OP-ED: Ottawa must take action on Mexico’s growing human rights crisis

By: Alex Neve Published on Wed Jan 21 2015, originally published in the Toronto Star

There are many reasons to lament Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to cancel next month’s scheduled Three Amigos Summit with U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. At the top of the list is the missed opportunity to push for effective solutions to Mexico’s acute human rights crisis.

Mexico: Raise your voice for 42 missing students


On Sept. 26, 2014, Mexican police and gunmen opened fire on a busload of students from a teacher-training college in the rural community of Ayotzinapa. Six people were killed and dozens of students were taken away. Investigators were slow to react, wasting precious time during which the students might have been rescued. Forty-two students remain “disappeared.” Their families and classmates now fear for their own lives, as they seek the truth about what happened and who took part.
Sadly, this is no isolated case. According to official figures, more than 22,000 people have disappeared or gone missing since December 2006. Almost half of them disappeared between 2012 and 2014, under the current government of President Peña Nieto.

Disappearances are only one indication of Mexico’s grave human rights crisis.

Torture is quite simply out of control. Official sources confirm there have been more than 7,000 reports of torture and ill-treatment by police or members of the armed forces in Mexico in the last four years. A staggering 64 per cent of Mexican citizens are afraid they would be tortured if detained by the authorities, according to a survey commissioned by Amnesty International.

Mexico has legislation that makes torture a crime. Yet the use of torture has increased 600 per cent over the past decade, since the deployment of the army and marines in the so-called war on drugs.

Those responsible for torture and enforced disappearances are rarely brought to justice. Add that to shocking levels of corruption and collusion between authorities and organized crime, and the end result is a state of lawlessness, mounting violence and widespread distrust in public institutions. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children across Mexico are caught up in a brutal war between powerful drug cartels and corrupt security forces; and they have no faith that authorities will protect them.

It is these realities that have driven tens of thousands of Mexican citizens from all walks of life to take part in unprecedented peaceful protests throughout the country in recent months. Human rights organizations have documented disturbing incidents of police brutality against the protestors and the use of trumped up charges to detain them. Human rights defenders, including lawyers representing the families of the disappeared students, have been under surveillance.

“New” measures announced by President Peña Nieto in November only offer more of the same strategies that have already failed catastrophically. They do not address the entrenched failure to bring criminals and human rights violators to justice. That failure is the main ingredient in the lethal cocktail that is driving Mexico into a state of lawlessness; as is uncontrolled violence and entrenched corruption.

The root cause of Mexico’s national security crisis does not lie at the bottom of the police chain. For many years now, corrupt practices have originated at the highest levels of government and dripped down the chain, rotting the entire system.
The only way for Mexico to move away from its dark present is for authorities to put in place structural changes which bring human rights to the centre of the political agenda. Mexican authorities have the power to make these changes but they need the political will to do so.

Pressure from influential partners can help create that will.

Mexico is Canada’s NAFTA partner. We are tied together by trade, investment, security co-operation and the well over one million Canadian tourists who make their way to Mexico each year. For these reasons and others, Mexico is very mindful of what Canada has to say.

February’s Three Amigos Summit would have been a valuable opportunity for Harper to raise these human rights concerns directly and press for solutions. The delay of the summit cannot mean a delay of that urgently needed high-level action. Mexico’s human rights crisis needs and deserves Canada’s attention, and needs it now. That includes, very importantly, from the prime minister.

Alex Neve is Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.