The disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers' College in Guerrero, Mexico, in September 2014, allegedly at the hands of police acting in league with gangsters, was no anomaly. Unpunished human rights violations have blurred the lines between politics, the government and crime in the state. By INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP.
First published by the International Crisis Group.
Horrific, unpunished human rights violations have blurred the lines between politics, the government and crime in Mexico’s south-western Guerrero state. Drug gangs not only control the illegal heroin industry and prey on ordinary citizens through kidnapping and extortion, but have also penetrated, paralysed or intimidated institutions obligated to uphold democracy and rule of law. The disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in September 2014, allegedly at the hands of police acting in league with gangsters, was no anomaly. To break the cycle of violence, ensure justice for the disappeared and bring the rule of law to an impoverished, turbulent region, the federal government must hand over the prosecution of unsolved disappearances and other major human rights violations in Guerrero to an independent special prosecutor backed by an international investigative commission empowered to actively participate in the proceedings.
President Enrique Peña Nieto has recognised that his country faces a crisis of confidence. Despite an extraordinary expenditure of resources and personnel, the investigation into the Ayotzinapa disappearances has been riddled with mistakes and omissions, according to the September 2015 report of experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Nearly two-thirds of the public nationwide does not believe the government’s version, and three-fourths disapprove of federal prosecutors’ work. Victims and human rights defenders have demanded a probe into possible obstruction. Distrust of the authorities is so profound that these and other investigations into major human rights violations in Guerrero require the credibility conferred by international expertise.
On 19 October the federal government took an important step by agreeing to put a new team of prosecutors in charge of the case, to work with the IACHR experts and incorporate their findings and recommendations into the investigation and jointly plan the inquiry going forward. The gravity of violence and corruption in Guerrero, however, calls for further action to assure the public that authorities are ready and willing to investigate and punish criminals who terrorise civilians and any government officials whose acts or omissions help or encourage them.
First, the Ayotzinapa cases should be given to a special prosecutor’s office led by a top attorney from outside the government with experience in human rights litigation. It should also take over inquiries into other enforced disappearances and major human rights violations in Guerrero, with the authority to open new lines of inquiry.
Secondly, these investigations should be assisted and monitored by an international commission, under the auspices of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and/or the United Nations (UN) and composed of experts in criminal law and human rights. This commission should have the authority to participate in criminal proceedings, with full access to evidence and witnesses. It should also work with victims and human rights groups to develop plans to assure accountability for abuses committed during counter-insurgency campaigns in the 1970s and compensation for survivors.
Most crimes still go unreported, and polls show a majority of citizens distrusts both prosecutors and police. By holding inept, complicit or corrupt officials accountable, authorities can start to regain the citizen trust that is essential for effective law enforcement. Additionally, federal and state authorities should make ending impunity for serious human rights violations an integral part of Mexico’s ongoing effort to reform the justice system while purging and professionalising federal, state and local police forces.
The Ayotzinapa tragedy is not an isolated incident. The discovery of mass, unmarked graves in Guerrero, especially around Iguala, where the students disappeared, laid bare a gruesome pattern of more extensive unsolved killings. Nor is the problem limited to Iguala. The May 2015 abduction of more than a dozen people in Chilapa, where state and federal forces had taken responsibility for security, showed that months after the students disappeared authorities remained unwilling or unable to act decisively to prevent and resolve such crimes.
Disappearances cast a long shadow over the justice system, an essential pillar for the rule of law in any stable country. Mexico has more than 26,000 unsolved missing person cases, according to an official registry. The president has proposed a special prosecutor’s office to investigate these cases. This is positive, but unlikely to win public confidence given the magnitude of the issue. Mexico should open a debate about creating a national mechanism for resolving these cases and other major human rights violations, drawing upon the expertise and experience of both Mexican and foreign human rights defenders to uncover the truth, punish the perpetrators and support or compensate relatives of the victims.
Federal officials cite declining homicide rates over three years as an important achievement. But violence remains intense in states such as Guerrero, which in 2014 had the country’s highest homicide rate and where bloodshed is on the rise. Despite the deployment of more federal police, homicides in the state rose 20% in the first half of 2015. And official statistics may not reflect the true insecurity level in a state where some 94% of all crimes go unreported. Impunity, even for homicide, is the norm. Over a decade, a recent study found, only about 7% of Guerrero homicides have resulted in convictions. Nationally, another report said, about 16% of registered homicides end in convictions.
Peña Nieto vowed in November 2014 that “after Iguala, Mexico must change”. He can still make good on this promise, but only with decisive action to restore confidence by investigating and prosecuting emblematic cases, starting in Guerrero and continuing in other vulnerable states. By creating a hybrid investigative entity, the government would not only ensure an impartial inquiry, but also encourage the transfer of skills from foreign specialists to Mexican prosecutors.
Guerrero’s tragedy is more than the failure of Mexican institutions. The criminals who terrorise its citizens derive much of their wealth from producing and transporting illegal drugs across the border. The US has a clear interest in strengthening law enforcement and justice in the state that supplies much of the heroin that fuels its growing epidemic. Supporting strong, independent prosecutors with money and technical aid would bolster the rule of law by demonstrating that neither violent criminals nor corrupt officials will go unpunished.
To combat widespread impunity, especially for human rights violations and official corruption, and restore public confidence in the judicial system
To the federal government of Mexico:
1. Establish a special prosecutor’s office to investigate enforced disappearances and other major human rights violations in Guerrero:
a) the president should name an attorney from outside the government experienced in human rights litigation and give that individual full independence, including to hire staff, in consultation with human rights and victims groups; and
b) the special prosecutor should have full authority to open new lines of inquiry, protect witnesses, conduct searches or monitor communications with appropriate judicial approval and bring charges.
2. Invite an international investigative commission to continue the work of the Interdisciplinary group of independent experts appointed by the IACHR, but with expanded powers and a renewable two-year mandate. This commission should operate under the auspices of the Organisation of American States and/or the UN and in cooperation with victims’ representatives and have the legal authority to:
a) support the special prosecutor, focusing on enforced disappearances and other major human rights violations;
b) participate in criminal proceedings, including by providing evidence to the prosecutor and judges, questioning witnesses and accessing all required material; and
c) work with victims and human rights groups to devise a plan for implementing the recommendations of both the Guerrero State Truth Commission and the federal government’s Special Prosecutor for Social and Political Movements of the Past regarding accountability for abuses committed during the “dirty war”, appropriate compensation for survivors and memorialisation of those who lost their lives.
3. Require authorities at all levels, including members of the military and other security forces, to cooperate fully with the special prosecutor and the commission.
4. Amend legislation on enforced disappearances to:
a) hold officials accountable not just for direct participation in an abduction, but also for authorising, supporting, refusing to acknowledge or concealing such a crime, whether carried out by criminal groups or individuals; and
b) include obligatory search protocols and provisions for victim support and reparations.
5. Draw on the expertise of national and international human rights defenders and experts and promote a national debate over the creation of a credible mechanism to investigate and prosecute disappearances and other serious human rights violations throughout the country. Victims groups should participate in any initiative to assure them that their rights to information and appropriate compensation or support are respected.
To the state government of Guerrero:
6. Implement the recommendations of the 2014 Guerrero Truth Commission to compensate, recognise and memorialise the victims of counter-insurgency campaigns during the 1970s.
7. Ensure that state police and prosecutors investigating disappearances follow established protocols to find the missing and work closely with relatives; and create specialised teams trained to respond immediately to reported kidnappings.
8. Accelerate efforts to register all missing persons in the state, enlisting the support of human rights defenders to encourage relatives to report these cases.
9. Establish strong internal and external control mechanisms to combat corruption within municipal governments and local police.
To the international community, especially the US:
10. Provide funding and technical assistance for the special prosecutor’s office and international investigative commission, incorporating such support into ongoing programmes to strengthen the Mexican justice system and combat drug trafficking. DM
Photo: Thousands of people march asking for justice as they hold banners of 43 missing Mexican students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College during a rally marking one year anniversary since their disappearance, in Guadalajara, Mexico, 26 September 2015. The 43 students of the Ayotzinapa College went missing on 26 September 2014 in Iguala, Guerrero State. EPA/ULISES RUIZ BASURTO.