Events of 1993

Human Rights Developments

Despite the Mexican government's efforts, in connection with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) debate, to portray its human rights problems in the best possible light, Americas Watch's concerns in 1993 were virtually unchanged from prior years. Torture and police abuse; election-related abuses; and interference with freedom of expression and association of human rights monitors, independent trade unionists, peasant and indigenous rights activists, election observers, and journalists were still pervasive problems. Moreover, notwithstanding legal reforms and personnel changes, impunity for those responsible continued.

In January 1993, President Salinas heightened expectations that he would restrain abuses when he named Dr. Jorge Carpizo as his third attorney general. Carpizo, a distinguished jurist and scholar, had solidified his reputation for integrity and commitment to human rights during his tenure as the first president of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). In his new role, one of his principal tasks was to clean up the Federal Judicial Police (FJP), an agency contaminated by ties to drug traffickers, whose agents had tortured and even murdered with impunity.

Attorney General Carpizo announced several rounds of dismissals of FJP agents identified as having connections with drug traffickers. He also filed criminal charges against Guillermo González Calderoni, a senior FJP Commander under his predecessor, Ignacio Morales Lechuga. González Calderoni had been implicated in human rights abuses, including the 1991 torture and murder of the Quijano brothers, and corruption. Unfortunately, the charges against him did not include torture or homicide.

In spite of Carpizo's efforts, the FJP remained plagued by corruption and human rights abuses. On March 1, 1993, former FJP agent Jesús Rioja Vázquez was arrested after he went on a rampage in Hermosillo, Sonora, during which he machine-gunned to death four people and ran over a fifth with his truck. At the time he was working for the FJP commander in Hermosillo as a madrina, or free-lance police agent. Rioja Vázquez had previously been implicated in the January 1990 FJP murders of the Quijano brothers, and a warrant for his arrest had been issued. Although his whereabouts were known, no steps were taken to bring him to justice and thus prevent the massacre. In addition, the investigation into the May 24, 1993 murder of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo and six otherpersons in the Guadalajara airport revealed that several FJP agents were involved.

Attorney General Carpizo compromised his reputation as a human rights champion by supporting certain measures that violated fundamental rights. Those measures included a new law that doubled the amount of time prosecutors were permitted to detain criminal suspects involved in organized crime before presenting them to a court (most torture occurs in the period before criminal suspects are brought before a judge). Carpizo also implemented a new federal highway roadblock program to thwart arms and drug trafficking and prevent kidnappings (the move reversed President Salinas' July 1990 decision to eliminate checkpoints on the nation's highways, as these had long been used by police for extortion); he refused to meet face to face with the press and to disclose the names and criminal charges, if any, brought against fired FJP officers. Contrary to his record at the CNDH, as attorney general Carpizo did not prosecute to the fullest extent of the law those officers who engaged in human rights abuses. In September, Carpizo's hand-picked human rights liaison officer, children's rights activist María Guadalupe Andrea Bárcena, resigned complaining that deceit, corruption, and the lack of will to uphold justice in the attorney general's office made her job impossible.

Salinas's most significant human rights reform was the creation, in 1990, of the CNDH, an ombudsman agency authorized to investigate human rights complaints. By 1993, the CNDH had become an enormous, constitutionally mandated government bureaucracy with more than 600 staff members and its own building. It was hampered by mandate limitations that barred it from investigating violations of political and labor rights and from looking into matters that were under consideration by a court. The CNDH's inability to enforce its recommendations – which all too often were ignored by responsible government agencies – further hindered its effectiveness. Hundreds of recommendations from the CNDH about murder, torture, arbitrary detention, and other abuses were an important step in the direction of ending impunity; nevertheless, they also proved that serious human rights problems persisted.

The CNDH's independence – in fact as well as in law – from all authorities and its support for Mexican nongovernmental human rights organizations needed to be strengthened. For example, in Chiapas, senior military officials accused the Catholic church-affiliated Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center of spreading "odious lies" about the military, "defending criminals," and "obstructing justice." In March 1993, soldiers searching for two fellow officers who had vanished while on patrol illegally, raided homes, confiscated or destroyed property, tortured suspects, and arbitrarily arrested at least seventeen persons. The center denounced the abuses, after which the military charged that the center had coached witnesses into fabricating testimony. The CNDH investigated the incident and in its recommendation backed the military's assertion. Independent human rights groups, including the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, looked into the military's and the CNDH's accusations and found them to be unfounded.

The CNDH also needed to be more responsive to individual victims of human rights violations. During 1993 the CNDH only condemned torture in cases in which there was physical evidence of torture; it failed to consider evidence of psychological torture. Moreover, the CNDH did not recommend compensation for victims. Nor did it complain when persons accused of torture were charged with lesser crimes, such as abuse of authority or administrative infractions, even though, under Mexican law, this could prevent a victim from obtaining redress.

In response to internal pressure and mounting international publicity about electoral fraud during the NAFTA debate, the Salinas administration pushed through the legislature a series of bills to overhaul election procedures. While the new laws addressed campaign financing, the voter registration process, the number and apportionment of seats for members of Congress, electoral observation, and oversight of the ballot count, they carefully avoided any genuine threat to the monopoly on political power enjoyed by the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). Steps to ensure free and fair elections would include: granting all political parties equal access to campaign financing, the media, and the use of the national colors; permitting professional, independent and impartial election observers to monitor elections and have full access to all election machinery, including computers; barring the military from putting on displays of force on election day that could deter voters from going to the polls; and establishing an independent, impartial electoral commission in which no political party or alliance of parties would dominate and the Minister of Government would play no role.

One measure that appeared progressive was in fact carefully crafted to remove an opposition candidate from contention in the 1994 presidential election. Article 82 of the Mexican Constitution was amended to allow persons born in Mexico whose parents were born outside the country to run for President. But that provision was not due to go into effect until the year 2000, thereby blocking the candidacy of Vicente Fox Quesada, a popular and charismatic Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) leader whom the government considers a worrisome challenger.

The Right to Monitor

Individuals who publicly challenged the government or the PRI during 1993 faced an array of tactics to bring them into line or immobilize them. Independent human rights activist Víctor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights (CBDH) in Tijuana, was subjected to repeated efforts to silence him. In April 1993, the CBDH published a report on torture and corruption in the Baja California state judicial police that included eighty-four cases of torture, and alleged that drug traffickers were buying police credentials from corrupt officials. Many of the report's findings were independently supported by the state's ownhuman rights commission. Nonetheless, the chief of security for the state attorney general alleged that he had been defamed and slandered, and the public prosecutor filed criminal charges against Clark. An appellate court later dismissed those charges on grounds of insufficient evidence. Meanwhile, Clark's offices were broken into, staff members received telephone death threats, and madrinas watched the office. While he continued his work, Clark was preoccupied with the security of his staff and the police informants who provided him with the data for his report.

Arturo Solís Gómez, president of the Centro de Estudios Fronterizos y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, A.C. (CEFPRODHAC) in Tamaulipas, was the focus of similar intimidation by state authorities. Many of those abuses were linked to drug trafficking and the associated corruption of police and prison guards. While in the past many of the cases documented by CEFPRODHAC involved federal judicial police, in 1993 the dominant pattern changed and the most serious cases of torture and abuse reported to CEFPRODHAC involved state police in the border cities of Matamoros, Reynosa, and Río Bravo. At the same time, reported cases of abuse in the state prison persisted at previous levels.

According to CEFPRODHAC, this increase in state cases coincided with the inauguration of Gov. Manuel Cavazos Lerma in February 1993. Instead of receiving the cooperation of the new state leadership in combatting these abuses, CEFPRODHAC found itself the object of a public campaign to discredit it. CEFPRODHAC reported that it had been accused by State Attorney General Raúl Morales Cadena and State Director of Prisons Francisco Castellanos de la Garza of protecting criminals. It further claimed that it had been accused by the PRI and two smaller political parties in Matamoros of spying for foreign interests because it had received funding from the Ford Foundation and other U.S.-based nongovernmental philanthropic institutions. Finally, a CEFPRODHAC bulletin charged that the director of prisons "asked several journalists whose salaries are paid by the state government to accuse the CEFPRODHAC of being financed by drug traffickers and to state that the group charges money to detainees who have brought legal action to win their release from prison."

Independent union leaders and their lawyers were vulnerable to pressure tactics, including misuse of the criminal justice system, designed to convince them to curtail their activities. Agapito González Cavazos, head of the Day Laborers' and Industrial Workers Union in Matamoros, led the fight to win higher wages for workers than allowed by a longstanding pact between the government and the official union. At a critical moment in the negotiations, the seventy-six-year-old González was arrested by the FJP on four-year-old tax evasion charges. Although he was released several months later, the settlement reached with the workers while he was in prison was substantially less than he had been seeking.

According to press reports, Carlos Enrique López Barrios, a lawyer defending Tzotzil Indians in Chiapas, was beaten on April 27, 1993 by three unidentified men who seized the lawyer's appointment bookand identification cards. The beating occurred while the group he worked with, Abogados y Asesores Asociados, was defending Tzotzil Indians from San Isidro el Ocotal who had been accused of a recent killing of two soldiers.

Despite steps taken by the Salinas administration in 1992 to modernize relations between the federal government and the media, in 1993 journalists still were subject to pressures to conform. Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, one of Mexico's most respected political columnists, was required by the private radio station for which he worked to submit for prior approval the names of guests he intended to feature on his program. The demand occurred just after Granados Chapa hosted opposition presidential candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas. The radio station's license was under review by government authorities at the time. Granados Chapa resigned rather than comply with the censorship demand. After he went public with his accusations, President Salinas called him to say that the government had nothing to do with his departure and to offer him a program on a government-owned radio station. Manuel Villa, the government official in charge of radio and television licensing, was removed from his post and named to head the newly formed National Institute of Migration.

U.S. Policy

Mexico was a U.S. policy priority in 1993 as a result of the intense debate concerning the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Shamefully lacking during both the negotiations and the ratification debate was any genuine concern about Mexico's failure to protect fundamental human rights and to ensure political accountability. Even the supplemental agreements that were negotiated by the Clinton administration to repair deficiencies in the text it inherited from the Bush administration ignored these issues. While the environmental side agreement established a trilateral commission with the authority to investigate complaints about noncompliance with environmental standards, no similar mechanism was created in the labor side agreement, nor did that agreement affirm the rights of workers to organize and strike. By downplaying rights abuses and serious restrictions on democracy in Mexico, while engaging in the most profound restructuring of economic relations ever between the two countries, the Clinton administration missed an unprecedented opportunity to help Mexico's people achieve badly needed human rights reforms.

The Clinton administration passed up another important opportunity to press Mexico on labor rights concerns when it announced in October that it was refusing to accept for review a petition on worker rights filed by the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund 1993, pursuant to the mandatory labor rights conditions on the Generalized System of Preferences, a U.S. trade benefits program.

The administration's approach to Mexican human rights was characterized by the testimony of John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labor, at anOctober 19 hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Secretary Shattuck described abuses frankly, but used the occasion as an opportunity to defend vigorously the NAFTA agreement, and made the claim, debatable at best, that adoption of the trade agreement would enhance human rights in Mexico.

Americas Watch was heartened by Ambassador-Designate to Mexico James R. Jones's testimony during his Senate confirmation hearings in September, in which he promised to promote human rights in Mexico at the Organization of American States (OAS) and U.N. and to "work with the Mexican government to carry out democratic reforms." We also were pleased to see that in the Congressional Presentation for Security Assistance Programs for fiscal year 1994, the department of defense identified as a central program objective the encouragement of "greater support among Mexico's military for democratization and respect for human rights." Unfortunately, the Pentagon did not explain how it planned to encourage support for democracy and respect for human rights in a military force that is absolutely loyal to the President, shielded from the press, and as much a part of the monolithic political system as any other institution in Mexico.

The Work of Americas Watch

In October, Americas Watch released a briefing paper on intimidation of activists in Mexico which examined government interference with core political rights of six categories of governmental critics or opponents: human rights monitors, labor organizers, campesino (peasant) and indigenous rights activists, environmentalists, journalists, and election observers.

In November, Americas Watch participated in a conference in Mexico City sponsored by Mexican nongovernmental organizations and focusing on police abuse in that city. At the conference, Americas Watch released a report on police abuse in Mexico City. In addition, a chapter on prison conditions in Mexico was included in the Human Rights Watch Global Report on Prisons. Work continued on the forthcoming Human Rights Watch-Yale University Press book on human rights in Mexico and on a report with the Natural Resource Defense Council on intimidation of environmental activists in Mexico.

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