Improving Human Rights In Mexico

by Amelia Simpson

Nov 30, 2001

Simpson is the author of two books on Latin America and currently writes on Mexico, human rights and military ethics.

Tomorrow, Mexico’s President Vicente Fox Quesada will celebrate one year in office. His election ended 71 years of authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party and was welcomed by many as an opportunity to usher in a new era of respect for human rights.

After one year in office, however, human rights abuses remain routine. Extrajudicial executions, “disappearances,” torture and unjust imprisonment continue to be documented and deplored by organizations such as the Organization of American States’ Inter- American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the Center for Justice and International Law, Amnesty International, PEN International and the Sierra Club.

Among the multitude of cases of abuse, one stands out as unique and central to the prospect of reform. That is the case of Brig. Gen. General Jose Francisco Gallardo Rodriguez, who has been imprisoned since 1993, when he called for the creation of an independent ombudsman to investigate complaints of human rights violations committed by the Mexican military.

Mexico’s armed forces have long been involved in human rights violations. The lives of hundreds of Mexicans have been destroyed or broken by such abuses. So much evidence points to the military in so many cases that the need for an ombudsman is self-evident.

President Fox must stand up to the armed forces and send a strong signal that they will no longer be able to enjoy impunity when it comes to human rights. It is time to shift the weight of the office of the presidency from maintaining the status quo when it comes to human rights and the military, to defending Mexico’s citizens.

I recently spent a week with Gen. Gallardo’s youngest son. While pursuing his father’s release through peaceful and legal means, he has been shot at and narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt. Those responsible have not been brought to justice.

In a recent meeting with relatives of Lt. Miguel Orlando Munoz Guzman, a soldier in the Mexican army who “disappeared” in 1993, I learned that suspicion again falls on the military. His case has been taken up by the IACHR, giving his mother some hope for learning of his fate.

Human rights advocates welcome the Nov. 27 announcement by the Mexican government of its intention to prosecute members of the military responsible for the torture and disappearance of hundreds of citizens during the “dirty war” era of the 1960s through the 1980s. However, as the cases of Gen. Gallardo and Lt. Munoz Guzman demonstrate, the problem is not limited to the “dirty war” period, but rather is ongoing.

One reason why President Fox’s administration has not lived up to promises made in his inaugural speech to address human rights issues vigorously is his appointment for attorney general of a member of the military, Gen. Macedo de la Concha. Besides being generally unresponsive to human rights concerns, as attorney general of military justice, he headed the prosecution of Gallardo.

On Nov. 13, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus heard testimony about Gallardo. Almost 40 members of Congress have written to President Fox on the case. The National Security Council has been briefed on Gallardo more than once, and the Department of State, which receives regular updates, lists him as the only political prisoner in Mexico. Trained at West Point, a decorated officer with a distinguished career including being the youngest brigadier general in Mexico’s recent history, Gallardo is fast becoming Mexico’s national embarrassment.

Why is it so difficult for President Fox to assert his authority over the armed forces? A terrifying example of what happens when the military is challenged is the execution on Oct. 19 of Mexican attorney Digna Ochoa. Many of her clients’ cases involved allegations of violations by the military. She worked tirelessly to defend human rights, despite having been kidnapped, tortured and living for years with death threats. When she was shot to death in her office, a note left beside her body threatened other members of a human rights organization for which she had worked.

Among Ochoa’s clients were two peasant environmentalists, Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, who were detained after peacefully protesting illegal logging in the state of Guerrero. They were sentenced to prison on evidence obtained under torture. Although they were recently released, they have not been cleared of charges, and the soldiers who tortured them have not been brought to justice.

The release of Gallardo and the swift initiation of a program to eliminate corruption and abuse of power in the Mexican armed forces will go a long way toward building a new understanding between the United States and Mexico, in keeping with the cordial relationship between Presidents Fox and Bush of mutual admiration and respect.