of these helicopters has been weak, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO). The U.S. embassy in Mexico City was found to have kept incomplete records of the use of the helicopters, while the U.S. military’s ability to provide adequate oversight was limited by the end-use monitoring agreement itself.45

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in Mexico, valued at $15 million for fiscal year 1998 and $13 million for 1999, included a judicial exchange initiative focused on bringing together U.S. and Mexican judges. The programs do not include an explicit human rights focus.

Human rights concerns with U.S. assistance to Mexico

The United States has encouraged Mexico’s military to play a larger role in counternarcotics efforts. As the United States encourages Mexico’s military to become further involved in civilian-related law enforcement activities, the U.S. government has not enunciated a medium- or long-term plan to strengthen civilian institutions so that Mexico’s army will not indefinitely need to play the role it has currently assumed, and the United States has not made Mexico’s development of such a plan a condition of U.S. training. United States support of Mexico’s army in these roles may undermine the civilian institutions that should undergird any democratic society.

Although training is ostensibly for anti-narcotics matters, the reality in Mexico is that troops engaged in fighting the production or traffic of illegal drugs are likely to be called to engage in counterinsurgency as well. Guerrero state, for instance, produces drugs and has a guerrilla presence; soldiers working on one issue cannot realistically be expected not to engage in the other.

At the same time, serious human rights violations have been documented in U.S.-supported anti-drug operations, as indicated by the Hodoyán and Soto Miller cases, analyzed in the chapter on “disappearances,” and in cases involving U.S.-trained soldiers. The United States became complicit in the Hodoyán “disappearance” by failing to aid the U.S. citizen who was encountered in military custody. Apparently more interested in pumping the man for information on drug trafficking, U.S. officials did nothing to assist the victim. In Jalisco state, U.S.-trained Mexican soldiers participated in the arbitrary detention and torture of sometwenty people on December 14 and 15, 1997, one of whom was killed.46 The soldiers planned the attack in advance, apparently after someone stole one of their weapons, and the victims were brought to and tortured at the military base.47 According to Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper, the Pentagon confirmed that six of the soldiers had been trained under the Pentagon’s Section 1004 program.48 The soldiers have been arrested but are facing trial in military, not civilian, court.49 “The United States played no role in monitoring these soldiers after training,” a State Department official told Human Rights Watch. “That is the policy because it is not practical to follow each and every one of them. At the same time, the fact is that the Mexican government would never stand for it.”50

If the United States is to persist in training Mexican law-enforcement agents, it cannot continue to tread lightly with regard to human rights issues simply because the Mexican government would reject it. The responsibility engendered by U.S. training, funding, and equipping of Mexican officials makes promoting and protecting human rights there a necessity, not an option.

The European Union

On December 8, 1997, Mexico and the European Union signed an economic partnership, political coordination, and cooperation agreement, bringing to a close negotiations that included intense scrutiny of Mexico’s human rights record.51 In June of the previous year, Mexico and the European Commission, responsible for negotiating with non-E.U. states, had agreed on terms for the pact, but the union’s Council of Ministers rejected the deal on the grounds that Mexico had excised the standard human rights and democracy clause from the agreement.52 Mexico had reportedly objected to the clause’s inclusion of domestic policies within the realm of issues open to evaluation by the Europeans. Eventually, Mexico relented, and the clause was included in the agreement signed in December.

As part of the accord signed in December, Mexico and the E.U. agreed to an interim agreement regulating trade negotiations, which entered into force on July 1, 1998. Before it became effective, members of the European Parliament issued recommendations with regard to the accord. The committees on foreign economic affairs, foreign affairs, security and defense policy, and cooperation and development urged the Council of Ministers to ensure that funds for democracy and human rights projects would come available at the same time that the agreement entered into force. The latter two committees also urged the Council of Ministers to take steps to ensure that during the annual meetings of the Joint Committee, which will review the implementation of the accord, explicit attention be paid to human rights issues. In order for either of these suggestions to come to fruition, however, either the Europeans or the Mexicans will have to insist on them.

Funding for democracy and human rights projects and an annual review of Mexico’s human rights practices could play an important role in promoting human rights in Mexico. Given that the agreement is conditioned upon respect for human rights and democratic principles, it could serve to press Mexico for important improvements, either expressly or tacitly.

The European Union should build on the solid human rights foundation it has developed with Mexico to ensure that the new economic partnership, political coordination, and cooperation agreement becomes an instrument through which the effective protection of human rights is encouraged in Mexico. The various components of the E.U. should work rapidly to ensure that funds for democracy and human rights projects in Mexico become available as soon as possible; a review of human rights conditions in Mexico takes place as part of any annual evaluation of the functioning of the accord; written reports and oral testimonies on human rights are solicited from governmental and nongovernmental sources as part of the annual review process; and the permanent mission of the European Commission in Mexico City is staffed with at least one full-time human rights monitor who is provided the resources necessary to report exhaustively on human rights conditions there.

The United Nations and the Organization of American States

After years of requesting permission to conduct an official mission to Mexico, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Nigel Rodley conducted research in Mexico in August 1997. He released a detailed report in January 1998, concluding, “Torture and analogous mistreatment occur with frequency in many parts of Mexico, although the information received by the Special Rapporteur does notpermit the conclusion that it is a systematic practice in all parts of the country.”53 The report made detailed recommendations.

The special rapporteur’s scrutiny was followed in June 1998 by interest in Chiapas by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, who expressed concern about human rights violations there. She announced that her office stood ready to provide technical assistance if it was requested by the Mexican government. Although she was strongly rebuffed by the government at the outset, Mexican authorities hinted in early August, when Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited Mexico, that she might be permitted to visit Chiapas. According to the office of the high commissioner for human rights, in mid-August the Mexican government, through its mission at the United Nations in Geneva, requested technical assistance from the office of the high commissioner. “The request was general and could serve as the basis for discussion with the Mexican government about what the assistance might consist of,” the office told Human Rights Watch.54 Despite the fact that the U.N. Human Rights Committee confirmed the Mexican request for assistance, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry denied that a request had been made.

The details of the technical human rights assistance have yet to be ironed out between the high commissioner and Mexican government. If the Mexican government were to permit it, the commission could send an evaluation team to conduct research on ways in which the Mexican government could improve its human rights record, and could make public its report and recommendations.

Both the secretary-general and high commissioner for human rights have met with Mexican human rights organizations, the former during his trip to Mexico and the latter in Geneva. These meetings served both as a positive message of support for the human rights community and as an important opportunity for the United Nations officials to receive first-hand information about human rights violations in Mexico.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organ of the Organization of American States, is also playing an increasingly active role in Mexico. The September 1998 commission report on Mexico provided important analysis of the overall human rights situation in Mexico. The commission has also investigated multiple individual cases of human rights violations in Mexico and pushed Mexican authorities to resolve the problems found.

Taken together, the U.N. and the OAS have worked to legitimate the cause of international attention to human rights violations in Mexico, although the Mexican government has not openly accepted their recommendations. Rather, the international attention appears to be considered by authorities as one more political inconvenience among others to be weathered.

The Organization of American States and the United Nations should persist in their efforts to investigate human rights conditions in Mexico and to publish detailed reports and recommendations on their findings. In particular, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights should maintain its investigations into individual cases and should use its broad experience on Mexico to promote human rights reforms there. The United Nations should continue to make known its availability to assist the Mexican government through the office of the high commissioner for human rights.

42 Foreign Ministry, press release 134, April 29, 1997. Translation by Human Rights Watch. 43 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and proclaimed by United Nations General Assembly resolution 217 A(III) on December 10, 1948.

44 U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, February 1998), pp. 570-71.

45 Adam Isacson and Joy Olson, Just the Facts: A Civilian’s Guide to U.S. Defense and Security Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean (Washington, DC: Latin America Working Group, 1998), p. 60.

46 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, María Guadalupe Morfín, president, Jalisco State Human Rights Commission, August 5, 1998.

47 Ibid.

48 Jim Cason and David Brooks, “Violaron derechos humanos en Jalisco militares entrenados en EU,” La Jornada, June 28, 1998.

49 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, María Guadalupe Morfín.

50 Human Rights Watch interview, August 5, 1998.

51 Mexico and the European Union will begin negotiations on trade issues in late 1998.

52 The clause reads, “Respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights, proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, underpins the domestic and external policies of both Parties and constitutes an essential element of this Agreement.”

53 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Mexico,” para. 78.

54 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, September 2, 1998.

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