Covering events from January - December 2003

The Mexican government maintained its commitment to protect and promote human rights. However, its initiatives were insufficient to stem frequent and widespread human rights violations. Structural flaws in the criminal justice system remained a key source of human rights violations and impunity. The authorities made commitments to end the continuing murders and abductions of women in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua. At least one human rights defender was murdered and others received threats. Several social activists faced criminal charges that were reported to be politically motivated. A Supreme Court ruling potentially opened the way to the prosecution of officials responsible for past "disappearances". Many indigenous communities continued to suffer marginalization and violence. The UN published a diagnostic of the human rights situation in Mexico to serve as the basis for a governmental National Human Rights Programme.


President Fox's administration continued to play a leading role in promoting respect for human rights in initiatives at the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS), and to engage openly with international human rights organizations.

In May the President established the Government Policy Commission on Human Rights to coordinate federal government human rights policies and initiatives. Human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participated in the work of the Commission and seven sub-commissions dealing with a range of issues, including the harmonization of domestic legislation with international human rights standards and the development of measures to end the murders and abductions of women in Ciudad Juárez.

Elections for the lower chamber of Congress increased the government's dependence on opposition votes. Anti-discrimination legislation was passed in June. Limited constitutional reform to enable Mexico to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court was awaiting approval from the lower chamber and state congresses.

Nevertheless, urgently needed structural reforms to end human rights violations, particularly at state level, by the prosecution services, police and military did not take place. Weaknesses in the judiciary and the network of Human Rights Ombudsman's Offices meant that by and large they were unable to provide effective oversight to prevent and punish abuses.

In its 10th year the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) continued to have a significant impact on Mexico's economy. The year started with demonstrations by peasant farmers against NAFTA's removal of import tariffs on certain agricultural products, but failed to change government policy. Peasant farmers and other sectors mobilized in October to protest outside World Trade Organization talks in Cancun.

Violence against women

The pattern of abductions and murders of women continued in the cities of Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, Chihuahua State. There were repeated reports of negligent investigations by the local authorities, of suspects being tortured, and of harassment and smear campaigns against relatives of victims and NGOs campaigning for justice. Under intense international and national pressure, the federal authorities announced a range of security and justice measures to tackle the crimes. In October the President appointed a Commissioner to coordinate these initiatives. In March the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published a report on the killings. In November the National Human Rights Commission also issued a report and recommendations.

  • In March, 16-year-old Viviana Rayas was abducted in Chihuahua and subsequently murdered. The authorities failed to investigate adequately her abduction until the remains of a body were found in May. A man and a woman were arrested shortly afterwards, but subsequently filed complaints of torture. Witnesses also said they had been tortured to make them implicate the two suspects. The authorities denied flaws in their response to the abduction or gathering of evidence.

Arbitrary detention and torture

In May the UN Committee against Torture published its report on a five-year investigation into torture in Mexico. The report stated that incidents of torture "are not exceptional situations or occasional violations committed by a few police officers but that, on the contrary, the police commonly use torture and resort to it systematically as another method of criminal investigation".

Legal aid defence lawyers, prosecutors and judges frequently failed to prevent the admission as evidence of information obtained under torture in criminal proceedings, particularly at state level. An extensive study by Physicians for Human Rights of torture at state and federal level demonstrated that the scale of the problem continued to be much larger than official statistics presented. The federal Attorney General's Office formally adopted international standards for the documentation of medical evidence of torture, but the independence of the investigating agency in such cases was not guaranteed.

  • In September, four indigenous Totanac men from Huehuetla municipality, Puebla State, were detained and reportedly tortured by state judicial police to force them to confess to a murder. The authorities reportedly opened an investigation into the allegations of torture.

There were a number of reports of unlawful killings by police and at least one possible "disappearance".

  • Marcelino Santiago Pacheco, last seen leaving his home in Oaxaca City on 27 April, was feared to have "disappeared". He had allegedly been tortured by the security forces in 1997 and detained with scores of members of the indigenous community of Loxicha. He was reportedly to give evidence of human rights violations against members of the Loxicha community to an inquiry.

Human rights defenders

At least one human rights defender was murdered, and others received threats or were subjected to smear campaigns. Those working in local communities were most vulnerable to hostility from state authorities, although the federal authorities provided some protection in a number of cases.

  • Lawyer Griselda Tirado Evangelio was gunned down outside her home in Huehuetla, Puebla State, on 6 August. She was a member of the Organización Independiente Totonaca (OIT), Totonaca Independent Organization, which defends the rights of indigenous communities in Puebla's Sierra Norte region.
  • In July a Special Prosecutor assigned to investigate the death of human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa in 2001 concluded that she had committed suicide. The case was officially closed, despite the failure to correct or account for serious deficiencies in the initial investigation identified by the IACHR.

Politically motivated criminal charges

Human rights defenders and social activists continued to face politically motivated criminal charges, particularly at state level where local prosecutors and judges remained subordinate to the executive.

  • In March Isidro Baldenegro and Hermenegildo Rivas Carrillo, who led peaceful opposition to illegal logging within the indigenous Coloradas de la Virgen community in the Sierra Tarahumara in Chihuahua, were detained by the state police and charged with illegal possession of arms and marijuana. Numerous witnesses testified that the police had planted the evidence and that the prosecution was politically motivated. Their trial verdict was pending. The two men were prisoners of conscience.
  • In November a federal court ordered the release of indigenous leader Julio Sandoval Cruz, who had served two years of a five-year prison sentence in Ensenada, Baja California, for his role in a land dispute.


The Special Prosecutor for past human rights violations, appointed in 2002, made limited progress in holding to account those responsible for human rights violations from the 1960s to the 1980s. In November Zacarías Barrientos, a key witness to cases in Guerrero, was murdered, raising fears for the safety of other witnesses. The Supreme Court made two important rulings against impunity.

  • In April a judge in Nuevo León refused an arrest warrant for officials accused of kidnapping Jesús Piedra Ibarra in 1976 on the grounds that the crime had passed the statute of limitations. In November the Supreme Court reversed the decision, ruling that such crimes are continuous until the abducted person reappears, in line with international standards against "disappearances". The Special Prosecutor subsequently issued at least three arrest warrants for a number of former officials implicated in "disappearances".
  • In June the Supreme Court confirmed the extradition to Spain of former Argentine naval captain Ricardo Miguel Cavallo, to face charges of genocide and "terrorism", setting an important precedent for universal jurisdiction. However, contrary to international law prohibiting statutes of limitation for crimes against humanity, the Supreme Court excluded charges of torture amounting to crimes against humanity, based on a Mexican statute of limitations for torture.

The civilian courts continued to forward allegations of human rights violations by military personnel to the military prosecutor and courts, ensuring impunity and denying victims the right to justice. A Supreme Court ruling was still awaited on the constitutionality of Mexico's reservation to the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons.

  • In May a federal court denied an appeal by Valentina Rosendo Cantú, an indigenous woman from the community of Barranca Bejuco, Acatepec municipality in Guerrero, who was reportedly raped by military personnel in 2002, for her case to be heard by the civilian courts. The judge's decision to recognize military jurisdiction guaranteed that the case would not be impartially investigated.

Indigenous peoples

In June the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people visited six states – including Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero – where discrimination, marginalization and community conflicts continued to give rise to multiple human rights violations. The Special Rapporteur urged the resumption of negotiations with the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Naciona l(EZLN), Zapatista National Liberation Army, in Chiapas, and the reform of controversial 2001 indigenous rights legislation which failed to fulfil commitments made in the 1996 peace negotiations. There was continued concern that the regional development plan, Plan Puebla Panamá, threatened indigenous communities in southern Mexico as infrastructure and development projects risked undermining their economic, social and cultural rights.

  • In June local human rights organizations opposed the threatened eviction of up to 42 indigenous settlements in the Montes Azules Biodiversity Reserve in Chiapas, on the grounds that communities had not been adequately consulted and the measures were intended to encourage private investment, not protect the environment.

National Human Rights Programme

In December the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented President Fox with an extensive diagnostic on the human rights situation, including specific legislative and non-legislative recommendations for structurally reforming the state to effectively guarantee human rights. The unprecedented diagnostic, which was carried out by four national experts in consultation with civil society, was part of the second phase of the Technical Cooperation Agreement with the UN. This committed the government to drawing up and implementing a National Human Rights Programme in the following months on the basis of the diagnostic.

AI country visits

In August AI Secretary General Irene Khan visited Mexico and met President Fox and senior government officials. Also in August, AI held its biennial International Council Meeting and a Youth Conference in Cocoyoc, Morelos State.

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