Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto will be visiting Canada this week. Uncomfortable, but crucial, human-rights concerns must be at the centre of talks between him and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
These include inconvenient truths such as the following:
“I heard a man scream many times. They kept asking him: ‘Where are the guns, where are the drugs?’ A bit later I heard: ‘Take him away and bring me the next one.’ I heard them open a door. They put a wet cloth over my face. It became difficult to breath. Then I felt a stream of water up my nose. I tried to get up but couldn’t because they held me down.”
This is the nightmare Miriam Isaura López suffered after she was picked up and taken to a military barracks in Tijuana in February, 2011. During interrogation by a civilian prosecutor, members of the army subjected Miriam to near-asphyxiation and sexually assaulted her. The goal? A confession, falsely implicating other detainees in drug-trafficking offences.
After seven months, the prosecutor’s case collapsed and Miriam was ordered released by a federal judge. But the nightmare did not end. Following her courageous decision to file a complaint about her torture, Miriam began to receive death threats. She has yet to hear what, if any, steps have been taken to bring to justice those responsible for her torture.
Miriam’s horrific experience is no isolated case. Reports of torture received by Amnesty International have risen substantially over the past five years, and have come from all 31 of Mexico’s states. Reports of other grave human-rights violations, including arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances and unlawful killings, have also increased sharply.
A chilling example is what happened to Jethro Ramses Sanchez Santana. A student at the time, Jethro and a friend were detained by police in Cuernavaca. They were handed over to federal police, who passed them on in turn to the military. Yet when Jethro’s family tried to find him, the military denied knowledge of his detention. Only after police testified that both men had been passed to military personnel did the military justice system begin an investigation. In the face of clear evidence and determined campaigning by the family, Jethro’s remains were finally located. An autopsy indicated that he had been buried alive.
It is time to recognize the scale of abuse by state agents in Mexico and put in place effective policies and practices to address this reality. Will Mr. Peña Nieto rise to the challenge when he takes office next month?
There is no doubt that Mexico faces an acute public-security crisis. The outgoing government of President Felipe Calderon deployed police and military on an unprecedented scale – more than 50,000 army and navy personnel alone in policing functions – to combat powerful drug cartels and other organized criminal networks. Since then, at least 60,000 people have been killed and more than 160,000 internally displaced, predominantly as a result of violence between cartels but also as a result of operations by security forces. It is in this context that reports of torture and ill-treatment have risen alarmingly.
Mexico’s government has a responsibility to combat organized crime and drug cartels, a difficult and dangerous job. Yet this reality cannot be used as a pretext for illegal action or for turning a blind eye to widespread human-rights abuses.
The Calderon government’s legacy is a cause for concern. It failed to address widespread abuse of detention powers in a context where the vast majority of arrests carried out by the military were without warrants. The Calderon government also failed to put in place measures to investigate torture and ill-treatment. It blocked a new law from entering into force that would have strengthened victims’ recourse to truth, justice and reparations. Instead the military-justice system continues to have jurisdiction over complaints of abuse by the army, denying access to impartial investigations, shielding the guilty and sending a message that torture, sexual assault and killings can continue to be committed with impunity.
Mexico’s new president will be more likely to make real and constructive changes to this shameful history if he hears strong and consistent expressions of concern from the international community, particularly from key trade partners like Canada. His upcoming visit offers a first opportunity. Building on that visit, it is time for Canadian policy-makers to conduct a clear-eyed review of the public security and human-rights crisis in Mexico and options for Canadian foreign policy.
Miriam, Jethro and countless others deserve justice, and the assurance that Canada will press hard for real change in Mexico.
Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.