I - Summary and Recommendations

The National Human Rights Commission (Comision Nacional de los Derechos Humanos,CNDH), Mexico’s official human rights organ, is failing to live up to its promise.  The CNDH has made some valuable contributions to human rights promotion in Mexico over the years, providing detailed and authoritative information on specific human rights cases and usefully documenting some systemic obstacles to human rights progress.  But when it comes to actually securing remedies and promoting reforms to improve Mexico’s dismal human rights record, the CNDH’s performance has been disappointing.

The CNDH’s principal objective is to ensure that the Mexican state remedies human rights abuses and reforms the laws, policies, and practices that give rise to them.  Given the pervasive and chronic failure of state institutions to do either, the CNDH is often the only meaningful recourse available to victims seeking redress for past abuses.  It is also, potentially, the most important catalyst for the changes that are urgently needed in Mexico to prevent future human rights violations. 

The CNDH’s failure to carry out these functions effectively has not been due to a lack of resources.  The CNDH’s 2007 budget of approximately US$73 million is by far the largest of any ombudsman’s office in the Americas and one of the largest in the world.  It has over 1,000 employees, including knowledgeable and experienced professionals who are genuinely committed to promoting human rights.  Nor has the problem been the CNDH’s mandate, which is broadly defined to include both “protecting” and “promoting” human rights, or its legal powers, which provide ample tools to pursue this broad mandate.

Rather, the reason for the CNDH’s limited impact has been its own policies and practices.  The CNDH has not made full use of its broad mandate and immense resources.  It has routinely failed to press state institutions to remedy the abuses it has documented, to promote reforms needed to prevent those abuses, to challenge abusive laws, policies, and practices that contradict international human rights standards, to disclose and disseminate information it has collected on human rights problems, and to engage constructively with some key actors who are seeking to promote human rights progress in Mexico.

The CNDH could play a far more active role in improving the human rights situation in Mexico.  But for an institution of this kind to be a catalyst for change, rather than merely a chronicler of the status quo, it must be resourceful, creative, proactive, and persistent in promoting solutions to the country’s human rights problems. 

CNDH investigators have demonstrated such resourcefulness in their efforts to document abuses.  For example, the Second Investigative Unit (visitaduria) conducted extensive research in the aftermath of police crackdowns in Guadalajara in 2004 and Atenco in 2006, providing an authoritative and detailed account of serious human rights violations in both instances.  The Third Investigative Unit carried out a comprehensive evaluation of the country’s prison system in 2006, using a carefully crafted system of indicators to evaluate conditions in 191 prisons.  The Fifth Investigative Unit has sought to overcome the difficulties of documenting abuses against migrants by establishing offices in key locations throughout the country in recent years, thereby making it easier for these victims to denounce violations and for the unit to investigate the denunciations effectively. 

CNDH officials have also, in some instances, been proactive in promoting reforms to address these problems.  The Fifth Investigative Unit, for example, has carried out effective campaigns to expand press freedoms in Mexico.  The unit’s advocacy played an important role in bringing about the passage of legislation to protect journalists from having to reveal their sources in 2006 and to decriminalize defamation in 2007.

Unfortunately, as this report documents, this proactive approach to human rights promotion has not been replicated in many areas of the CNDH’s work.  This report’s findings are based on extensive interviews with 38 CNDH officials, including its current president and high level officials in all substantive areas of work, as well as with various former CNDH employees, including all former CNDH presidents. The findings are also drawn from extensive interviews and consultation with representatives from local nongovernmental organizations, which have played an essential role in monitoring the CNDH’s work since its creation, and with representatives from state human rights commissions, lawyers, journalists, scholars, and leading members of Mexican civil society. Finally, the findings draw upon interviews with numerous victims and relatives of victims of human rights violations.

Human Rights Watch’s goal in issuing this report is to provide a fact-based analysis of the reasons the CNDH has not fulfilled its promise, as well as concrete, realizable recommendations on how these deficiencies can be remedied. We hope the analyses and recommendations offered here are useful to CNDH officials, Mexican government officials, and Mexican civil society groups and individuals concerned about human rights and the performance of the CNDH.


The CNDH routinely abandons the human rights cases it documents before they are resolved.  After documenting violations and issuing recommendations for redressing them, CNDH officials choose not to monitor implementation of these recommendations to ensure the abuses are remedied. 

CNDH officials offer a variety of explanations for their inaction.  They claim, for instance, that the CNDH’s mandate does not allow them to continue monitoring cases if government officials reject their recommendations. 

They claim the mandate does not permit them to continue monitoring the abuse cases that they document in “special reports.”  They claim the mandate does not permit them to monitor the government’s implementation of “general recommendations,” which address systemic practices rather than specific abuses. And they claim that they are not permitted to monitor the work of public prosecutors, which means that they cannot monitor implementation of one of their most frequent types of recommendation: that abusers be brought to justice.

However, the CNDH mandate and Mexican law do in fact allow CNDH officials to continue their work—and actively promote implementation of their recommendations—in all these circumstances.  Indeed, in some important instances, CNDH officials have in fact done so, with positive results.  Yet, too often, by failing to follow up aggressively on its own recommendations, the CNDH, despite the considerable work it does documenting abuses and recommending remedies, has little or no impact on human rights practices in Mexico. 


In addition to recommending remedies for specific abuses, the CNDH has the power to promote the reforms that are needed to prevent future ones.  Yet, here too, the CNDH has tended to abdicate its authority.  Rather than challenging national laws that are inconsistent with international human rights standards, the CNDH too often does just the opposite, tolerating abusive practices by deferring to existing national laws, rather than advocating their reform. 

The CNDH has also failed to support efforts by other state actors—including the executive and legislative branches—to bring Mexican law into compliance with international human rights standards.

CNDH officials justify the failure to promote reform with an unnecessarily limited interpretation of what their own role can and should be.  Yet on several occasions the CNDH has in fact defied these self-limiting interpretations and played a far more active and constructive role in promoting reform.   If it did so more often, the CNDH would have a far greater impact on curbing human rights abuses in Mexico than it does now. 


Negative publicity is the most effective tool the CNDH has for deterring future abuses and pressing authorities to reform problematic laws and policies.  Since the CNDH cannot directly sanction authorities for violating human rights norms, often the best it can do is to “name and shame” them into remedying past abuses and preventing future ones. 

Yet, for the vast majority of the cases it handles, the CNDH does not disclose or disseminate the information it collects. The CNDH resolves 90 percent of the abuse cases it documents by signing “conciliation” agreements with the government institutions responsible for the abuses.  But the commission does not publicly disclose the contents of these agreements, which include both the findings of its investigations and the remedies that the responsible state authorities have agreed to implement.  Nor does it publicize at any time afterward the extent to which these authorities comply with the terms of the agreements. 

The CNDH’s practice of not publicizing its findings is not limited to conciliation agreements.  In all its work, the CNDH uses overly broad confidentiality norms, a practice which has the effect of ensuring that abuse victims, as well as the general public, do not have access to the crucial information it holds. 

By not publicizing information in its possession, the CNDH severely limits the impact that its work can have both in terms of deterring future abuses and pressing authorities to reform problematic laws and policies.


The CNDH has failed to engage with a diverse array of actors who can contribute to improving the human rights situation in Mexico.  The commission excludes victims from the “conciliation” process, signing agreements directly with government institutions without involving the petitioners in the drafting of the terms, or even seeking their consent to close cases in this fashion. 

The CNDH has also opposed initiatives by other bodies, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Interior Ministry’s human rights office, and state human rights commissions, aimed at strengthening mechanisms to protect human rights in the country. 

By failing to create a constructive relationship with all relevant actors, the CNDH has helped generate an atmosphere of distrust that hinders human rights progress.


The CNDH is not subject to any meaningful oversight.  Independent accountability mechanisms, such as the Congress, the CNDH citizen advisory council, and the Federal Superior Auditor, do not provide adequate monitoring of the CNDH.  Limited transparency within the CNDH, moreover, makes it difficult for civil society groups, journalists, and other private individuals to monitor the work of the institution.


To the CNDH

Actively press state institutions to remedy human rights abuses

While the CNDH’s recommendations are not binding on other state entities, the CNDH can and should take concrete steps to promote greater implementation of its recommendations. 

First, the CNDH should end the practice of abandoning its work on cases after issuing recommendations for remedying them.  Specifically, the CNDH should instruct its investigators to actively monitor the handling of abuse cases by government officials, even in the following situations:

  • when government officials reject its recommendations;
  • when the CNDH presents its findings in a “special report”;
  • when the CNDH presents its findings in a “general recommendation”; and
  • when the CNDH requests government officials to carry out criminal and/or administrative investigations.

Secondly, when the CNDH finds that state actors are failing to implement a recommendation, it should actively press these actors to fulfill their obligations to remedy abuses.  Specifically, it should:

  • advocate for administrative sanctions to be imposed on officials who fail to address the human rights violations it documents;
  • document and publicly denounce government officials’ failure to remedy abuses in accordance with its recommendations; and
  • take cases to international human rights bodies when the government fails to respond to its recommendations.

Promote reforms to harmonize Mexican law with international human rights norms

The CNDH should take concrete steps to promote changes to those Mexican laws and policies that directly violate international human rights standards or indirectly serve to perpetuate abusive practices. 

First, it should apply international human rights standards in a consistent and rigorous fashion when evaluating Mexican laws, regulations, policies, and practices.

Secondly, when it determines that such laws, regulations, policies, or  practices contradict international human rights standards, the CNDH should press for their reform.  Specifically, it should:

  • draft legislation aimed at harmonizing Mexican law with international human rights standards;
  • actively campaign to secure the passage of proposed reforms into law; and
  • actively support reform initiatives advanced by other state institutions and non-state actors.

Increase public access to information regarding its work

The CNDH should increase public access to the information it collects on human rights abuses and abusive state practices, and increase transparency in all areas of work.  Specificalls, and increase transparency in all areas of work.  Specifically, the CNDH should:

  • apply the principle of “maximum disclosure” when interpreting all laws and policies and when analyzing all information requests;
  • modify its implementing regulations of the federal transparency law to eliminate overly broad confidentiality exceptions and limit the period of time during which it can reserve information on concluded cases;
  • grant petitioners access to information held in CNDH files regarding their own cases;
  • publically disclose information in all cases of serious human rights violations;
  • publically disclose information regarding the conciliation agreements it signs, including the human rights violations documented in the agreements, the reparations agreed upon, and the degree to which government institutions subsequently comply with the terms of the agreements; and
  • adopt clear guidelines for producing public versions of documents that withhold only personal data and other privileged and confidential information regarding the identity of petitioners and victims in cases.

Ensure petitioners’ participation in the conciliation process

The CNDH should ensure petitioners’ participation in the conciliation of abuse cases.  Specifically, it should:

  • reach conciliation agreements only in those instances where it has first obtained the explicit consent of petitioners;
  • consult with petitioners regarding the content of conciliation agreements prior to signing; and
  • keep petitioners informed of the extent to which government officials comply with the agreements.

To the Senate Human Rights Commission

Conduct routine and rigorous evaluations of the CNDH’s performance and impact

As the main external overseer of the CNDH’s work, the Senate Human Rights Commission should thoroughly evaluate all areas of the commission’s work on a regular basis.

First, the Senate Human Rights Commission should conduct public hearings throughout the year to discuss the CNDH’s performance.  Specifically, it should:

  • ensure that these hearings entail a serious and thorough examination of the CNDH’s policies, practices, and results;
  • invite civil society organizations and victims of human rights abuses who have taken their cases to the CNDH to meetings in which they can provide insights on the CNDH’s work;
  • take advantage of the information provided by civil society groups and victims to identify issues that require sustained monitoring and attention throughout the year; and
  • organize frequent meetings with the appropriate CNDH staff to discuss progress on identified institutional flaws.

Secondly, the Senate Human Rights Commission should promote civil society participation in the process of vetting candidates for the CNDH presidency and advisory council.  Specifically, it should:

  • select a short list of candidates from a list of proposals submitted by civil society organizations, and require the candidates to present their views in public hearings;
  • open a consultation process with civil society organizations after the short list is drafted and the hearings take place so as to allow these groups to comment on the candidates and the content of their proposals; and 
  • include a detailed and substantive analysis of contestants’ qualifications in its final decision, taking into account the input provided by civil society organizations.

Finally, the Senate Human Rights Commission should monitor the CNDH’s budget to ensure that the manner in which the funds are spent contributes in the best possible way to its mission and purpose.  To do so, it should:

  • request that the Vigilance Commission of the Federal Superior Auditorin the House of Representatives solicit a comprehensive performance evaluation of the CNDH by the Federal Superior Auditor (Auditoria Superior de la Federacion, ASF) to assess whether the CNDH is using available human, material, financial, and technological resources efficiently to fulfill the purposes for which it was created; and
  • use the information provided by a performance evaluation by the ASF to analyze the CNDH’s work and to press the CNDH to improve its practices.