United Mexican States

Head of state and government: Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León
Capital: Mexico City
Population: 94.3 million
Official language: Spanish
Death penalty: abolitionist for ordinary crimes

Arbitrary detentions, torture, killings and death threats continued to be reported. The victims included peasants, indigenous people, human rights defenders and political activists. In Mexico City students participating in a strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico were abducted, ill-treated and threatened with death. Inmates in the Cereso de Apodaca Prison, Nuevo León state, claimed they continued to be the victims of human rights abuses by the prison authorities.


The government acknowledged there were still problems with the protection of human rights and claimed it remained committed to reforms and to strengthening the rule of law. In August, the government put forward proposals to reopen peace negotiations with one of the armed opposition groups, the Chiapas-based Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), Zapatista National Liberation Army, but by the end of the year the negotiations remained suspended. Critics doubted whether the government's proposals to reopen negotiations with the EZLN were genuine in the face of the increased militarization of Chiapas state. Two other armed opposition groups – the Ejército Popular Revolucionario, Revolutionary Popular Army, and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo Insurgente, Insurgent People's Revolutionary Army – continued to carry out sporadic attacks in Guerrero and Oaxaca states. Constitutional reforms to ensure the independence of the National Commission for Human Rights, a federal government body, were implemented in September, but had yet to demonstrate their effectiveness.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Mexico in June and November respectively. In the context of an impending free-trade agreement with Mexico, member states of the European Union also maintained a special interest in the government's efforts to strengthen democracy and protect human rights.

Chiapas state

The plight of the indigenous population and the unresolved conflict with the EZLN in Chiapas state remained at the centre of domestic and international attention. Human rights abuses, including killings, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the displacement of indigenous communities, were attributed to the actions of the security forces, or to so-called "paramilitary" or "armed civilian" groups. In addition, indigenous people were also the victims of conflicts between communities and groups with opposing political and religious affiliations.

Acts of intimidation directed at indigenous people by "paramilitary" or "armed civilian" groups were frequently reported. These continued despite a public statement in early 1998 by a former Federal Attorney General that prosecutors had identified 12 "armed civilian" groups operating in Chiapas state and that their funding and source of weapons would be investigated.

In December the Federal Attorney General's Office published a report on criminal proceedings related to the 1997 Acteal massacre in which 45 indigenous men, women and children were killed by a "paramilitary" group known as Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice). By the end of the year, 102 men had been detained in connection with the massacre. Of these, 37 had been sentenced to terms of imprisonment and 65 were still subject to criminal proceedings. Those convicted included 26 civilians sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment on charges of aggravated murder and nine policemen who were sentenced to up to seven years and eight months' imprisonment for illegally transporting weapons intended for exclusively military use. Among the proceedings which were continuing at the end of 1999 were those involving three former Chiapas public security officials charged with murder, and a former Public Ministry official and a former soldier charged with illegally transporting weapons.

Arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment

Under Mexican law, no person should be detained without a judicial order or held for more than 48 hours without being brought before a judge; in cases deemed to be "urgent", including those relating to organized crime, this period can be extended to 96 hours. However, there were frequent reports that in practice the security forces arrested suspects and transferred them into custody without complying with these provisions. The suspects were sometimes ill-treated during arrest and tortured while held in custody in the days immediately following their arrest. Several factors contributed to the practice of illegal detention and abuse of detainees by judicial police and public prosecutors. These included allegations that some judges accepted as evidence confessions obtained under duress. The most frequently reported torture methods included beatings, electric shocks, and death threats.

In June the National Commission for Human Rights published a report following a visit earlier in the year to the Cereso Apodaca Prison in Nuevo León state. The visit was prompted by longstanding complaints that inmates were tortured and ill-treated. In its report, the Commission concluded that there was compelling evidence that numerous prisoners were subjected to a range of abuses, including having their hands and feet manacled, being forced to eat off the floor, and being prevented from going to the toilet for up to five days. The state governor and other authorities rejected the Commission's findings and recommendations.


The number of unresolved "disappearances" reported during the year declined for the second year running. Most of the victims were detained in the context of anti-narcotics and counter-insurgency operations and then held in unacknowledged detention for short periods of time before being released. In November clandestine graves were discovered near Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua state, and close to the border with the United States of America (USA). The Mexican authorities claimed the remains found in the graves could be those of some of the 100 people suspected of having been abducted by drug traffickers operating in the region. However, at the time witnesses had reported that some of the victims had last been seen in the custody of the police. Exhumations and the analysis of the remains, conducted with the assistance of forensic experts from the USA, were still being carried out at the end of 1999.

Despite two bills designed to prohibit enforced disappearances having been submitted to Congress, one of them in 1997, no legislation had been approved to outlaw the crime by the end of 1999.

Impunity and the judicial system

Impunity surrounding gross human rights violations remained the norm. One of the main causes lay in the ineffectiveness of the judicial system. Public prosecutors' offices, the judicial police and the courts were overloaded with work, and their personnel remained inadequately trained and open to corruption. Investigating those suspected of human rights abuses, whether at the federal or state levels, rarely resulted in the full facts being clarified or the suspects being brought to justice and convicted. Public prosecutors' offices lacked independence and remained under the authority of the executive both at federal and state levels. In exceptional cases state agents accused of gross abuses were referred to the courts. However, procedural delays and irregularities opened the way for the accused to either secure acquittal or, if convicted, obtain their release by filing a petition of amparo (a mechanism similar to a habeas corpus petition).

The government was accused of failing to tackle the problem of impunity seriously after 15 of the 28 policemen and one public prosecutor accused of homicide in connection with the Aguas Blancas massacre in 1995 were released by judicial order following successful petitions of amparo . The judges ordering the releases did so on the grounds of technical irregularities at the trials. In addition, six of the eight high-ranking officials, including a former state governor, found to have been implicated in the massacre by the Supreme Court of Justice had still not been brought to justice by the end of 1999.

Human rights defenders

Human rights defenders faced intimidation and harassment on account of their activities. They were subjected to surveillance, abduction and death threats. Human rights defenders working in remote parts of Chiapas state came under attack from "paramilitary"groups.

  • Between August and October human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa and other staff of the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (Prodh), a non-governmental human rights organization based in Mexico City, suffered a series of death threats. Digna Ochoa was abducted twice. The second time, two unidentified men entered her home, bound her to a chair and questioned her about her work. These abuses occurred shortly after she made representations before a court in relation to allegations that members of the army had tortured Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera García, two environmental activists detained in Guerrero state earlier in the year and accused of having links with an armed opposition group. In November the Inter-American Court of Human Rights urged the government to take the necessary measures to protect Digna Ochoa and three other human rights defenders working for the Prodh, to investigate the threats, and bring to justice those responsible.

In July the UN Human Rights Committee recommended to the government that it repeal special visa requirements introduced in 1998 by the Ministry of the Interior for representatives of foreign non-governmental human rights organizations. The requirements made it more difficult to conduct on-site monitoring of the human rights situation in Mexico by restricting visits to 10 days and requesting details about the monitors' program of work, thereby jeopardizing the confidentiality of victims, relatives and witnesses. However, by the end of 1999 the requirements remained in force.

  • In September the authorities lost their appeal challenging a previous court ruling that the ban imposed on human rights defender Tom Hansen entering Mexico be lifted. Tom Hansen, a US citizen and former director of Pastors for Peace, a non-governmental organization, was detained in Chiapas state and summarily deported in 1998 on the grounds that he was interfering in Mexico's internal affairs.

AI country report

  • Mexico: Under the shadow of impunity (AI Index: AMR 41/002/99)

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