Impunity in Mexico

By Nancy Garcia Fregoso. You can follow Nancy on twitter: @nancy_carmina

Mexico suffers a crisis of impunity. Some might call it a human rights crisis, but the root cause of the current situation is the weakened rule of law. The current reality is graphically demonstrated by the events leading to the disappearance of 43 student-teachers in Guerrero (for more information on this disappearance, see Rupert Knox’s earlier post). Last Friday, the Federal Prosecutor, Jesús Murrillo, stated that members of a drug gang killed some of the students (around 15 were already dead through asphyxiation), after they had been handed over to the gang by local policemen. Later on, their corpses were burnt and disposed in a river. This gruesome incident reveals Mexico’s darkest secrets, symbolized by the numerous mass graves found in the surrounding areas, and also its deepest problem: impunity. It also evidences the long history of abuses and omissions by the authorities when it comes to respecting human rights. The numerous mass-graves and beheaded corpses which are now part of the national imagery, can only be explained through deep-rooted impunity affecting all levels of government.

As Rupert Knox mentions, on September 26, 2014, 43 student-teachers from the rural Teachers’College “Raúl Isidro Burgos”of Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero, disappeared with the direct involvement of local policemen and drug gangs. It is commonly reported that 54 students were in Iguala collecting money to finance their protests, when they took over a private bus, leading to a confrontation with the local police. These clashes resulted in the death of 6 people. According to witnesses the rest of the students were taken by the police forces and handed over to local drug gangs. In the days following their disappearance, several mass graves were found near Iguala. The first grave contained 28 corpses: after DNA testing it was found that the bodies did not belong to the students.

Like in many authoritarian regimes, dissidents have long been victims to the abuses of the governing class. Mexico’s long-governing party, PRI, has been responsible for several atrocities committed against civilians. For example, in 1968, soldiers and policemen fired at protesters in Mexico City, just before the inauguration of the Olympics Games. There are reports of 200-300 deaths. According to different accounts, the former Secretary of State (who later became Mexico’s President) directly ordered the shootings. Of course, no one has been held accountable for these crimes. In 2000, there was an attempt to end the impunity: a Commission of Inquiry was installed, but this dramatically failed.

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Mexico went through a period knows as the “guerra sucia”(dirty war). This period witnessed fighting between several armed groups and the government, whose response included the commission of serious human rights violations. In 2001, the National Commission of Human Rights reported at least 275 cases of enforced disappearances during those decades, and there is evidence that the army routinely threw dissidents into the ocean from airplanes. Again, no one has been held accountable, and the relatives of many government opponents still do not know what happened to them (see more here).

The last wave of violence started in 2006 and although the actors are different – this time involving organised crime – the underlying cause remains the lack of accountability. In 2006 the then President Felipe Calderón, launched a war on drugs that relied heavily on the military. This strategy seemed the obvious one, because the local and federal police forces were perceived as corrupt and affiliated to the drug cartels. Since then, human rights violations by the armed forces have increased. From 2006 to 2013 there were 8150 complaints relating to abuse by the military.

Torture is widely practiced in Mexico, although reliable records are difficult to obtain due to the nature of the crime. There is no independent body that can receive and investigate allegations, and the torturer and investigator are often part of the same institution. The National Human Rights Commission received more than 7000 complaints of torture and ill-treatment from 2010 to the end of 2013. At the federal level there are only 7 convictions of torture from 2005 to 2013. According to Amnesty International’s report, at the state level there are even less convictions. The Special Rapporteur on Torture visited Mexico earlier this year. In his preliminary observations he concluded that torture is “common and widespread amongst all levels of authority”.

The wide-spread practice of torture, the disappearance and killing of the Ayotzinapa’s students and the numerous mass graves found reflect an ineffective law enforcement and justice system. The victims of government abuse have not received redress, be it in the form of the right to truth, access to justice, sanction and investigation of violations, and so on. Only in exceptional cases have the perpetrators been held accountable for their actions.

Paradoxically, Mexico has a strong legal framework for the protection of human rights. The state has ratified most of the relevant international human rights treaties (except the Optional Protocol on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). In addition, all human rights provisions contained in international human rights treaties to which Mexico is Party are incorporated to the Constitution. This amendment was intended to provide a wider and stronger protection to the individual from all levels and branches of government. It has clearly not become effective. For example, in 2013, only 5539 arrests out of a total of 47619 were made with an arrest warrant.

Last month’s events demonstrate the reality of the human rights situation. The lack of accountability explains the gross human rights violations in Mexico. If the government wants to break the cycle of impunity, it will have to act diligently and strictly follow therule of law in every step of the investigation leading to the judgement and prosecution of the suspects.This is a difficult task. For instance, most of the suspects have confessed to their involvement in the disappearance of the students. However, in the context of a generalized practice of torture, it is difficult to give full evidential value to their declarations. If the judges of first instance accept their confessions as the only proof and declare them guilty, there is a risk that the judgements will be thrown out in higher courts. This will undermine trust in the judiciary and in the prosecutor’s office.

To address this crisis of impunity the law must now be seen to be working. It is essential that due process is followed with respect to the prosecution of the mayor of Iguala, who was recently detained in the outskirts of Mexico city. If not, it is likely – and of course appropriate – that the Supreme Court will release the suspects on procedural grounds: irrespective of their actual guilt, thereby in effect furthering impunity. This cannot be allowed to happen, either as a result of a misplaced desire to be seen to react decisively, or as a strategy to provide an illusion of justice, while furthering impunity. The families of the victims deserve more than this. Of course, respect for the rule of law in this sense is only the first step. We must then tackle the widespread impunity that prevails the Mexican State, and allows these atrocities to occur in the first instance.


Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s