(The author dedicates this article to the memory of Simón Pedro Pérez López.)
Serious policy thinking and media analysis on Mexico has too often been drowned out by the tropes that position the country as a landscape of the so-called “drug war,” or various economic or trade crises, or as a source for waves of unwanted mass migration. These intertwined, prevailing narratives often marginalize and render invisible deeper, persistent structural injustices reflected in what has now become a rapidly intensifying human rights crisis. The general deterioration in rights protections is accompanied by a recent spate of killings of human rights defenders and mounting paramilitary violence.
The crisis includes more than 300,000 civilian deaths since 2006, exceeding the combined number of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period. Additionally, the more than 61,000 people estimated to have been forcibly disappeared would exceed the historical numbers in cases such as Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Successive Mexican governments have long downplayed and manipulated these tallies.
This kind of erasure is especially notable when the victims are of indigenous origin, migrants, or women, who are among the populations most impacted by continuing failures on the part of both the Mexican and U.S. governments to take human rights issues seriously, within Mexico and beyond. This crisis is a crucial test for both the Biden administration and that of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known widely by his initials as AMLO). Thus far, both are falling woefully short. Both the United Nations and the Organization for American States human rights systems have extensively documented the harrowing dimensions of this challenge.
Four well-known human rights defenders of indigenous origin have been slain in Mexico within the last month. Two (Tomás Rojo and Luis Urbano Domínguez Mendoza) were from Yaqui indigenous communities in the northern region of Sonora, one was from the Pacific central coast region of Nayarit (David Díaz Valdez), and another (Simón Pedro Pérez López) was from the Highland Maya communities of Chiapas near Mexico’s southern border. Rojo and Urbano, both killed in June, were leaders of Yaqui struggles in defense of water resources; Díaz, too, was an environmentalist active in resistance to contamination produced by a local thermo-electric power plant.
These killings are representative of the systematic, generalized dangers human rights defenders face in Mexico, threats that have been exacerbated by AMLO’s intensified militarization of the country coupled with his administration’s failures to comply with the country’s most basic obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill internationally recognized human rights standards. At least 19 human rights defenders were killed in Mexico during 2020, with 14 indigenous activists killed thus far in 2021 in addition to the cases highlighted above.
Pérez López, killed on July 5, was a respected colleague. He was former chair of the leadership council of the organization of survivors and families of the 45 victims, including 36 women and children, of the Dec. 22, 1997, Acteal Massacre. AMLO’s government has acknowledged the Mexican state’s responsibility for failing to prevent this attack, which was perpetrated by paramilitary forces trained and financed by military and civilian officials linked to the administration of President Ernesto Zedillo, as part of its repressive, militarized, U.S.-backed response to the 1994 Zapatista uprising. The organization of victims of the Acteal massacre is known as “Las Abejas” or “The Bees” because of their organizing skills and persistence, and its members have been outspoken in opposition to pressures from government officials to reach an “amicable settlement” of the complaint they brought regarding the 1997 massacre.
Consolidation of Paramilitary Forces
AMLO’s administration has meanwhile maintained the military occupation of the Chiapas Highlands, which has continued to facilitate the consolidation of paramilitary forces that regularly target alleged supporters of the Zapatistas and grassroots organizations such as Las Abejas. As of the first week of July, reports indicate that in the region of Pantelhó, where Pérez López was killed, possibly as many as 26 people slain, 40 injured, and more than 2,000 forcibly displaced, all under the noses of the thousands of Mexican military deployed in the area.
Recent visits to Mexico by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, and CIA Director William Burns, and related remarks by the heads of the Pentagon’s Northern and Southern Commands underline the above-mentioned traditional fixations of U.S. policymakers. They also illustrate the U.S. tendency to ignore well-documented and integrally related concerns regarding Mexico’s human rights record that have been articulated by both Mexican and international observers.
The visits by Harris, Mayorkas, and Burns were primarily intended to promote the administration’s initiative to address “root causes” of massive migration from the Meso-American region. They came at the same time that Mexico is confronting one of the gravest human rights crises in its history, at the hands of an increasingly authoritarian president. López Obrador, a supposed reformer, has consistently targeted media and non-governmental watchdog critics as enemies of his régime, and of the country’s sovereignty. That should sound familiar to Americans emerging from the shadows of the Trump administration.
López Obrador is routinely criticized by Mexican and global élites for the usual reasons — as a perceived threat to their entrenched interests. But most tragically, he has been embraced by many observers across the political spectrum as a “leftist” icon, at the same time as he has pursued a series of top-down “mega” development projects that are being courageously resisted by Mexico’s leading indigenous and environmentalist movements and their allies. López Obrador also has failed to comply with Mexico’s duty of transitional justice to fully address the legacies and implications of massive human rights crimes inherited from previous administrations (such as the Acteal Massacre and the still unresolved case of the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s school), plus recurrent patterns of sexual and gender violence. Overall AMLO’s human rights record is beginning to emulate the worst of his peers in ruinous contexts such as Colombia.
Instead, the AMLO administration has intensified the militarization of Mexico’s public security and of the country as a whole, including impunity for military commanders linked to longstanding abuses and corruption, and their structural complicity with drug lords. A key instance is his administration’s protection and exoneration of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, who also is linked to major human rights crimes. Such patterns exemplify AMLO’s dependence on the military for his power and legitimacy.
All of this reflects AMLO’s political origins in the most repressive and corrupt period of rule by Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), between 1970 and 1982. He joined the party and became one of its most notable young leaders at the same time as the party’s unquestioned chiefs were Presidents Luis Echeverría Alvárez (1970-76) and his hand-picked successor, José López Portillo (1976-82). Together, they perfected the art of combining ostensibly radical “Third Worldist” rhetoric with severe, military-backed, U.S-supported repression of those identified as internal political enemies, especially on the left, resulting in hundreds of political prisoners and forced disappearances.
AMLO is being openly encouraged by the United States to do the “dirty work” of deterring migration flows that are inconvenient for the Biden administration’s image. This was Mexico’s primary role during the Trump administration, as it acquiesced in denying the right to seek asylum for thousands of migrants stranded on Mexican territory, pursuant to the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols. At the same time, these migrants also were repeatedly denied urgently needed humanitarian aid by both governments, as well as by their countries of origin, in improvised, unsafe settings such as the Matamoros migrant camp.
U.S.-Mexico complicity in this context also includes the expulsion by the United States to Mexico of more than 600,000 migrants without due process, pursuant to Title 42 of the U.S health code, with the pandemic as a pretext, since March of 2020. This has been combined with active efforts by Mexican security forces to deter increasing numbers of Mexican citizens who have sought to flee the wreckage of a country devastated by U.S. policies related to the drug war and free trade, plus AMLO’s Trumpian mishandling of the COVID pandemic. According to a recent University of Washington study, his mismanagement may have resulted in more than 600,000 deaths and one of the highest fatality rates in the world, coupled with an economic collapse that has intensified already high levels of poverty and inequality.
The joint U.S.-Mexico campaign to contain and repress migrant flows has produced the greatest remilitarization of the isthmus since the devastating U.S.-backed regional wars of the 1980’s, together with the unjust detention of thousands of migrant children in squalid conditions at improvised sites on the U.S. side of the border like Fort Bliss in El Paso. To the south, more than 15,000 Mexican troops and security forces have been deployed at the country’s northern and southern borders. In a recent incident, Mexican soldiers killed a Guatemalan migrant at a Mexican border checkpoint in Chiapas.
Thousands of Guatemalan and Honduran forces have been positioned along their own borders as well. In Guatemala’s case, this is the same military that waged a genocidal war against the country’s indigenous peoples in the 1980’s, with the Reagan administration’s enthusiastic support. Meanwhile in Honduras, the same armed forces relied upon to deter and repress migrants are those that helped oust and exile an elected president in 2009 who had earned the enmity of the Obama administration for his reformist zeal.
U.S. reliance on regional militarization as a supposed solution for recurrent flows of forced migration helped lay the basis for the massacre on Jan. 22 this year of 19 migrants at the hands of a dozen Mexican state police from a US.-trained unit in Camargo, Tamaulipas, minutes from the U.S. border. This was the fifth migrant massacre on Mexican territory since the San Fernando massacre and mass graves in 2010 and 2011. Sixteen of the victims were from Guatemala’s poorest indigenous Maya Mam communities, who were among the most recurrent victims of the genocide of the 1980’s. Many migrant children held unjustly and indefinitely in settings such as Fort Bliss and convention centers are also of Guatemalan indigenous origin.
Current binational cooperation focuses on the containment and repression of “irregular” migration flows. In practice, that ends up in abuses such as the beating and gassing by Guatemalan security forces, on the eve of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, of thousands who joined the latest migrant caravan, including many women and children. This was applauded by U.S. Ambassador William Popp at a Guatemala City press conference on Jan. 22, flanked by Guatemala’s Foreign Minister and Mexico’s Ambassador.
No U.S. initiative to address the supposed “root causes” of mass migration will be meaningful unless it focuses on the kinds of human rights violations highlighted above. These abuses amount to a denial of the most basic human rights of all — the right to a dignified life and the right to migrate whenever structural conditions make such a life impossible.