Events of 1994

Human Rights Developments

In 1994, political killings, police abuse, interference with freedom of expression and association, and the widespread impunity of those responsible for these abuses continued to defeat government efforts to improve Mexico's human rights image. In his final year of office, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was faced with an Indian rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas and the murder of his hand-picked candidate for the presidential succession.

Ordered at first to suppress the rebellion by force, the Mexican army was responsible for serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions and torture. The rebel force, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), occupied four towns in the Los Altos region in a surprise action on New Year's Day which coincided with Mexico's entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The EZLN issued a communiqué referring to NAFTA as a "death certificate for the Indian peoples of Mexico" and calling for President Salinas's immediate resignation. After twelve days of heavy fighting in which more than 200 people were killed, President Salinas abruptly reversed his policy and declared a unilateral cease-fire. From February 21 to March 2 his specially appointed envoy, Manuel Camacho Solís, held peace negotiations with EZLN leaders in the cathedral of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The talks resulted in the adoption of a thirty-two point package of reform measures which the EZLN presented to their communities; but on June 10, the EZLN announced that the communities had rejected the agreement, refusing to accept the government's proposals for national political reform. As of mid-November, peace negotiations had not resumed, but both the EZLN and the government had expressed interest in maintaining a dialogue.

Despite promises by President Salinas that human rights would be respected, efforts by the Federal Attorney General's office (PGR), and the military prosecutor to investigate alleged human rights abuses by the Mexican army during the twelve-day conflict were woefully insufficient. As of mid-November, no army personnel had been charged with offenses related to the suppression of the uprising. In several cases, investigations into possible army abuses had been closed and the army exonerated without adequate grounds.

A case in point concerned the summary execution on January 2 of five men, believed to be Zapatista soldiers, in the marketplace of Ocosingo. PGR scientists concluded from autopsy findings of four bodies that the victims had died at different times and that three of them had been killed with weapons which the Mexican army did not possess. Later, investigations carried out by forensic scientists from the government's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and the nongovernmental organization Physicians for Human Rights revealed that the PGR had autopsied the wrong bodies. The CNDH called on the Minstry of Defense and the PGR to re-investigate the deaths as probable summary executions. However, on April 7, the PGR announced that it had excluded the army from its inquiries, citing information that was both inconclusive and contradictory.

Although no state of emergency was in force limiting individual guarantees, the Mexican army detained scores of suspected rebel sympathizers, virtually all of them Indians, without warrant, held them in excess of the forty-eight-hour period permitted under the constitution, and interrogated them unlawfully on army premises. The ill-treatment to which detainees were subjected was corroborated by the CNDH in a bulletin published in February, and in June the agency said it had received seventy-six denunciations of torture.

Few, if any, of the seventy civilians charged under state or federal law in connection with the conflict appeared to have been guilty of participating in the uprising. Twenty-eight federal prisoners interviewed by Human Rights Watch/Americas on February 13 denied being Zapatistas and said they had been beaten and threatened into signing statements. On March 29 the twenty-one prisoners still in detention began a hunger strike to protest their innocence. Sixteen of them were released on April 18, after the CNDH sent recommendations to the PGR requesting that the charges against them be withdrawn.

President Salinas gave the CNDH a prominent role in monitoring respect for human rights during the conflict. By June 6, when the commission released its annual report, it had made no specific recommendations concerning extrajudicial executions or the abuse of force during the conflict. The sparse and selective information published by the CNDH only heightened a sense that it had passively acquiesced in attempts by the army and the PGR to cover up the abuses.

The CNDH's inability to enforce its recommendations also remained a major difficulty. In January, the CNDH published a report with the results of its investigation of 140 cases of human rights violations allegedly committed against members of the center-left opposition party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) under the Salinas presidency. Recommendations were made in sixty-seven cases, including fifty-seven killings. Of these, the CNDH itself acknowledged that only eight recommendations had been implemented completely. The CNDH's effectiveness was further hampered by restrictions on its mandate, which barred it from investigating cases under court jurisdiction. According to figures published by the PRD in June, of 246 killings of PRD members between 1988 and 1994, no arrests had been made in three-fourths of the cases, either because they have been excluded from the CNDH's mandate or because CNDH recommendations had been ignored.

While President Salinas refused to negotiate global political issues directly with the EZLN, the rebel army's demands for political reforms, widely supported across the nation, galvanized new negotiations aimed at improving the conditions in which the August 21 presidential elections would be held. Within a month of the outbreak, President Salinas appointed Jorge Carpizo, a noted reformer, as minister of government and titular president of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) and signed an electoral reform pact with seven opposition parties. The pact included measures for the appointment of electoral authorities by consensus between the political parties; the compilation of a new electoral registration roll subject to external audits; the issuing of photo-identity voting cards; equal access to media campaign coverage; a prohibition on the use of public resources for electioneering purposes; lower limits on campaign spending; and the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate electoral crimes.

The elections, which were monitored for the first time ever by almost 1,000 international "visitors" as well as a plethora of Mexican nongovernmental organizations, brought the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) back for another six-year term with a 49 percent majority. Most observers agreed that the contest, with a record 78 percent turnout, was more competitive than earlier elections, despite being marred by numerous irregularities. In a sample of 1,758 polling stations conducted by the Civic Alliance, the largest nonpartisan monitoring group, the secrecy of the ballot was violated in 34 percent of the stations, and in 65 percent the names of some accredited voters were omitted from voter lists. Thousands of these citizens were unable to vote due to an insufficient number of ballots in the special booths installed for out-of-town voters, which were the only ones to which they had access. The Civic Alliance also reported widespread pressure on voters and misuse of the indelible ink used to prevent multiple voting. Apart from these election-day abuses, the heavy electronic media bias in favor of the PRI and the ruling party's enormous superiority in campaign resources were enormous obstacles to genuinely fair electoral competition. Despite these evident shortcomings, the elections were not followed by the widespread violence that had been widely predicted.

Assassinations, however, continued to blight Mexican political life. In contrast to previous years, the victims were not only militants of left-wing opposition parties, rural organizers, and social activists but prominent reformists within the ranks of the ruling PRI. They included PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio Murillo, who was murdered on March 23 at the close of a campaign rally in Tijuana, and the party's secretary general, José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, who was shot dead in his car in Mexico City on September 28.

Colosio's assassin, Mario Aburto Martínez, was convicted of murder and sentenced to forty-two years in prison, eight years less than the maximum penalty under Mexican law. At one point prior to the October verdict, Miguel Montes, the special prosecutor responsible for the case, declared that there had been a conspiracy to kill Colosio. When he reversed himself and then resigned in July, his conclusion that Aburto had acted alone was widely disbelieved. Public faith in the official view of the killing was further undermined by the fact that the trial proceedings took place in a federal prison, out of public view. Despite the conviction, investigations reportedly continued.

In the Ruiz Massieu case, the PGR accused a PRI member of the Chamber of Deputies, Manuel Muñoz Rocha, of contracting the killers. The PGR cited testimony from one of Muñoz Rocha's co-conspirators to the effect that Ruiz Massieu was on a list of top officials "condemned to death for supporting reforms to modernize the country politically." Muñoz Rocha, whose whereabouts were unknown, later contacted officials of the PGR to inform them that he had acted under threat from individuals linked to a powerful drug cartel. Links between drug traffickers and government officials had already been denounced in September by a former adviser to Jorge Carpizo, Eduardo Valle, who said in testimony to a multi-party commission in Washington that members of the Gulf Cartel had infiltrated Colosio's security team prior to his assassination.

Numerous incidents of violence and intimidation against PRD militants were reported before and after the elections. On July 29, for example, Antonio Zúñiga Díaz, a Federal District police officer assigned to protect PRD senator Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, was abducted by two men at gunpoint, beaten, and threatened. Muñoz's son Alejandro narrowly avoided the same fate, and the family's home was repeatedly broken into.

The Right to Monitor

The extensive network of Mexican nongovernmental human rights groups played a key monitoring role both in Chiapas and during the elections. While there were few reports of physical attacks on monitors, subtle and not-so-subtle tactics of intimidation and discreditation were extremely common. The Mexican National Network of Civil Organizations documented eighty-six illegal acts against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from April to July, ranging from arbitrary detention and surveillance to illegal searches of homes and offices.

Sections of the PRI-controlled press resorted frequently to scandal-mongering reports whose obvious purpose was to discredit church-based human rights and indigenous activist groups by falsely linking them with the Zapatistas. On April 21 the Mexican Jesuits filed a lawsuit against the daily newspaper Summa, which had claimed to have leaked intelligence files showing EZLN spokesman Marcos, who has never revealed his face in public, to be a Jesuit priest named Father Jerónimo Hernández. When the Jesuits produced proof to the contrary, the newspaper refused to publish a retraction, but countered with a different story: Marcos was in fact Father Eugenio Maurer, a sixty-six year-old Jesuit who walked with the help of a cane. On May 11, as defendants in the lawsuit were testifying before the Public Ministry, the Jesuits' provincial curia in Mexico City received three telephoned bomb threats. A month later, the Attorney General's office threw out the charges against Summa. The newspaper was owned by Televisa, the powerful television consortium known to be close to the PRI. The government remained silent on the accusations despite the reference to official intelligence documents. Similar articles in the magazines Impacto and Novedades, also citing confidential government information, accused a total of nineteen Chiapas human rights workers, journalists, and local NGO members of having links with the EZLN.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristóbal de las Casas, who attended the peace talks as an observer, received frequent death threats during the year, and in June social activists belonging to several nongovernmental groups were subjected to surveillance and harassment by undercover military agents. The attacks included a raid by twenty armed men dressed in black on the Jesuit-run social assistance center for children in Palenque, which was run by Father Jerónimo Hernández.

Intimidation also extended to media workers considered sympathetic to the EZLN or the political opposition. The independent video producer, Canal 6 de Julio, set up in 1988 to provide an alternative to the regular television news fare, had its office broken into three times in January, shortly after it had made a documentary on the Chiapas conflict.

In June there were signs that the Ministry of Government was tightening up on immigration restrictions in order to remove foreign observers from the conflict area in Chiapas. A Peruvian doctor and a French nurse from Médecins du Monde, who had been volunteers at a church clinic in Altamirano, were expelled on a visa technicality, and long delays were being reported whenever foreign visitors had to pass military checkpoints.

U.S. Policy

The Clinton administration was caught off guard by the rebellion in Chiapas. Throughout the conflict, administration officials went out of their way to avoid criticizing the Mexican government, ignoring reports of the Mexican army's involvement in human rights violations. When questioned by the press on these abuses, State Department spokespersons stated for nearly a month that the U.S. Embassy in Mexico had no independent way of confirming the abuses, so was unable to condemn them. When President Salinas changed course and restrained his forces, U.S. officials praised the decision while continuing to avoid acknowledging human rights violations.

On January 25, Assistant Secretary of State Alexander Watson stated that the U.S. had "raised human rights at the very highest level from the outset of the crisis," but explained that "[the inquiry] was preemptive. It was not reacting to information." Despite the Mexican government's record of impunity, Watson stated that he had no reason to think the Mexican government would not investigate all of the allegations. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor John Shattuck was the first U.S. official to confirm that abuses had taken place, stating at a Congressional hearing on February 2 that the allegations, "must be fully and thoroughly investigated so that those responsible can be brought to justice under Mexican law." After that statement, however, Shattuck's department did not make any public statements criticizing the inadequate prosecution efforts undertaken by the government against members of the armed forces who committed abuses during the uprising.

The Clinton administration gave similar unqualified support to the Mexican government's electoral reform measures without publicly expressing any reservations about their adequacy or effectiveness. In addition to praising the reforms, the administration also urged members of Congress not to express reservations. For example, in a July 11, 1994 letter, the State Department's assistant secretary for legislative affairs urged members of Congress not to proceed with a draft resolution that merely "expressed the hope" that "the efforts of the government of Mexico, the major political parties and concerned members of civic society to reform the electoral process will be successful." The State Department argued that the resolution might be counterproductive by offending nationalist sensitivities.

The National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), both funded by the U.S. government, sent a ninety-person international delegation to observe the elections and issued a preliminary statement on their findings, which praised the elections but also contained several serious criticisms. Given the numerous doubts that were raised by national observers and international visitors, including these U.S. delegations, Human Rights Watch/Americas finds it unfortunate that the Clinton administration failed to express any of these concerns in public.

In one positive development, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) Harriet Babbitt testified in a July Congressional hearing that fraudulent elections in an OAS member state might constitute a sufficient "interruption" in the state's democratic political process to justify calling a meeting of the OAS Permanent Council, pursuant to OAS Resolution 1080. She later told reporters that this interpretation of Resolution 1080 would not exclude Mexico. Although Babbitt did not specifically refer to the Mexican elections in her written statement, her proposal for OAS review of any future elections marred by fraud would be invaluable.

Mexico received a relatively small amount of security assistance from the U.S., but it did purchase large amounts of U.S. weaponry through governmental and commercial channels. In fiscal year 1994, Mexico acquired an estimated $110 million in arms purchases from private U.S. companies and the government, and its fiscal year 1995 request was higher than for any other Latin American country. The U.S. continued to make or approve arms sales to Mexico, without considering the human rights situation, as required by law.

The Mexican government purchased millions of dollars worth of riot-control vehicles from U.S.-based manufacturers, presumably for post-election protest control, it was reported in April. The armored vehicles purchased featured water cannons and gun ports, with optional features such as side tanks for dyes that could be used to mark protest participants, remote-controlled television systems with recording capabilities, and a hydraulic barricade remover. When asked about the anti-riot equipment in early May, both Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs Alexander Watson and U.S. Ambassador to Mexico James Jones said they had no information about the sales. Although the State Department later advised Human Rights Watch that export licenses were not required from their agency or from the Commerce Department in this case, we believe that administration knowledge of the sales provided an appropriate opportunity to encourage the Mexican government to use the equipment with restraint and in a manner consistent with the rights of peaceful demonstrators.

During the year, labor rights organizations attempted to utilize mechanisms in NAFTA's labor side agreement – one of the agreements negotiated in response to concerns raised by union leaders and others about the effects of the free trade accord – by filing complaints of alleged workers' rights violations in Mexico with the U.S. Department of Labor. After accepting two of the complaints for review, over the protests of Mexican officials and the corporations involved, the Department of Labor refused to pursue the complaints further in October. According to press reports, in defending its determination that the Mexican government had not denied workers the right to organize, the Labor Department conceded that, "The timing of the dismissals appears to coincide with organizing drives at the two plants." The Labor Secretary's decision to halt its inquiry led many rights activists and union leaders to repeat concerns about the weakness of the labor rights complaint mechanism and to question the Clinton administration's commitment to upholding basic labor rights standards. A third complaint was accepted for review and was pending as of mid-November.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Americas

For the first six months of the year Human Rights Watch/Americas devoted its resources to the human rights crisis in Chiapas. While supporting President Salinas's pacification efforts, our aim was to promote and publicize the quest for justice and accountability on behalf of the victims of human rights violations and their families. In February we published a report on the conflict, Mexico: The New Year's Rebellion, Violations of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law during the Armed Revolt in Chiapas, Mexico. On February 2, Human Rights Watch/Americas' Executive Director testified on the rebellion before the Congressional House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, urging members to push the Mexican government for a full investigation of human rights violations.

Human Rights Watch/Americas worked closely with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) in undertaking a careful documentation of human rights violations committed by the Mexican army. The results of this investigation were published in December in a joint report titled Mexico: Waiting for Justice in Chiapas. This report criticized the investigations conducted by the PGR and the CNDH into extrajudicial executions and arbitrary killings committed by the army and included the results of field investigations conducted by PHR's own forensic anthropologists. It showed, alarmingly, that not a single killing or case of torture had been satisfactorily investigated.

In June a Human Rights Watch/Americas delegation visited Mexico City, and the states of Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Chiapas, to look into violations of political rights in the context of the election campaign. Our report Mexico at the Cross Roads, Political Rights and the 1994 Presidential and Congressional Elections, released a week before the election, concluded that despite recent electoral reforms political rights were still not fully or equally exercised in Mexico, and called for the government to introduce additional election-day safeguards, for the special prosecutor for electoral crimes to ensure impartiality in his investigations, and for the independence and security of human rights and election monitors to be strictly safeguarded.

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