Human Rights Developments

Serious human rights violations, including torture and arbitrary detention, continued in Mexico during 2000. Faced with abuses by police and soldiers, prosecutors and courts largely failed to take a stand for human rights. The July electoral victory of opposition presidential candidate Vicente Fox raised hopes that deep-seated human rights problems would be addressed head-on by the new government, scheduled to assume power on December 1. Little doubt remained after the presidential elections that reforms that increased the independence of the federal elections-monitoring agency had greatly facilitated the exercise of political rights in the country. Yet, overcoming the country's long history of human rights abuse, and the legal and other deficiencies contributing to it, would not be easy. That history constituted the legacy of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI), ousted after more than seventy years in power, and posed a formidable challenge to the new government.

After winning the election, Fox appeared much more open to human rights reform than previous Mexican leaders. Signalling that, in August, he met first with local human rights organizations and then with U.S., Canadian, and European human rights and environmental groups. His foreign policy advisors suggested that his government, when it took office, would be more responsive to international human rights mechanisms than previous administrations. Fox also promised to establish a "transparency commission" to examine PRI excesses, including human rights issues.

During his election campaign, Fox proposed to abolish the Office of the Federal Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) and submit prosecutors to much stricter control by judges to overcome deficits in the administration of justice. He also suggested creating an investigative police separate from prosecutors and moving a host of thematic tribunals, including those dealing with labor issues, from the executive to the judicial branch of government.

Deficiencies in the administration of justice indeed were of major concern. Prosecutors frequently ignored abuses by police and also directly fabricated evidence, and judicial oversight of their work was seriously inadequate. Police carried out arbitrary arrests and they and prosecutors often falsified evidence. Courts accepted evidence obtained through human rights violations, including illegal searches, and judges cited legal precedents that vitiated human rights guarantees.

Teodoro Cabrera García and Rodolfo Montiel Flores were two victims of such abuse. Environmental activists from Pizotla, Guerrero, they worked with the Organization of Peasant Environmentalists of the Mountains of Petatlán and Coyuca de Catalán (Organización de Campesinos Ecologists de la Sierra de Petatlán y Coyuca de Catalán). Soldiers detained the two in May 1999, killing another man, Salomé Sánchez Ortiz, at the time. Soldiers held them illegally for two days, and tortured them before turning them over to prosecutors. On August 28, a district judge sentenced them to ten and seven years in prison, respectively, for drug- and weapons-related offenses. Defense lawyers for the accused argued that the military planted the weapons and drugs that formed the basis of the charges against the two, an accusation confirmed in a report issued by the government National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) in July 2000. Soldiers forced the activists to sign incriminating confessions, which were used against them in court. A decision on their appeal was pending at this writing.

Deficiencies in the judicial system were evident in urban as well as rural areas. In February, the respected Human Rights Commission of Mexico City, an agency of the city government, reported that the main suspect in the high-profile murder case of television personality Francisco "Paco" Stanley, gunned down in 1999, had been framed by prosecutors. Prosecutors refused to accept the commission's recommendation that charges be dropped against the suspect. Instead, they began a campaign of intimidation against the commission. This, in turn, led the commission in May to issue a stinging report accusing the Office of the Attorney General of Mexico City (Procuraduría General de Justicia del Distrito Federal, PGJDF) of playing politics with judicial investigations. The office had opened four "notoriously unfounded" investigations against a judge who had ruled against the attorney general in Mexico City, according to the commission.

In Chiapas, there was continued violence between pro-government civilians and real or alleged opponents of the PRI. On August 3, members of the Peace and Justice group, which local human rights defenders described as "paramilitary," attacked the community of El Paraíso, in Yajalón municipality, expelling sixty families, burning houses, and beating inhabitants. But, according to press reports, supporters of the leftist Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), which had launched an armed rebellion in January 1994, also committed forcible expulsions, driving PRI supporters from the community of Nuevo Pavo, Ocosingo municipality, on August 11. The victims were reported to be supporters of the PRI; EZLN supporters denied the accusation.

Police in Chiapas also came under attack. Seven members of the state Public Security Police (Policía de Seguridad Pública) were killed in a June 12 ambush on the border between El Bosque and Simojovel municipalities. The attack took place on the second anniversary of a government raid on a breakaway pro-EZLN municipality formed in El Bosque, but at this writing it was unclear who carried out the attack. In July, authorities detained two men and accused them of possession of marijuana, participating in the ambush, and being EZLN supporters. However, according to the Chiapas-based Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas), the men were illegally detained and police planted evidence on them. At this writing, one of the detainees had been released for lack of evidence.

Following the opposition victory in Mexico's presidential elections, voting in Chiapas in August also resulted in the election of an opposition candidate, Pablo Salazar, as state governor. This raised hopes that long-standing problems, including misuse of power by police, prosecutors, and courts for partisan gain, might be resolved, and that stalled peace talks with the EZLN might be reactivated. Both Fox and Salazar said that if the EZLN returned in good faith to the bargaining table they would support a peace agreement at which the prior federal government had balked, and would also consent to a military rollback.

Foreigners continued to face restrictions in obtaining visas for human rights work in Mexico. Applicants were required to describe their plans to consular officers in copious detail, including all destinations to be visited. In an encouraging development, advisors to President-elect Fox indicated that the visa requirements would be relaxed after he took office.

Authorities still used expulsion or the threat of removal from the country against foreigners. Ted Lewis, director of the Mexico program at Global Exchange, was expelled from the country before the presidential elections, allegedly for entering the country under false pretexts; the official justification, however, was full of contradictions. Kerry Appel, one of a group of foreigners detained in Chiapas at the beginning of the year, was told to leave the country for having violated the terms of his visa; authorities accused him of participating in a party celebrating the six-year anniversary of the EZLN uprising. Appel won an appeal of the expulsion order in June, with the judge ruling that the immigration authorities had failed to justify the reasons for his expulsion, and calling on them to properly document the order. Instead, according to the Fray Bartolomé Center, immigration officials simply repeated the same claims against Appel and, in September, again ordered that he leave the country. In a contrary move, however, immigration authorities permitted Tom Hansen, the director of the Mexico Solidarity Network, who had been expelled in 1998, to return to Mexico.

The government maintained legal restrictions on workers' freedom of association and the right to strike, and labor tribunals responsible for hearing unfair dismissal and other cases were not impartial. In its year 2000 report by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, the International Labor Organization (ILO) again criticized legal restrictions on freedom of association and the right to strike in Mexico. The report also condemned the ongoing practice of requiring female job applicants to submit to pregnancy tests as a condition of employment, which it described as a violation of the ILO's convention on employment discrimination. (For further information on pregnancy testing, see the Women's Rights section.) The labor side agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) continued to generate meager results in the promotion of labor rights in Mexico.

Journalists also suffered continued threats, and at least two reporters were killed during the year, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). José Ramírez Puente, a radio journalist, was stabbed to death in April in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua state, and Pablo Pineda, of the Matamoros daily La Opinión was also killed that month. In both cases, the motives and identity of the perpetrators were unclear. On June 22, gunmen fired on T.V. Azteca news anchor Lilly Téllez as she travelled by car in Mexico City; she escaped unharmed, but the driver and bodyguards accompanying her because of threats made in retaliation for her reporting on drug trafficking, were wounded. Several journalists also faced legal harassment for their reporting. For example, prosecutors charged Melitón García of the Monterrey daily El Norte with falsifying documents, after he published a two-part story in May describing how easy it was for him to obtain a false voter credential. For a crime to have taken place, according to CPJ, the reporter would have had to have acted with malicious intent, something that was clearly lacking in this case.

The government took several positive human rights initiatives. In June, it ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. It signed the statute of the International Criminal Court in September. The government's lack of commitment to the obligations it undertook by ratifying the refugee convention became clear in October 2000, however, when authorities summarily deported Cuban national Pedro Riera Escalante, a government official who had sought political asylum. Riera Escalante faced grave danger in Cuba, given his opposition to the policies of the Cuban government, but Mexico sent him back, in violation of the convention's prohibition on returning refugees if they would face a threat to life or liberty at home.

In August, the Mexico City authorities passed legislation establishing the crime of "disappearance," a step that human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, had long urged the central government to take, but there were no moves to create analogous federal legislation.

At the request of Spanish judge Baltasár Garzón, the authorities arrested former Argentine military officer Ricardo Miguel Cavallo in August. Garzón, who had sought the extradition of Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet from the United Kingdom in 1998, sought to prosecute Cavallo on genocide and torture charges stemming from his alleged role as a torturer at Argentina's infamous Navy School of Mechanics under military rule. Judge Garzón requested that Carvallo be extradited to Spain, but, at this writing, extradition proceedings within Mexico were still in process. French authorities were also investigating Cavallo's possible involvement in the torture and murder of French citizens in Argentina.

In August, Mexican officials announced the arrests of Mexican generals Arturo Acosta Chaparro and Humberto Quierós Hermosillo, whom they accused of links to drug traffickers. Human rights groups immediately called on the government to take steps to broaden the charges against Acosta Chaparro, who had been linked to "disappearances" and torture in Mexico's southern state of Guerrero in the 1970s.

Defending Human Rights

Human rights defenders continued their detailed reporting and energetic advocacy but faced renewed pressure from politicians who sought to blame them for some of the country's crime problems, particularly during the presidential election campaign. At one campaign stop, for instance, the PRI's presidential candidate courted the get-tough-on-crime vote by announcing: "Let it be known that the law was made to protect the human rights of citizens, not criminals." A similar slogan had worked for a successful PRI gubernatorial candidate in 1999.

The pressure created was more than simply theoretical; it helped create a hostile environment for human rights defenders. In June, authorities appeared to act on this distrust of human rights groups as the All Rights for All Mexican Human Rights Network (Red de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos Todos Derechos para Todos, known as the Red) reported that their Mexico City office was under surveillance. According to the Red, the city prosecutor's office later revealed that agents of the federal National Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad, SISEN) had been filming the office, although the motive of the surveillance was not made known to the group. The same month, Digna Ochoa of PRODH received telephoned death threats. She was the lead defense lawyer representing the detained environmentalists in Guerrero.

Arturo Solís, director of the Center for Border Studies and Promotion of Human Rights (Centro de Estudios Fronterizos y de Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, CEFPRODAC), also came under attack during the year. An immigration official and private citizen in Tamaulipas state, home of the center, accused Solís of defamation in July, after CEFPRODAC provided federal prosecutors with information in June on corruption within the National Immigration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM). Authorities failed to investigate Solís' claims in depth, but moved the defamation case forward, according to the center. In August, the center received telephoned death threats, and unidentified individuals kept Solis' house under surveillance. Some witnesses who supported Solís retracted their statements after receiving threats.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations and Organization of American States

The full scope of Mexico's human rights violations was brought into focus in November 1999, when United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson visited the country. The Mexican government did not consent to an advance research team, limiting the high commissioner to gathering information during her visits to Mexico City, Chiapas state, and Baja California state. Nonetheless, more than one hundred nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) prepared a human rights report for the high commissioner, listing their most pressing concerns. In addition to problems with the administration of justice, the report strongly criticized the involvement of the military in matters of internal security, inadequate protection of indigenous people's rights, weaknesses in economic and political rights, and attacks on human rights defenders.

The high commissioner spoke out strongly against human rights violations in Mexico. After meeting survivors of the December 1997 massacre in Acteal, Chiapas, for example, she pointed to "the failure in too many cases to punish rights violators."

In July, the Office of the High Commissioner planned to move forward with a two-part technical cooperation program to be implemented with Mexico. Its first segment, scheduled to begin before Fox assumed the presidency, was to include limited training programs for the judicial police, enhancing the federal government's National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH), and working to strengthen the ability of indigenous rights groups to work with the United Nations. The office hoped to implement a more ambitious program under the new administration. At this writing, the first segment of the technical cooperation program had yet to begin.

After the high commissioner's visit, Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Asma Jahangir released a report based on her July 1999 mission to Mexico. "The Government has taken some initial steps to guarantee the right to life of all persons," the report found, but it concluded: "Unfortunately, these positive undertakings have not been sufficient to correct the situation, as extrajudicial killings and the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators continue."

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued two case reports on Mexico and accepted two new cases for review. In its report on the 1986 murder by non-state actors of Pedro Peredo Valderrama, the commission blasted the Mexican government for precisely the type of irregularities that continued to plague the justice system: arrest warrants for the accused were not carried out until 1996, nine years after they were issued; one of the accused had escaped arrest in 1988 with the aid of police; and a judge acquitted two of the accused after committing a series of irregularities, including relying on information never entered as evidence and wrongly attributing exculpatory statements to defendants.

Another case handled by the commission-involving Brig. Gen. Francisco Gallardo-remained unresolved. Incarcerated since 1993 in retaliation for his call for improved respect for human rights in the military, the general faced a prison sentence of more than fourteen years. In 1996, the commission called for his release.

European Union

The Global Agreement between Mexico and the European Union entered into force in July, replacing an interim accord in place since 1999. The agreement included a standard democracy clause, which was nevertheless a subject of contention during negotiations. In addition, the Global Agreement included a chapter on political dialogue and cooperation programs-including issues related to human rights. Article 39 of the agreement, for example, noted that cooperation would focus mainly on the development of civil society, the implementation of training and information measures to help institutions function better, including in the human rights field, and the promotion of human rights and democratic principles. The agreement did not expressly exclude the development of such programs with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but neither did it specify that NGOs would take part in such activities.

United States

As in the recent past, the U.S. Department of State issued a strong report on the situation of human rights in Mexico, noting: "Continued serious abuses include extrajudicial killings; disappearances; torture and other abuse; police corruption and alleged involvement in narcotics-related abuses; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; lengthy pretrial detention; lack of due process; judicial inefficiency andcorruption; illegal searches; attacks and threats against journalists; some self-censorship; assaults, harassment, and threats against human rights monitors; violence and discrimination against women; child prostitution and abuse; discrimination against indigenous people; violence and discrimination against religious minorities; violence against homosexuals; limits on worker rights; extensive child labor in agriculture and in the informal economy; and trafficking in persons."

Despite these criticisms, strong bilateral action to promote human rights appeared again to take a back seat to higher priority issues such as economic relations, immigration control, and narcotics. During a meeting in August, President Bill Clinton told President-elect Fox that the United States wished to see his government make progress on human rights.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.