Luis Arriage Valenzuela, S.J., is the director of Centro de Derechos Humanos Prodh, a Mexican human rights center begun in 1987 as a response to increasingly repressive policies by the Mexican government. Centro Prodh’s goal is to defend, promote and advocate for human rights through legal assistance. I spoke to Fr. Valenzulea about the current situation of human rights in Mexico earlier this month.
What are you seeing on the ground in Mexico today?
The current political climate is characterized by violent government response to political and social unrest by the Mexican state through massive police and military operations, combined with a flagrant disregard for civilians’ human rights in the context of the war on drugs.
When [Mexico’s President] Felipe Calderón Hinojosa started his administration in Dec 2006 he said his priority would be to combat drug dealers. And in that context, today the military goes out into the streets to fight. The problem is, they’re not trained for civil encounters. Their mentality is war, to combat an enemy; they can’t differentiate between interactions with civilians and military encounters. As a result, ordinary civilians are having their human rights violated.
Under Calderón we’re also seeing speaking out generating attacks. We say he has a mano dura--a hard hand. We have documented cases in the last four years of systematic violence using military and the justice system against labor leaders, activists and people that oppose the Mexican government.
There’s a growing concern about the increasingly prominent and central role of the military in national affairs, and a lot of human rights violations.
What sorts of cases are you seeing?
A few years ago the Mexican government proposed a project to build an airport which meant taking away land from peasants. During a protest in May, 2006, police officers indiscriminately assaulted and detained people. Forty-seven women detained reported sexual aggressions from police officers, including police pinching and biting their breasts, groping their private parts, and committing anal, vaginal and oral rape. A lot of these women weren’t even involved in the conflict--they were just passing through.
The government attorney in charge of this case hasn’t gotten results, so now we are demanding them--reparation, responsibility and access to justice for those women. We have the case before the American Commission on Human Rights, part of OAA. Ninety-six members of the U.S. Congress have signed a letter to Calderón calling for justice for these women.
Another case: In the Santiago de los Caballeros community, on March 26, 2008, soldiers opened fire on a passing vehicle, killing four people and wounding two others, without any justification. There is no evidence that any of the victims were armed or participating in any illegal activity.
I submitted a brief last week detailing 120 recent cases of human rights violations perpetrated by military forces, including searching a house without a warrant, physical violence, torture, arbitrary detention, attacks with weapons, threats, stealing and sexual abuse. The people victimized are young people, women, indigenous people, migrants and journalists.
What would you say to the U.S. government about the situation in Mexico?
Mexico has a lot of positive press about human rights around the world, in Geneva, the U.S., etc., but in the concrete situation the government does not accomplish these standards. U.S. attention to Mexico must extend beyond the economic situation to the issue of human rights. Military abuses, torture and police abuses must not be allowed, and civilians attacked by the military must be given access to civil courts. Today, when the military attacks a civilian, the claim goes only to a military court.
The U.S. should also be emphatic about the situation of immigrants and should call for the regularization of migratory actions in terms of human rights. This is not just about Mexicans who come to t he borders of US, but Central Americans who cross into Mexico to get to US. We have detention centers here, too, estaciones migrantes, and there are a lot of human rights violations perpetrated upon Central Americans by Mexican police and military officers.