Talking Justice: Mexico’s Crisis of Impunity

Talking Justice: Mexico’s Crisis of Impunity

On June 19, Mexican federal police opened fire during a confrontation with protesting teachers and their supporters in the small town of Nochixtlan in the southern state of Oaxaca. At least 10 civilians were killed in the violence; the clashes left many injured. 

The Federal Police Commissioner Enrique Galindo declared that the police at the protest had been ambushed, and opened fire only after coming under attack. At the same time, the National Security Commission had to reverse an earlier statement that all the police deployed at the site were unarmed, as media images emerged of federal police firing their weapons at protestors.

A newspaper columnist with El Financiero pointedly asked, “Can we believe the government?” The column recalled two cases last year—in Tanhuato and Apatzingan—in which the official version of federal police shootings of civilians was called into doubt.

But in Mexico, skepticism about the official version of events is hardly unusual, and often warranted.

In this episode of Talking Justice, host Jim Goldston of the Open Society Justice Initiative reports from Mexico City on what he calls Mexico’s crisis of impunity. He talks with Mexican human rights activist José Antonio Guevara about a new report that seeks a way forward.

The report, Undeniable Atrocities: Confronting Crimes against Humanity in Mexico, analyzes the violence that has swept the country since 2006, when the government first deployed the armed forces in the fight against organized crime.

It concludes that the level of murders, enforced disappearances, and torture—carried out by both government forces and by the Zetas drug cartel—may rise to the level of crimes against humanity under international law. It accuses successive governments of almost completely failing to ensure accountability for atrocity crimes, due primarily to political obstruction.

Given the dismal record, Undeniable Atrocities calls on Mexico to create an internationalized investigative body, with the power to prosecute both atrocity crimes and corruption. The Mexican government has said that no new steps are needed.

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Transcript

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JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

I’m Jim Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, and this month we present our Talking Justice podcast from Mexico City. We’re starting here in the city center on the tree-lined Avenida Reforma. I’m standing in front of a blue glass office building, surrounded by a metal fence and protected by armed police, with the red, white, and green national flag hanging over the main entrance.

These are the offices of Mexico’s attorney general, the procurador general de la republica. I’m here because we’re looking at some of the profound challenges facing Mexico, in particular the struggle to hold to account the perpetrators of grave crimes committed by criminal drug cartels and agents of the state.

Just in front of the prosecutor’s building, in the main plaza on Reforma, stands a ramshackle encampment. Its tarpaulin walls are lined with photographs of young men: a photo, a name, and the slogan, in Spanish, “Con vida los queremos: We want him back alive.” This encampment has been here for over a year now, set up in response to the abduction and disappearance in September of 2014 of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Teaching College in the state of Guerrero.

PROTESTER:

This encampment, where we are protesting against the government—the Mexican government—because they took 43 guys on September 26 in 2013. They just took 43 guys from Ayotzinapa—it’s a place in Guerrero. It is a school where they were studying for becoming teachers.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

So photos on the outside of the encampment are of—

PROTESTER:

Yeah. Yeah, of course.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

the 43 students that were taken.

PROTESTER:

We are helping their parents. We are helping all the people to find them. Because we want them back. They were with us before all this happened, and we know if we were the disappeared people, they would also be looking for us. They will be here looking for us because they are our partners and they have been always in the fight for justice and the fight for freedom.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Who took them? Do we know?

PROTESTER:

What?

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Who took them, the 43 students?

PROTESTER:

We know they were took by the cops and the militia men.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Why are you here at this time? What are you to say by being here?

PROTESTER:

We are here exactly because that building in the back. It’s the—

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

The prosecutor general.

PROTESTER:

Yeah. And they are the people who should give us the justice. They are the ones who should bring the guys back. We’re planning to stay here as long as we have to because we need justice. This can’t keep happening because this is not something in the past. This not something in the history of Mexico. This is something happening now, and this can’t stay like this.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

The government’s failure to clarify the fate of the 43 students provoked mass popular protests across Mexico. Amid reports of corrupt collusion among local politicians, police, and drug gangs, President Enrique Peña Nieto pledged to get to the bottom of it. Yet today, questions about what happened to the students are still unresolved, and the government’s explanations remain unconvincing to many.

An independent assessment of the official investigation, delivered in April by a group of international experts, concluded that federal authorities had mishandled evidence, ignored important leads, and tortured suspects to secure confessions. Ultimately, the Ayotzinapa case laid bare a deeper national crisis of atrocity and impunity, which has included the failure to document, let alone punish, those responsible for thousands of killings and disappearances, some carried out by drug gangs, others attributed to government security forces.

(FOREIGN LANGUAGE NOT TRANSCRIBED)

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Lucia Baca is one of many Mexican parents who’ve lost a loved one to the violence. Her son, Alejandro Alfonso Moreno Baca, a computer engineer working for IBM, went missing in January of 2011 in an area controlled by the Zetas drug cartel, where more than 200 people were reported to have disappeared in the space of two years. A local NGO estimates that about a third of these disappearances involve government forces.

(FOREIGN LANGUAGE NOT TRANSCRIBED)

TRANSLATOR:

My son was driving on his own, and his final destination was to visit some friends in Laredo, Texas, and he disappeared on the highway. We have spent five years and four months searching for him nonstop, looking for justice and for truth. We haven’t found it, and I’d like to say that, in truth, this is an atrocity crime.

And they can’t hide that anymore, because these disappearances keep happening, unfortunately. People disappear but no one searches for them. The investigators stay in their offices. They don’t go out and search on the ground. It’s not a real search.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Lucia Baca was one of several members of a victims organization who attended the launch this month of a new report from the Open Society Justice Initiative and five Mexican partner organizations called, Undeniable Atrocities. The report concludes that there is reason to believe that federal government forces and organized crime groups, specifically members of the Zetas cartel, have committed murder, torture and disappearance on a widespread and systematic scale, and is part of a policy to attack civilians. In short, there is a reasonable basis to believe that some of these atrocities amount to crimes against humanity.

The report assesses the escalation in violence since the end of 2006 when the federal government ordered the large-scale domestic deployment of security forces to combat organized crime. One of the partners in the research was Jose Antonio Guevara, the director of a national rights group, the Comision Mexicana decide Defensa you Promocion de los Derechos Humanos, the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.

JOSE ANTONIO GUEVARA:

The Mexican authorities responsible for the policy against drug organizations, they understand that they can commit torture, disappearances, and executions as part of the policy. We see it because—

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

This is soldiers, the military police.

JOSE ANTONIO GUEVARA:

The soldiers, the police, the executive. If you read the annual reports that the Mexican president presents to congress, you can see that the Mexican government showed, as a success of its political strategy of its policy against organized crime, the killing of leaders of drug organizations.

So, they were showing as a success that they killed “x” person, the head of the Zetas, or they killed the head of the Cartel de Sinaloa, or one of the leaders of the Cartel del Golfo. So, you could see in the public discourse and in the messages from the highest levels of government that they were showing off, that they were being successful in weakening organizations, especially by killing their leaders and not by detaining them and subjecting them to criminal investigations and prosecutions.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Now, the government has said that Mexico was under siege, that drug cartels have grown to enormous heights in this country, have achieved enormous power, are brutal in their methods, that the cartels in various parts of the country are responsible for much of the kidnapping and the torture and the killing that is taking place, and the government could not just sit back there; it has a responsibility to protect its citizens—it had to act. Did it not?

JOSE ANTONIO GUEVARA:

Well, we don’t dispute the legal and moral obligation of the Mexican authorities to combat crime. It is part of their duties. Our objection is in the methods in which they are confronting organized crime organizations.

We understand that they might be very violent organizations, but that doesn’t give the right to authorities to detain them, torture them, disappear them, or execute them when they are not using weapons. And when they are neutralized, and they are no are not posing a threat to the authorities, we see that the position of the victims is that they were executed without having been able to defend themselves. They were neutralized, they were with their hands tied in some occasions—

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

So, those are kind of summary executions, as it were, right? And as I understand it, in a number of those cases, the army will have killed people but then will report later that they were killed in a crossfire. But in fact, that didn’t occur. Is that correct?

JOSE ANTONIO GUEVARA:

Well, as you can see in the report, you will have very sound cases of this fabrication, of falsos positivos, in which, for example, in Nuevo Leon, in the northern state of Mexico, there were some students making sports outside of the university early in the morning. And the army decided that they were members of organized crime, and they killed them. And when they showed to the media, they presented these young students as members of organized crime, and they were killed in a shooting with the army in a—

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

In a confrontation of some kind.

JOSE ANTONIO GUEVARA:

In a confrontation with the army. After the investigation, the National Human Rights Commission realized that these boys were students. They were not armed, they were just making exercise outside of the university.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

So, you used the term, falsos positivos, “false positives,” meaning someone who is alleged by the army or the federal forces to have been a member of a drug gang, but in fact, it’s false. It turns out to be just an innocent person. Is that right?

JOSE ANTONIO GUEVARA:

It turns to be it was a civilian. And because the army wants to show the success of their strategy against drug organizations, they present them as they were killed in a confrontation with the army.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

So, it’s an extraordinary portrait you paint, of the violence that’s taken over the country. What do you see as the future? I mean, so much violence, so little accountability. But Mexico is not a country, like some others who are suffering these kinds of phenomena, which has just been through a war and its judicial system has collapsed. It is a wealthy country by many standards, it’s got a very educated population, Mexico City is one of the most advanced modern capitals in the world, many institutions in the country work well. So, what’s the future?

JOSE ANTONIO GUEVARA:

Well, indeed Mexico is a very wealthy country. We have a large amount institutions that have everything in place. We have very good legislation that could enable these institutions to investigate and prosecute and judge those responsible for these crimes.

Nevertheless, as you know because it’s in the report, the Mexican political system has not taken the correct decisions to provide with autonomy and independence to these institutions. So, they have been administrating the judicial system. So, they have decided that these cases of abuses from the army—the abuses that they committed during the dirty war in the ‘70s or ‘80s—that they were not going to investigate.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Who decided that?

JOSE ANTONIO GUEVARA:

Well, the executive, they decided that the army is an institution that should not be touched by the judicial system. As you can see, we don’t have relevant judgments from the judicial system against army officials for committing torture, disappearance, and executions. And we have hundreds of cases.

So, it’s a political decision that those public servants will not be judged. What we think is that only with the participation of international cooperation, we could guarantee the independence and impartiality that is needed in order advance relevant investigations and prosecutions in Mexico.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Our new report argues that Mexico faces an extraordinary crisis, and it calls for an extraordinary response. We urge the government to create an internationalized, independent entity to investigate atrocity crimes and corruption, something that has worked, although in very different circumstances, in neighboring Guatemala.

The government, however, argues that it is making steady progress. In a lengthy statement, it said that the Mexican state had the capacity, the institutions, and the will to address challenges in human rights, and to combat impunity. But many Mexicans disagree. For example, Maria Guadalupe Fernandez Martinez, whose son disappeared in 2009 in Coahuila state while working on the construction of a steel plant.

(FOREIGN LANGUAGE NOT TRANSCRIBED)

TRANSLATOR:

The government has completely failed us. All the machinery for investigations that we have access to to find our family members, either dead or alive, it just hasn’t worked. They passed a new law to support the families of the disappeared in January last year. It came into force in June 2015. Now it’s June 2016, and nothing has happened.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Time will tell whether in the months and years ahead Mexico’s decade long cycle of violence and impunity continues. Experience from other countries suggests that public acknowledgement of responsibility is a critical first step on the path to accountability. But that moment of recognition has yet to come to Mexico. For now, that’s all from Mexico City. I’m Jim Goldston. Please join me soon for another edition of Talking Justice.

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