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Laws and Injustice: Fighting for Human Rights in Mexico

Editor’s Note: In their latest dispatch from Mexico, Chris Tilly and Marie Kennedy share their insight into the complicated world of human rights.

A land of laws but no justice

In a February statement, Amnesty International described Mexico as a country with “laws but no justice.” They were talking about the criminal justice system, but the statement describes Mexico more broadly, in a couple of ways.

First, the application of laws in Mexico is often arbitrary and driven by covert or overt economic and political interests.

Second, Mexican society (like most others, including the U.S.) institutionalizes injustice toward a number of groups of second-class citizens-such as indigenous people, the poor and women.

But the story is more complex. Mexico today also is registering some unexpected breakthroughs in civil rights, including gay/lesbian rights. And popular organizations, sometimes with allies in the mainstream parties and sometimes without, are continuing to push forward the struggle for social justice.

Whose law?

Totalitarianism, according to one description, is a situation in which laws are constructed so that absolutely everyone must violate them in the course of daily life, rendering everyone vulnerable to selective application of the law.

Mexico does not meet this definition of totalitarianism, but the country certainly has some things in common with it. Tax evasion is virtually universal. There are often multiple land ownership claims based on conflicting government policies or actions-agrarian reform, indigenous reservations, patronage gifts by some governor or other, eminent domain, and so on. And politicians often interpret broadly written laws to their own advantage, as well as supplementing legal actions with extralegal and illegal ones.

Perhaps the most celebrated recent example of arbitrary application of the law took place in 2004, in the political jockeying preceding the 2006 presidential campaign.

The popular center-left mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), was leading in early polls. The government of President Vicente Fox, of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) contrived charges against AMLO for taking a small slice of private land by eminent domain for a hospital access road.

An open criminal proceeding would have barred López Obrador from being a candidate. AMLO responded by organizing a protest movement, and the federal prosecutor finally dropped the charges.

Fox stirred up a furor a couple of weeks ago by commenting that López Obrador had beaten him that time, but “I got even when my candidate”-Felipe Calderón, the PAN’s presidential candidate-“won at the polls.” López Obrador and his supporters maintain the election was stolen with Fox’s collusion.

AMLO’s plight is just one of many such cases. Journalist Lydia Cacho, who accused the governor of Puebla of shielding powerful political and business figures who were procuring sex with minors, spent a year in prison awaiting trial on libel charges before a judge finally ordered her released last month.

In the case highlighted by Amnesty International, indigenous activists in Oaxaca languish in prison on trumped-up charges for taking part in the movement against that state’s governor. Environmental activists in Morelos and elsewhere have suffered a similar fate. Because Mexico’s laws do not include a presumption of innocence, people accused for political reasons have limited tools to fight their incarceration.

Unjust imprisonment is bad enough, but those with political power sometimes go well beyond that in clamping down on dissidents. Mexico, historically a land of caudillos (regional political-military leaders) and caciques (local bosses controlling patronage and enforcement systems), has not completely escaped its legacy.

In San Salvador Atenco (Mexico State) and Oaxaca, where governors savagely repressed demonstrations last year, human rights observers have documented cases of detention without charges, beating, torture, rape of women and men, disappearance, and assassination.

Some such actions are targeted, others appear designed to indiscriminately sow terror-one account describes apolitical ice cream vendor Ismael Cruz, who was unlucky enough to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, was beaten and tortured, and remains under detention.

In Chiapas, similar tactics have been used against the Zapatistas and communities suspected of being sympathizers.

The National Human Rights Commission recently reported that in the last six years, 31 journalists have been assassinated and five disappeared in Mexico-more than a third of these in the last year-making it the second-most dangerous country for journalists after Iraq (some of the killings are presumed to be the work of organized crime).

Typically the worst abuses are carried out by non-uniformed troops or police, paramilitaries, or thugs, giving government officials “plausible deniability.” Those ordering and carrying out such acts of violence generally enjoy impunity. In fact, it’s only in the last few years that the Mexican system of justice has begun to investigate the “dirty war” the Mexican government pursued against militants in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Multiple jeopardy

The most vulnerable groups suffer most. Indigenous people, many of whom are among Mexico’s poorest-start out with three strikes against them: race, class, and language. This combination disadvantages them in property rights-land thefts from indigenous communities are legion-and in the courtroom as well.

Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the UN’s special rapporteur on indigenous people’s rights, issued a February report that condemned the state of Yucatán’s treatment of the indigenous, who make up the majority of the state’s population. Stavenhagen highlighted the case of Ricardo Ucán, currently serving 22 years in prison.

Ucán, who speaks no Spanish, killed a man who was pointing a gun at him and his family. Because his court-appointed lawyer spoke only Spanish and the proceedings were never translated, the fact of self-defense was never raised.

Women, who only gained the vote in Mexican national elections in 1953, also suffer more violations of their rights. An anthropologist colleague commented that, “In Mexico, men can accept women being politicians, professionals, even their bosses-but they are machos in the home.”

Domestic violence is a serious problem-suffered by 44 percent of women living with a partner, according to a survey by the National Institute on Women. The hundreds of killings in Juárez remain unsolved, leading many to suspect official complicity. And criminologist Rocío Santillan Ramírez characterizes the criminal justice system as “patriarchal and misogynist,” pointing out that women murderers receive longer sentences on average than men, even though they have often killed a partner after years of abuse and violence.

In both substance and symbolism, Calderón’s government is giving off signs of worse things to come. Calderón has done a phenomenally large number of photo-ops with the military, including one occasion when he posed in fatigues (maybe he’s getting PR lessons from George W. Bush?).

He gave troops a 46 percent raise while refusing to raise the minimum wage. The president’s most visible policy initiative has been a series of military raids-so far without significant success-against the organized criminals running the drug trade.

The violent acts of these gangsters are indeed a serious public concern, but given the range of economic and social problems facing Mexico, making this priority number one sends a clear message (as well as winning points with the United States). Calderón is not alone in playing the law-and-order card.

Marcelo Ebrard, current mayor of Mexico City and a stalwart of AMLO’s Party of the Democratic Revolution, has been carrying out mass evictions of public housing projects where drug-dealing is allegedly taking place. The state of Guerrero just authorized its state legislators to carry arms and is paying for bodyguards.

Calderón’s rhetoric targets not just criminals, but dissidents. “In this country, we will no longer confuse illegality with respect for rights,” he intoned ominously in late January.

It’s true that in Atenco and Oaxaca protestors broke the law by violating police orders to disperse. But one could argue that when protest and criticism are made illegal, protestors and critics will necessarily become criminals.

In any case, Calderón’s Presidential Guard (Estado Mayor) went well beyond punishing illegal acts when he visited the National Governor’s Conference here in Oaxaca. The Estado Mayor roughed up seven reporters-all from mainstream publications-without warning, throwing one to the ground and kicking him in the head, breaking his nose and sending him to the hospital.

“We’ve never known the Estado Mayor to act like this,” one friend commented. Calderón’s officials have also blocked AMLO’s TV talk show from going on the air.

Meanwhile, the Assistant Attorney General for Human Rights, Juan de Dios Castro, as much as threw his hands in the air when he declared in mid-February that “We have a problem of violation of human rights that unfortunately the federal government…so far does not have in its hands the possibility of totally eliminating.”

He blamed state governments, complaining that in some states, “a climate of impunity is facilitated because democracy doesn’t exist,” but claimed that Mexico’s federal system limits the central government’s ability to intervene. (If the U.S. federal government had adopted this view in the 1960s, we’d probably still have Jim Crow in the South today!)

Human rights advocates slammed Castro the next day for abdicating federal responsibility.

Though the actions of Calderón and his cabinet anger and worry government critics, they have gained favor in other quarters. Columnist Julio Hernández López reports that mega-capitalist Alberto Bailleres (major stockholder in financial, mining, commercial, and agribusiness interests), commented publicly in mid-February that the rule of law requires a strong government that compels all to obey, “even in the face of factional interests…. The civilizing way of law,” he continued, should not be detained by “the hesitations of any actor or any political tendency.”

Interesting words coming from a major stockholder of Peñoles, in whose coal mine 65 miners perished in an explosion a year ago after years of safety violations. One year later, no action has been taken against the company.

Surprising breakthroughs

But the news on human rights from Mexico is not all bad. Mexico’s governments are naming domestic violence (violencia interfamiliar), and conducting educational campaigns to raise consciousness about it. The federal government passed a law criminalizing domestic violence last year, and is conducting a hard-hitting radio campaign to publicize it (“Señor Martínez, you are sentenced to two years in prison for hitting your wife!”).

Perhaps even more surprising in a land where machismo is so deeply rooted, laws recognizing gay and lesbian rights are taking new strides. The first same-sex civil union in Latin America, between two lesbians, was celebrated at the end of January in the gritty border state of Coahuila, best known for coal mines (including the Pasta de Conchos mine were last year’s disaster took place) and maquiladoras. (Coahuila’s law was championed, not by the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution, but by the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000.)

The Distrito Federal (the federal district containing Mexico City) passed a similar law that takes effect in March, and already hundreds of same-sex couples have symbolically registered their intentions. Of course, Mexicans have long had an ambivalent relationship toward homosexuality. On the one hand, there are few insults harsher than puto (a derogatory slur for gays).

On the other hand, perhaps the most popular marchers in the recent Carnaval parade in Santa Ana, where we are living, were the dozens of lindas marinas (drag queens)-a fixture in many Mexican Carnavals. Some were clownish objects of ridicule, but others were glamorous figures (including quite a few androgynous sylphs of ambiguous gender) who attracted appreciative whistles and propositions from male onlookers.

Mexican laws and views on reproductive rights, the rights of the HIV-positive, and even ex-offenders’ rights are also changing. The morning-after pill was approved in Mexico in 2004, two years before the U.S. FDA finally gave it the nod. Abortion is illegal but tolerated. The Mexican Supreme Court just ruled that the Army may not discharge soldiers for being HIV-positive, and the Secretary of Health has initiated legal action for “crimes against public health” against the National Movement for the Refocusing of Science, which promotes a theory that the AIDS virus doesn’t exist. The state of Coahuila even passed a law prohibiting discrimination against ex-convicts in government employment (with the exception of the police).

And in the shadow of brutal repression in Oaxaca and Atenco, in spite of the echoes of Calderón’s tough-guy speeches, Mexicans continue to organize for basic human rights. A “citizens’ jury” of well known cultural and political figures traveled to Oaxaca to hear testimony from victims of the government crackdown there. A crowded field of human rights organizations pursues its crucial work of documentation and denunciation. Brave journalists face down death threats and worse to tell the stories of Ismael Cruz, Ricardo Ucán, and many others. And ordinary Mexicans, including growing numbers of indigenous people and women, challenge arbitrary power by lobbying, litigating, meeting, demonstrating, and creating autonomous, community-based institutions-building alternative structures of power founded on recognizing the rights of all.