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Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Mexico

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1997
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Mexico, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8c110.html [accessed 13 July 2014]
Comments This report covers events of 1996
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Human Rights Developments

Words versus deeds again posed the central human rights conundrum in Mexico during 1996. In a speech before United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in Mexico, President Ernesto Zedillo noted, "In Mexico, the government has a responsibility to exhaust all constitutional remedies to ensure that no serious violation of individual guarantees remains unpunished." Nonetheless, impunity remained a serious human rights problem throughout Mexico. Rural violence, police abuse, and torture also plagued the country, while attacks against human rights activists, journalists, and labor union members proved the difficulty of dissenting publicly in a country experiencing profound political and economic transformation.

To its credit, the Mexican government showed itself to be more open to some international human rights inspection than it had been in the past, hosting a delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which is part of the Organization of American States. Mexico also reversed a long-standing refusal to allow the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit the country, though the oral invitation issued before the U.N. Human Rights Commission in April had not, as of this writing, resulted in the setting of dates for such an investigation. Mexico had also not yet decided whether to accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a possibility the government said it was considering.

Unfortunately, impunity for human rights violations – one key indicator of the political will to fight abuses – remained pervasive during 1996, and the government continued to deny that violations had occurred in even the most blatant cases. No soldier had been brought to justice for the violations committed by the military during the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), including the Ocosingo Clinic massacre and Ejido Morelia extrajudicial executions.

The government also failed to take action against public servants responsible for torture and due process violations committed during a crackdown on alleged Zapatistas in 1995, documented in the February 1996 Human Rights Watch/Americas report, Torture and Other Abuses during the 1995 Crackdown on Alleged Zapatistas. On appeal, judges acquitted two of the supposed Zapatistas, Javier Elorriaga and María Gloria Benavides, a married couple, ruling in the Benavides case that police acted without a search warrant and that her confession had been forced through "physical and mental pressure." Sebastián Entzin, tried with Elorriaga on charges including rebellion, walked free after paying a fine for possession of a weapon and criminal association. More than a dozen other alleged Zapatistas detained in the 1995 crackdown, all of whom suffered serious abuses, remained in jail.

The conviction of seven alleged Zapatistas from Yanga, Veracruz state, highlighted the problem of torture in Mexico. Strong evidence existed to indicate that the detainees gave their testimony under torture, yet judges accepted their self-incriminating declarations. Mexico could rightly boast a series of federal and state laws that provide strong protections against torture and mandate punishment for those who practice it, but prosecutors rarely, if ever, applied the law. As of this writing, no police officer, soldier, or public official had ever served a sentence for torture in Mexico.

Several serious obstacles stood in the way of the eradication of torture in Mexico, including Mexican jurisprudence that established the principle of judicial immediacy. The principle permits judges to give greater weight to a detainee's first confession, which is more likely to be made under torture, even if the detainee later retracts it. A judge cited this principle in the Yanga case, for example. Moreover, prosecutors lacked the will to end the practice of torture. Often, if prosecutors charged torturers at all, they accused them of lesser crimes, like abuse of authority. Further, prosecutors acted as if to give the benefit of the doubt to those accused of torture, rather than initiate immediate and thorough inquiries into the accusations.

While human rights violations committed in the context of the Zapatista uprising have been well documented, rural Mexico suffered from violations that often occurred outside the national or international spotlight. Violence tore particularly at the northern zone of Chiapas state, which lies beyond the area where Zapatistas and the Mexican army faced off beginning in January 1994. There, operating with the tacit and sometimes explicit support of the government, groups of armed civilians, linked to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI), violently expelled their ideological opponents from communities. Opponents of the PRI were also killed, apparently for their political beliefs. In Tila municipality, Human Rights Watch/Americas interviewed refugees from Miguel Alemán, Nuevo Limar, Susuchumil, Tzaquil, and Usipá, all of whom were expelled from their homes because of their support for the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática, PRD). The victims identified their assailants as members of Peace and Justice (Paz y Justicia), a group founded in 1995 by members of the PRI. Peace and Justice members prohibited residents of Masojá Shucjá from traveling past the two communities on its border, Miguel Alemán and Crucero, for example, effectively holding them captive in Masojá Shucjá. On August 28, 1995, residents of Miguel Alemán expelled PRD members from the community, who took refuge in Masojá Shucjá, leaving behind their burning homes. They returned following an agreement reached on March 31, 1996, but the peace lasted only until May 18, when residents again burned the homes of PRD members and forced them to flee. In Tila, the Catholic church also came under attack, in large part because of its support for human rights work in the region.

In a long report on northern Chiapas released in October, the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, CDHFBC) strongly criticized the government for acting in concert with pro-government groups committing acts of politically motivated violence and failing to punish those responsible for them.

In Bachajón, Chilón municipality, members of a PRI group know as the Chinchulines went on a rampage following the murder of their leader in May 1996. A long-standing community conflict came to a head following a vote for local authorities in which the PRI candidate lost. After the Chinchulines harassed members of the victorious group, people within the victorious group murdered the leader of the Chinchulines, Gerónimo Gómez Guzmán, which touched off violent attacks by his supporters. The Chinchulines burned houses and forced more than one hundred people to seek refuge outside the community. They also set fire to buildings belonging to the Catholic diocese, whose human rights organization, the Indigenous Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Indígenas, CEDIAC), had documented abuses committed by the Chinchulines for years. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch/Americas agreed that for several days after the attacks, state security police worked hand in hand with the Chinchulines to control the streets, including overseeing a roadblock at the entrance to the town. Only after strong national and international pressure did police arrest some two dozen members of the Chinchulines.

Chiapas state government officials denied the existence of any armed groups other than those committing common crimes.

Violent attacks were carried out by anti-PRI groups as well in Chiapas. In June, for example, gunmen killed four members of the PRI in Jonixtié, Tila. As noted above, those opposed to the PRI's domination in Chilón murdered the head of the Chinchulines; in Venustiano Carranza, members of the Casa del Pueblo, a community group, engaged in armed confrontations with the Alianza San Bartolomé, a group aligned with the PRI. The government, however, often favored the PRI participants in violence. Despite well-documented attacks by the Alianza San Bartolomé in Venustiano Carranza, for example, only members of the opposition Casa del Pueblo were arrested, according to the Coordinating Group of Nongovernmental Organizations (Coordinación de Organismos No Gubernamentales, CONPAZ).

With the appearance of a new guerrilla group in Mexico, the Popular Revolutionary Army (Ejército Popular Revolucionario, EPR), the government tightened controls on social organizations in areas where the EPR moved publicly. On August 28, the EPR attacked targets including navy, police, and army posts in the states of México, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Guerrero, leading to a heavy deployment of troops in many parts of the country. In response in Guerrero, the army gave the strong impression that it suspected the entire civilian population and had decided to investigate civilians to find those they felt might be guilty of some crime. At roadblocks in some areas, soldiers required local residents to show identification and checked their names against a list. Troops reportedly carried out similar actions in other states where the EPR was thought to be present. In Oaxaca state, men believed to be state security officials kidnapped journalist Razhy González Rodríguez on September 17. González, who interviewed EPR members for the local weekly Contrapunto, spent two days in captivity, during which time his abductors questioned him about the armed group.

Authorities also moved to jail leaders of social organizations whose radical rhetoric made them suspect in the eyes of officials; some of the detainees reported being tortured in detention. Authorities arrested Omar Garibay, from the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of Mexico (Partido Comunista de México/Marxista-Leninista, PCM-ML), on charges that included attempted murder. According to Garibay and his lawyer, the prosecutor initiated the investigation at 4:30 p.m. on June 14, even though the incident did not take place until almost 8:00 that night, indicating that authorities falsely accused him. Garibay was released in late October. In addition to his role in the Communist Party, Garibay was a leader of the Broad Front for the Creation of a National Liberation Movement (Frente Amplio para la Construcción del Movimiento de Liberación Nacional, FAC-MLN), a group of above-ground organizations suspected by authorities to be linked to the EPR. Other groups, such as the Southern Sierra Peasant Organization (Organización Campesina de la Sierra del Sur, OCSS) also suffered arrests. Hilario Mesino, an OCSS leader and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, who was jailed in Acapulco, reported being beaten twice while in detention in attempts by authorities to force him to incriminate himself as a member of the EPR.

Tighter security measures coincided with what appeared to be mounting pressure against journalists and social activists. In February, the weekly Proceso magazine and daily Reforma published reports on surveillance of social activists on the part of government security agencies. Other pressures on activists also occurred during the year. On July 9, for instance, members of El Barzón, a national organization of debtors affected by high interest rates, found a bomb in their office in Nuevo León state. El Barzón had been active in protesting Mexico's economic policies. Prior to the discovery, several members of the organization had been threatened, including Liliana Flores Benavides, Nancy Rodríguez Villareal, and Marta Rodríguez Martínez. The perpetrators were not identified.

Physical attacks and threats also served to pressure journalists, many of whom covered topics related to corruption. In most cases, the assailants went unidentified, though it was widely presumed that the subjects of exposés were involved. In February, for example, Ninfa Deandar, who owns and runs the daily El Mañana de Nuevo Laredo, in Tamaulipas state, received anonymous telephone death threats. Later that month, unidentified assailants kidnapped reporter Raymundo Ramos as he left the newspaper's office, warning him to stop writing about the governor of Tamaulipas.

Labor activists continued during the year to face government restrictions designed to limit their effectiveness. As documented in a Human Rights Watch/Americas report released in September, Labor Rights and NAFTA: A Case Study, pro-government labor unions and federations, along with laws and labor tribunals that favor the ruling PRI, combined with repressive government action to make independent union activity difficult. The case of the Single Union of Workers of the Fishing Ministry (SUTSP) exemplified the problem. After the Fishing Ministry was converted into the Ministry of the Environment, Natural Resources and Fishing in 1994, authorities prohibited SUTSP members from freely exercising their free association rights. After more than eighteen months of restrictions, the government called for elections so the ministry's workers could choose between SUTSP and a union supported by the PRI; SUTSP lost the vote, but only after being weakened by the government to the point where it was likely to lose. In June 1996, Human Rights Watch/Americas, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), and Mexico's National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Asociación Nacional de Abogados Democráticos, ANAD) filed a petition on the case before the United States National Administrative Office (NAO), which is part of the Labor Department, under the labor rights side agreement enacted with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). (See below.)

Violations of women's rights in the northern maquiladora sector were also common, as documented in No Guarantees: Sex Discrimination in Mexico's Maquiladora Sector, researched by the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project. To reduce the cost of pregnancy- and maternity-related benefits, major corporations from the U.S. and elsewhere systematically required women job applicants to take pregnancy tests so they could eliminate from the work pool women whose tests were positive. The government failed to investigate the violations fully or take steps to end them. (See section on Women's Rights Project.)

The Right to Monitor

The year started badly for human rights activists in Mexico, and it never improved. Rocío Culebro, director of the National Network of Civil Human Rights Organizations (La Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos), received a series of threatening phone calls beginning on January 12, prior to a trip to the United States to discuss Mexican human rights conditions. That same month in Tijuana, Baja California state, Lourdes Felgúerez and Víctor Clark Alfaro of the Binational Human Rights Center (Centro Binacional de Derechos Humanos) received threats for their efforts to end torture by local police officers.

On March 27, unidentified assailants abducted Héctor Gutiérrez Ugalde, an assistant to National Human Rights Commission staff member Dr. Julián Andrade Jardí. After beating him severely, his abductors told Gutiérrez to deliver a threat upon his release: "Tell that woman we will get her, and her son, too." The reference was to Andrade and his mother, human rights activist Teresa Jardí, who at the time ran the human rights program of the Fund for Assistance, Promotion and Development (Fonda para la Asistencia, Promoción y Desarrollo, FAPRODE), a Mexico City-based human rights group. Then, on April 3 and 4, Teresa Jardí received anonymous death threats at her home in Mexico City.

The Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, PRODH) came under repeated attack. In a campaign designed to discredit PRODH's work, individuals claiming to be Jesuit priests falsely accused PRODH's director, Father David Fernández, himself a Jesuit, of being a guerrilla leader. On October 7, Fernández received a telephone death threat from a caller who said he would be killed following the murder of Pilar Noriega, who worked with PRODH on the defense of the alleged Zapatistas. That same morning, an anonymous note left at PRODH's office threatened the team of lawyers working with the group. The note contained details about the movements of Noriega that morning. PRODH lawyer Digna Ochoa and Noriega had received three prior death threats, each increasingly specific about the activities of the lawyers, indicating that they were under surveillance. One of the messages also threatened Enrique Flota, a lawyer who collaborated with the PRODH defense of the alleged Zapatistas. On October 24, Juan Salgado of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights (Academia Mexicana de Derechos Humanos, AMDH) received a telephone death threat after organizing a campaign in solidarity with PRODH staff and other threatened human rights activists.

In recognition of the important and necessary work done by PRODH, Human Rights Watch invited Fernández to participate in an annual event to mark the achievements of noted human rights monitors from around the world.

Other church-related human rights groups also came under attack. The Commission for Solidarity and Defense of Human Rights (Comisión de Solidaridad y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, COSYDDHAC) received a series of threats addressed to Father Camilo Daniel Pérez, a founder of the group, which threatened him and members of the staff's family. In May, Bachajón's CEDIAC came under attack during the rampage by the Chinchulines (see above). On June 19, local media in Oaxaca state accused Msgr. Arturo Lona, the bishop of Tehuantepec, of arming local rebels. Following similar charges in 1995, assailants shot at Bishop Lona, but he survived unharmed. Throughout the year in Chiapas, CDHFBC labored under threat from organizations linked to the PRI, who impeded its field work and accused the staff of supporting attacks against the political party.

The Role of the United States

The United States continued to solidify government-to-government ties with Mexico, seeking an ever-closer relationship on fighting drugs, monitoring the common border, and military cooperation. As had been the case in past years, the State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1995 criticized Mexico, finding that torture "continues to be a serious human rights problem" and that "a number of murders were committed for ostensibly political reasons." Nonetheless, U.S. officials gave no indication that they factored their concerns into policy toward Mexico, except on cases related to U.S. citizens, though, to their credit, embassy officials met periodically with Mexican human rights activists.

The U.S. Department of Labor continued to work on labor rights issues in Mexico through the NAO. In July, the NAO accepted for review the three contentions contained in the petition submitted in June by Human Rights Watch/Americas, ILRF and ANAD: that Mexico violated its labor law by denying SUTSP free association rights; that provisions in Mexican law that limit to one the number of unions that federal employees can form in any entity, like a ministry, violate Mexico's obligations under international treaties to respect freedom of association; and that the Federal Conciliation and Arbitration Tribunal (Tribunal Federal de Conciliación y Arbitraje) is biased against unions independent of the ruling PRI. The NAO scheduled a hearing on the topic for December 3.

In June, the NAO released a hard-hitting report on a 1994 case, involving freedom of association violations in a Sony plant. "It is difficult for workers to register an independent union at the local level in Mexico," found the June 8 report, but given the lack of enforcement mechanisms within the side agreement, the report prescribed no compulsory remedy. In October, the NAO received a new petition, submitted by the Communications Workers of America, that accused the Maxi-Switch factory in Sonora state of violating freedom of association guarantees. As of this writing, the NAO was considering whether to accept the petition for review.

If the State Department ruled out the "stick" approach to promoting human rights, the "carrot" became more enticing during the year. For the first time ever, a U.S. secretary of defense visited Mexico in December 1995, during which time the Mexican and U.S. militaries agreed to explore closer cooperation in such areas as counter-narcotics, force modernization, disaster relief, and education and training. As of this writing, the United States had approved the grant transfer of twenty UH-1H helicopters to Mexico's Defense Ministry, and President Bill Clinton announced that he planned to send fifty-three more during Fiscal Year 1997. In April, the U.S. began to train Mexican soldiers at Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, and Fort Benning, the first such instruction for the Mexican military. Funded by the U.S. Department of Defense's anti-narcotics bureau, the soldiers returned to Mexico to train police in counter-narcotics tactics.

In addition to the anti-drug instruction, Mexico received US$1 million in International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds, more than double the amount provided in 1995. The State Department requested five times that amount for International Narcotics Law Enforcement (INL).

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