What to do about a country that has experienced 200,000 murders and 32,000 disappearances over the last 10 years? The situation in Mexico has left no family unscathed. According to a new report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), together with several Mexican human rights organisations, murders and disappearances within the northern state of Coahuila de Zaragoza are not “solely attributable to drug cartels”. Rather state authorities have “committed crimes against humanity in undeniable collusion with the Zetas cartel”. And, later, the NGOs say, “state authorities responsible for law enforcement directly committed crimes against humanity through their Special Forces”.
Presenting the report in The Hague, FIDH – with signatures from about 100 Mexican NGOs, urged the prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch a preliminary examination.
Jimena Reyes, the organisation’s Americas director sat down for an interview with Justice Hub. Reyes explained why she thinks the ICC needs to act in Mexico “to keep its legitimacy” and shared elements of the FIDH report that illustrate the desperate human rights situation in Mexico.
Justice Hub: Why are you here in The Hague?
I am here with other human rights NGOs from Mexico because we want to present a communication to the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) on crimes against humanity committed in Coahuila [de Zaragoza] Mexico.
Justice Hub: This isn’t the first time that you have presented this kind of investigation. What makes you think that this time will be different?
Well, no it’s not the first time. I’ve been working on human rights in Latin America for 15 years on subjects that affect access to justice for victims and human rights. I have worked together with colleagues on more than 15 communications to the Office of the Prosecutor, mostly in Colombia and Honduras and now 3 on Mexico.
There is an issue at the ICC with Latin America. I think it is partly a cultural issue. I think the Office of the Prosecutor has not yet completely understood that Latin America despite being largely a democracy, is in countries like Honduras, Colombia and Mexico completely schizophrenic. Internationally they show a smiley face, contribute to resolutions and speak positively about human rights. Internally, the authorities themselves contribute to the perpetration of crimes. In Colombia and Mexico, crimes against humanity have clearly been committed yet those countries are part of the Rome Statute.
To go back to your question, this is how it’s going to be different: first, the Office of the Prosecutor has opened a preliminary examination on Colombia and I think we contributed to that. We organised a seminar which was the first trip of the ICC to Colombia in 2004. We have worked extensively on issues in Colombia. I think we, together with other NGOs, have contributed to the preventative effect the ICC has had even if I completely disagree with some of their decisions especially the failure to open an investigation on Colombia in 2008.
Secondly, for us FIDH, Mexico is the worst human rights situation of the whole continent. Thirdly, it’s not only Coahuila. Mexico is that kind of country where you start speaking to victims and then soon enough you have four mothers in your hotel saying, “I want to speak about my case too.” The scale of what is going on in Mexico makes it inevitable that if the ICC wants to keep its legitimacy, it has to at least open a preliminary examination.
Fourth, in 2008 Moreno Ocampo was the prosecutor which I think made the difference. Finally, I also think it’s different this time because the OTP has to look into other continents.
Justice Hub: Is there a particular story out of this report into this particular state that has really shocked you even as a human rights activist?
Many stories. There’s the story of the Allende [Massacre] where you have members of [the Mexican criminal syndicate] Zetas coming into town and just taking dozens of people and then killing them. Months pass and no one does anything or speaks about it. This is serious enough. But then it gets worse.
Once the victims start speaking up and there are stories in the newspaper the authorities panic and organise a whole ceremony where supposedly they are giving the ashes to the victims without telling them that they are not ashes but just dirt!
Probably what infuriates me most is the attitude of the authorities. There’s this one case where an uncle and cousin disappeared on their way from church. Before they were taken into custody they had time to call so the family knew it is the police that had detained them. Their family members later went to the police and said: “it has been one day and they are not back.” The family members decide to sleep at the police station. Then one of the officers came to the family and said: “okay, stop bothering us and we will give them back to you.” The family decided to stay but they never saw their missing relatives again.
Justice Hub: The justice system appears to have broken down in Mexico so what would justice mean to you?
I think it’s all a question of willingness. For example, if you analyse the situation in Mexico, part of the difficulty is that even though you have a very well-formed civil service, money and structures, the country is broken in the sense that there is no willingness, there is corruption and there is fear also to act.
But you can reverse that. For example, in Guatemala with the creation of the CICIG (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala or the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala) which is this mixed entity where you have an international prosecutor working hand-in-hand with a national prosecutor. You have had very important cases that have been investigated. People have been tried and convicted even though you have very high levels of impunity in Guatemala. So things can be done.
The human rights NGOs from Mexico have made some very clear recommendations. For example, taking a cue from Guatemala, they would like to have a mixed entity created. Also, the High Office of the Human Rights Commissioner in its recommendation has recommended that a group of experts start working on concrete recommendations on how to improve the judiciary. Obviously, all this won’t work if there’s no willingness from the authorities.
Justice Hub: So justice for you would be a show of willingness to act on the situation from the authorities?
Yes, justice for us would be the authorities actually showing a real willingness to address this situation and the those that bear the highest responsibility actually being detained and convicted for their crimes.
Photo: Janet Anderson/Justice Hub