Human Rights Developments

Although President Ernesto Zedillo recognized in the abstract that human rights violations took place in Mexico, his government failed to develop a strategy to respond adequately to individual cases of abuse, strengthen human rights safeguards, or promote the rule of law. Long-simmering human rights problems received government attention only after becoming national and international scandals, while other deeply troubling practices—such as torture, rural violence, abuses by the military, and attacks against human rights monitors and journalists—continued apace. At the same time, the Zedillo administration undertook two initiatives that undercut human rights protections, establishing new restrictions on international human rights monitors and initiating constitutional reforms designed to fight crime through the limitation of the rights of criminal suspects. As the international community paid increasing attention to human rights concerns in Mexico, the government selectively reacted to what it deemed foreign intervention in Mexican human rights affairs—strongly rejecting some human rights entities while demonstrating an openness to dialogue or work with others. Authorities consistently failed, however, to implement recommendations made by United Nations and Organization of American States human rights monitoring bodies. President Zedillo's fourth year in office began with intense national and international scrutiny of human rights violations in the southern state of Chiapas, following the December 22, 1997 massacre by pro-government armed civilians of forty-five people in the mountainside hamlet of Acteal, in Chenalhó municipality. In the context of intense community conflict over resources and political loyalty, an estimated sixty armed civilians gathered on the morning of the attack and converged on the community, opening fire on and killing mostly women and children. The victims were unaffiliated with either of the two political groups with the strongest backing in the municipality: the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) and supporters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), the leftist guerrilla group that launched an uprising in Chiapas in January 1994. The immediate motive for the massacre appeared to have been revenge for the murder of a PRI supporter just days before, part of a pattern of tit-for-tat attacks between PRI and EZLN supporters. Nineteen partisans of the ruling party had reportedly been killed in the municipality during the year prior to the massacre, more than twice the number of murdered supporters of the EZLN. Even though violence in the municipality had been two-sided, the state government had repeatedly favored supporters of the PRI. Before the massacre, for instance, Chiapas state security police had given protection to PRI supporters, accompanying them for safety to their fields for harvesting. Moreover, at least one commander had helped the civilians who carried out the attack obtain weapons. Government officials who were warned of the impending massacre on the morning of December 22 downplayed initial reports, ensuring that no effective actions were taken to stop the bloodbath. During the massacre, state security police in Acteal didnothing to impede the bloodshed; when state officials arrived afterward, they failed to preserve the crime scene. As in other areas of Chiapas, the state justice system had consistently failed over the years to handle cases of rural violence properly in Chenalhó; prosecutors responsible for investigating crimes, for instance, did not do so. Between May and December 1997, for example, at least thirty-four incidents of violence were reported in Chenalhó municipality, including murders, expulsions from communities, and kidnappings. All members of the community suffered, regardless of political affiliation. According to the Office of the Federal Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR), however, none of the cases had been properly investigated, despite formal complaints lodged with prosecutors. Atypically, federal investigators who had assumed responsibility for the cases following the massacre had reportedly made progress in gathering evidence for prosecution of the unresolved rural violence incidents from Chenalhó. Although the massacre fit the patterns of violence and impunity found in other regions of Chiapas, it was dissimilar in one fundamental way. Unlike other areas of Chiapas, such as the state's northern zone, the state justice system in Chenalhó had failed for supporters of the PRI as well as partisans of the EZLN. The relative strength of the EZLN in Chenalhó may have posed as strong a deterrent to prosecutions of their supporters as PRI support did for its followers throughout the state. Following the massacre, the federal government assumed jurisdiction of the case, acting swiftly to investigate and jail the material authors. By May 1998, the PGR had taken legal action against 124 people, sixty-nine of them for their alleged active participation in the killings and the others for aiding or covering up for the aggressors. Unfortunately, like their state counterparts, federal officials had ignored signs that the massacre was imminent. Just three weeks before the killings, a group of national and international human rights defenders visited Chenalhó and warned of impending violence. At almost the same time, the government's own National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) had also issued a decree calling on the Chiapas state governor to provide protection to likely victims of violence in the municipality. Put on the defensive after the massacre, the federal government responded not by reining in PRI supporters willing to use violence but by aggressively moving against EZLN supporters and international observers in Chiapas. Pro-EZLN communities known as autonomous municipalities were raided by state and federal police acting with army backup. The communities, which had been set up in areas where guerrilla supporters refused to recognize the legitimacy of local governments controlled by pro-government politicians, had established independent government structures that were not officially recognized by state authorities. On April 11 and 13, for instance, authorities dismantled an autonomous municipality within Taniperla, called Ricardo Flores Magón by EZLN supporters, detaining sixteen Mexicans and twelve foreigners. The former were charged with crimes ranging from usurpation of authority to kidnapping. Among the Mexicans detained were several human rights defenders. The foreigners—like others before and after them—were summarily expelled from the country in violation of basic due process principles. The CNDH reviewed the April 11 and 13 detentions, confirming the allegations of Mexican nongovernmental human rights organizations of a lack of evidence against the detainees. Chastising the state government for prosecuting the detainees without even showing that any crime had taken place, the commission suggested that authorities desist in their prosecution. At this writing, all but four or five of the detainees had been released on bail, but the prosecutions continued. Officials in the Ministry of Government expelled the foreigners, whom they accused of participating in the creation of a Zapatista autonomous municipality, and barred them from ever returning to Mexico—despite a court order providing them injunctive relief against expulsion. According to Mexico's Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos "Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, or PRODH), which filed the request for injunction, authorities were notified of the court decision in time to ensure that it was enforced for most of the foreigners. During the year, there were other troubling expulsions made without due process guarantees. They included French priest Michel Chanteau, who worked in Chenalhó; Tom Hansen, an American working in support of indigenous communities in Chiapas; and Peter Brown, a U.S. citizen supporting an education project. In September, Hansen won a constitutional challenge to his expulsion, but the Government Ministry vowed to appeal the decision. Mexico's human rights problems extended far beyond the occurrences in Chiapas. In many parts of the country, serious human rights violations, including torture and illegal arrests, continued to take place in incidents related to counterinsurgency, drugs, and common crime. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Nigel Rodley issued a report on Mexico in early 1998, following an onsite visit the prior year. He determined, "Torture and analogous mistreatment occur with frequency in many parts of Mexico, although the information received by the Special Rapporteur does not permit the conclusion that it is a systematic practice in all parts of the country." The special rapporteur concluded that torture often took place during efforts by authorities to gather information that would allow prosecution of the victim and that the institutional safeguards designed to protect against torture routinely failed. Abuses tended to take place in three interrelated stages in human rights cases: violations of individual guarantees prior to violent abuse, including illegal arrest and detention in excess of legally mandated limits; the violent human rights violations that followed, such as torture and "disappearance" and due process violations in subsequent criminal procedures, including the use of coerced confessions. In case after case studied by Human Rights Watch, prosecutors seemed disinterested in evidence of illegal arrests, detentions in excess of legally mandated limits, ill-treatment, and torture. They failed to ensure that statements made by witnesses or defendants had not been coerced. Judges, too, overlooked evidence of illegal or prolonged detention and well-founded allegations of torture in order to find the victims guilty. Given the lack of effective safeguards for detainees in Mexico, a set of government proposals to fight crime promised only to complicate human rights problems. Faced with a growing incidence of common crime, President Ernesto Zedillo sent several newanti-crime proposals to the Senate in December 1997, arguing essentially that human rights guarantees constituted a straitjacket in the fight against increasingly sophisticated crime. Among the most questionable proposed reforms were changes in the requirements for obtaining an arrest warrant and for a judge to jail a suspect. If ultimately approved, the reforms would make it much easier for police and judges to act on weaker evidence—a serious problem in a country noted for illegal arrests, fabrication of evidence, and an ineffective system of public defenders. Mexico's armed forces continued to engage in abusive practices in fighting insurgency and common crime. In retaliation after a soldier's weapon was stolen in Jalisco state, elite soldiers, some trained in the United States, arbitrary detained and tortured some twenty people between December 14 and 15, 1997. One of the victims was killed. The soldiers, from the Mobile Air Special Forces Groups (Grupos Aeromóviles de Fuerzas Especiales, GAFE), planned the attack in advance and tortured the victims at the military base. They were arrested but faced trial in military, not civilian, court. On June 7, soldiers engaged in an alleged armed confrontation with an offshoot of the leftist Popular Revolutionary Army (Ejército Popular Revolucionario, EPR) calling itself the Popular Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (Ejército Popular Revolucionario del Pueblo Insurgente, ERPI). According to PRODH, which, investigated the clash in El Charco, Guerrero state, the army appeared to have extrajudicially executed some of the eleven people killed. The official investigation into the incident was plagued by irregularities, PRODH reported. As in past years, independent labor activists and journalists came under government pressure during 1998. In part, the government's system of labor tribunals limited freedom of association, as happened in the Baja California union struggle within Han Young, a factory that assembles truck trailer chassis for Hyundai. In a report on the incident issued in April under the authority of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S. Department of Labor determined that the state labor tribunal had engaged in manipulation to favor the pro-government union. The department found, "It is apparent that independent unions can experience difficulty in obtaining registration and collective bargaining rights." Other labor rights violations included widespread sex discrimination in export-processing factories and the government's failure to address the problem (sees Human Rights section). At least one journalist was killed in retaliation for his work during the year, and others were threatened, physically attacked, prevented from doing their jobs, or questioned by immigration authorities. Luis Mario García Rodríguez, a reporter for the Mexico City daily La Tarde, was shot to death on February 12; he had reported on corruption in the federal attorney general's office. Jesús Blancornelas, editor of the Tijuana, Baja California weekly Zeta, was luckier. He survived a shooting attack on November 27, 1997. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), reporters covering insurgencies in Chiapas and Guerrero states suffered restricted access to the scenes of clashes. CPJ also complained to President Zedillo of broad restrictions placed on reporters, writing in a July letter, "We have received a number of complaints from journalists in the Untied States who have requested visas at Mexican consulates. According to journalists' reports, consular officials questioned them about who they planned to interview and what they planned to write about. Often their visas are held up for weeks."

Defending Human Rights

Mexican and international human rights nongovernmental organizations continued to play an important role in Mexico, not only gathering and publicizing detailed information on human rights violations but also defending victims in court and working in the United States and Europe to promote pressure abroad for Mexican authorities to improve their human rights practices. As in the past, human rights organizations also came under attack for their work. Internationally, Mexican human rights groups gained greater presence than ever. Twice during the year Mexican activists traveled to Washington, D.C., to present information to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Representatives of Mexican human rights organizations also traveled to Brussels and Geneva to press their human rights concerns before the European Union and United Nations. The coordinated presentation of detailed information to these international entities played an important role in countering the Mexican government's official view on human rights, which tended to paint the picture of a strong and effective response to human rights problems. Perhaps in response to the growing influence of human rights groups, Mexican officials strongly criticized local human rights organizations and tried to divide Mexican groups from their international counterparts. In July, for instance, President Zedillo lashed out at Mexican human rights groups in Chiapas, criticizing those who urged international human rights defenders to visit the state. He suggested that encouraging such visits was at odds with promoting respect for the constitution and the rule of law. Just one month before his comments, the Ministry of Government had imposed new restrictions on human rights monitors wishing to travel to Mexico. The new visa requirements included a thirty-day waiting period, a ten-day maximum stay, and a maximum of ten people for any human rights delegation; the new rules provided for facilitated visa receipt in cases of emergency and for extending the trip beyond ten days in exceptional circumstances. To receive a visa, the applicant would have to submit a Spanish-language copy of the organization's articles of incorporation and prove that the organization he or she represented had consultative status with the United Nations or had been in existence for at least five years. People soliciting visas would have to provide a "work plan," which, in practice, authorities sometimes interpreted to mean that they needed to provide details of all people to be interviewed and all communities to be visited. Although the Ministry of Government announced that the new rules would eliminate the arbitrary decision-making on visas that had been strongly criticized by human rights groups, the new process was no less arbitrary. Members of human rights organizations who applied for visas after the new requirements came into effect reported confusing and contradictory responses from Mexican consular officials in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Mexican human rights defenders remained under threat during the year. According to a report produced by the All Rights forAll Network of Civil Human Rights Organizations (Red de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos "Todos los Derechos para Todos," or the Human Rights Network), in Chihuahua state, members of the nongovernmental Commission for Solidarity and Defense of Human Rights (Comisión de Solidaridad y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, COSYDDHAC) received death threats, and the Catholic parish in Chihuahua city, which supports the commission, suffered two arson attacks. In Chiapas, police arrested Luis Menéndez Medina, a member of the Fray Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos "Fray Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada"), during the April 11 raid on Taniperla. Four human rights promoters were also detained. Some human rights defenders working in Guerrero and Oaxaca came under implicit threat by authorities who linked them to the EPR, a dangerous equation likely to lead to physical attack.

The Role of the International Community

European Union

On December 8, 1997, Mexico and the European Union signed an economic partnership, political coordination, and cooperation agreement, bringing to a close negotiations that included intense scrutiny of Mexico's human rights record. Despite initial objections from Mexico, the final accord included a clause on democracy and human rights that is standard for E.U. agreements. The clause expresses that respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights underpins the domestic and foreign policy of the signatories; continuation of the agreement could be made contingent upon its observation. The European Parliament in particular played an important role in trying to use the agreement to promote human rights in Mexico, holding public hearings in which Mexican and international human rights organizations participated prior to the ratification of the accord and pressing other bodies within the union to take up human rights issues in Mexico. At this writing, Mexico and the E.U. had yet to determine how funding for democracy and human rights projects in Mexico would be implemented.

United States

As it had in prior years, the State Department recognized Mexico's serious human rights problems in 1998 but took no direct steps to nudge Mexico toward improving its human rights record. The State Department was well aware of the serious human rights problems suffered in Mexico. The Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1997 noted a long list of problems qualifying as "major abuses," including extrajudicial killings, "disappearances," torture, illegal arrests, and arbitrary detentions. The State Department held important meetings with Mexican human rights organizations and carried out human rights fact-finding missions headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steve Coffey. These efforts sent a pro-human rights message to Mexican government officials and human rights defenders alike. When it came to establishing U.S. policy toward Mexico, however, human rights occupied a place on the bilateral agenda far behind trade, immigration, and drug trafficking. The State Department tread lightly on human rights in Mexico, failing to take public or even private positions on key human rights issues, such as the arbitrary expulsion of U.S. citizens from Mexico. When two U.S. citizens were expelled in April 1998, U.S. officials only raised with their Mexican counterparts concern over whether U.S. embassy personnel had been adequately notified. No concern was raised over the arbitrary expulsion itself. At the same time, the United States armed forces continued their increasingly active role in training Mexican soldiers and providing assistance to Mexican civilian agencies involved in counternarcotics initiatives. Mexico received more International Military Education and Training (IMET) funding than any other Latin American or Caribbean country during the year, estimated to cost U.S.$1 million for 190 Mexican students in 1998, with a similar amount requested for 1999. Another U.S.$5 million was expected to be spent during 1998 on International Narcotics Control (INC) initiatives in Mexico; U.S.$8 million had been requested for the following year. In addition, the Pentagon was expected to spend slightly more than U.S.$20 million for Mexico-related training in 1998. This funding—known as Section 1004, after its location in the 1991 Defense Authorization Act—was for counternarcotics initiatives only, including U.S. military training of foreign police forces. Under the program, the United States trained 829 Mexicans. Many of the Mexicans who have participated in this program come from the GAFE, including officers involved in the December 1997 arbitrary detention and torture, in which one civilian died, in Jalisco state, as noted above. The United States encouraged Mexico's military to play a larger role in counternarcotics efforts. Missing from much of the United States training of Mexicans, however, was any monitoring capability to ensure that U.S.-trained Mexicans did not engage in human rights violations. Similarly, as the United States encouraged Mexico's military to become further involved in civilian-related law enforcement activities, the U.S. government did not enunciate a medium- or long-term plan to strengthen civilian institutions so that Mexico's army would not indefinitely need to play the role it has currently assumed. The United States did not make Mexico's development of such a plan a condition of U.S. training. Human rights concerns with U.S. training persisted during the year. United States support of Mexico's army in these roles may have undermined the civilian institutions that should undergird any democratic society, and although training was ostensibly to fight drug traffic, the distinction between counterinsurgency and counternarcotics in Mexico can, at times, be theoretical at best. Mexico's Guerrero state, for instance, produces drugs and has a guerrilla presence. Soldiers working on one issue cannot realistically be expected not to engage in the other. The responsibility engendered by U.S. training, funding, and equipping of Mexican officials made promoting and protecting human rights there a necessity, not an option. United States Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in Mexico, valued at U.S.$15 million for fiscal year1998 and U.S.$13 million for 1999, included a judicial exchange initiative focused on bringing U.S. and Mexican judges together. The U.S. Department of Labor continued to focus on Mexico through the application of NAFTA'S labor side agreement. The department's National Administrative Office (NAO), which is responsible for receiving complaints of labor rights violations in Mexico and Canada, worked on five cases between October 1997 and the time of this writing. Two of the petitions had been submitted jointly by Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Rights Fund, and Mexico's National Association of Democratic Lawyers (Asociación Nacional de Abogados Democráticos, ANAD). One, submitted in July 1997, accused the Mexican government of failing to enforce anti-discrimination law by permitting forced pregnancy testing in export-processing factories known as maquiladoras. On October 7 and 8, the U.S. and Mexican labor secretaries met to determine a strategy for handling the issue. (See Women's Human Rights section.) The other jointly submitted case, dating from June 1996, dealt with freedom of association violations suffered by Mexico's Single Union of Workers of the Fishing Ministry (Sindicato Unico de Trabajadores de la Secretaría de Pesca, SUTSP), bias within Mexico's federal labor tribunals, and Mexican labor law's limitation on union organizing within government ministries, a violation of binding international labor law. On April 20, the NAO refused a December 3, 1997, request by the petitioners to reconsider its January 1997 dismissal of the first two issues; petitioners had argued that major portions of their argument had been ignored. In December 1997, the NAO organized a conference at which U.S., Mexican, and Canadian experts discussed the relationship between international and domestic labor standards, in fulfillment of the commitment made in the January 1997 report to examine the relevance of international labor standards to Mexican law. The conference offered no opportunity to resolve the labor rights problems highlighted by the petitioners, and labor rights defenders were not invited to participate on the panels. As in prior years, the NAO's work was characterized by an openness to receiving complaints and a desire to broadly seek relevant information, and its public hearings and documentation constituted important opportunities to highlight complex labor rights violations in Mexico. The remedies for labor rights violations available through the NAFTA labor rights process remained weak, however.

United Nations and Organization of American States

The United Nations paid increasing public attention to Mexico during the year, beginning with the U.N. special rapporteur's report on torture. In June, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson expressed concern about human rights violations in Chiapas and announced that her office stood ready to provide technical assistance if it was requested by the Mexican government. The U.N. secretary-general visited the country in August, during which time the government hinted that it might reverse its initial rejection of the U.N. high commissioner's involvement in Mexican human rights affairs. In September, the government invited the high commissioner to Mexico, but as of this writing neither the timing nor the agenda for the visit had been determined. Both the secretary-general and high commissioner for human rights met with Mexican human rights organizations, the former during his trip to Mexico and the latter in Geneva. These meetings served both as a message of support for the human rights community and as an important opportunity for the United Nations officials to receive first-hand information about human rights violations in Mexico. The U.N.'s Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities issued a resolution on Mexico calling on authorities to protect human rights and requesting the U.N. Human Rights Committee to examine human rights concerns there. The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) also considered Mexico during the year and found serious areas of concern. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, also played an increasingly active role in Mexico. Based on an unprecedented 1996 fact-finding mission to the country, in September 1998 the commission released a comprehensive report on human rights in Mexico, finding that despite reforms designed to improve the human rights situation, serious problems remained, including illegal detentions, torture, violations of women's rights, and a justice system that inadequately handled human rights issues. The commission also investigated several individual cases of human rights violations in Mexico and urged Mexican authorities to resolve the problems found.
This report covers events of 1998

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