For two decades, Mexican presidents have promised authentic, independent mechanisms of transitional justice to address historic mass killings and other human rights violations. The procedures were to be integral to the country’s still incomplete process of democratic reform, amid the lingering effects of 70 years of authoritarian, one-party rule. But as human rights defenders and grassroots social movements in Mexico prepare to observe International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), is actively undermining crucial dimensions of historical accountability.
Meanwhile, the United States, itself complicit in many of these abuses, is intensifying cooperation with AMLO’s regime on multiple fronts. On Dec. 2, for example, the Biden administration announced that, pursuant to a court order, it has decided to reinstate the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy (formally the “Migrant Protection Protocols”, MPP) that require asylum seekers to wait outside the United States while their claims are processed, with the collaboration of Mexican authorities. Although the administration has pledged to continue seeking to end the program, dozens of human rights and humanitarian organizations insist that the reactivation of MPP, in practice, negates the right to seek asylum on both sides of the border.
Latin America has long played a leading role in global transitional justice processes since the mid-1980’s, from Argentina, Chile, and Perú to Central America. A series of landmark cases to prosecute the perpetrators of massive human rights crimes in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights meanwhile have set global precedents. Yet, until recently, Mexico and Colombia were outliers. That began to change with Colombia’s peace agreement in 2016, which incorporated extensive provisions for transitional justice. It seemed that Mexico, too, signaled some promise with the July 2018 election of AMLO, the first president to be elected from the country’s center-left democratic opposition.
An increasing number of human rights prosecutions have taken place across the region, including successful cases brought against former heads of state (Argentina, Perú, Guatemala) and high-level military commanders (Chile, Colombia), as well as the invalidation of amnesties for perpetrators in Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador. As in Mexico, these contexts were shaped by recurrent U.S interventions and complicity with authoritarian régimes, from the Cold War to the current “drug war” and the “war on terrorism,” including billions of dollars in U.S military aid, training, and arms.
Yet in Mexico, AMLO has broken his own pledge to take meaningful steps towards state accountability for rampant historic and current human rights abuses. Human rights conditions in the country continue to deteriorate, and his authoritarian actions to concentrate power are intensifying. This includes the militarization of public security throughout Mexico, measures in the name of “national security” to insulate major mega-development projects from public scrutiny and from resistance by local indigenous communities, and increasingly repressive bilateral containment measures against migrants in complicity with the United States.
Human Rights Marginalized in High-Level US Meetings
But seemingly regardless of the scale and acceleration of abuses, human rights concerns are marginalized or avoided entirely at meetings of high-level U.S and Mexican officials such as those held in Mexico City in October and at the White House in November. Human rights issues that are trumpeted for global consumption through largely rhetorical initiatives, such as U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming Summit for Democracy, are easily crowded out in these meetings by issues of free trade (including regional competition for dominance with China), the drug war, responses to the COVID pandemic, and increasingly, migration and border policy.
But extreme rights violations – and the lack of accountability for them – continue. An unprecedented recent visit to Mexico by the U.N.’s Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) confirmed the persistence under AMLO of “almost total, structural impunity” for more than 95,000 documented cases – the world’s largest current total of forced disappearances – that originated during the country’s “dirty war” against political dissidents between 1965 and 1990. This was the most intense period of state repression under Mexico’s one-party authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) régime. It included the Oct. 2,1968, massacre of hundreds of students in Mexico City and another massacre there of dozens in June 1971, as well as state terror against armed insurgencies in regions such as Guerrero, and targeted disappearances and imprisonment of hundreds of political dissidents.
The PRI dominated the country for more than 70 years between 1929 and 2000, and returned to power with an accompanying intensification of abuses between 2012 and 2018, during the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto. AMLO himself was a loyal member and local leader of the PRI in the mid-1970’s and 80’s, which coincides with some of the most severe periods of repression. AMLO’s ascent to power in 2018 resonated with hopes of transcending this history, as it coincided with observances that year of the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student movement and its bloody repression by the PRI régime.
In October this year, almost three years after he was sworn in, AMLO finally issued a decree establishing a truth commission to investigate state crimes during that period. The repression had been especially intense in regions where counter-insurgency campaigns were unleashed against local insurgents, first in Chihuahua (1965) and then in Guerrero (1974-75 and again since the 1990’s), and eventually in Chiapas (in the late 1960’s, and again since 1994).
But six of the 11 members of the new truth commission are government ministers or other high-level state officials, hopelessly compromising its independence. In addition, the 1990 cutoff date for the period the commission is allowed to examine excludes key massacres in Guerrero, such as Aguas Blancas (1995), and El Charco (1998). It also excludes massacres in Chiapas (Acteal, 1997 and El Bosque, 1998) that arose within the context of the U.S-backed militarization of the region in the wake of the Zapatista uprising in 1994 under Mexican Presidents Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo. AMLO’s administration has further intensified militarization in both Guerrero and Chiapas. In Chiapas, that pattern has included state complicity with paramilitary forces that have targeted local human rights defenders.
The commission’s mandate also excludes mass human rights crimes committed within the context of the U.S-backed drug war, including large-scale massacres in Allende, Coahuila (2011) and those targeting migrants in cases such as San Fernando (2010 and 2011), Cadereyta (2012), and Camargo (2021). The result is to insulate AMLO’s two immediate predecessors, Felipe Calderón and Peña Nieto, from responsibility and to shield U.S authorities from the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations during these periods, from deeper scrutiny. Most of the cases of Mexico’s 95,000 disappeared have accumulated since the overall drug-war militarization that began in 2007.
This tally doesn’t include missing migrants, and many disappearances of both migrants and others have continued since the Biden administration took office and deepened U.S close cooperation – and complicity – with AMLO. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), which is formally independent of the executive branch, recently reported that at least 70,000 migrants have been kidnapped or trafficked since 2007. Many of these mass or individual “kidnappings,” in fact, can be classified as forced disappearances pursuant to Article 2 of the U.N. Convention on Enforced Disappearances, because they have involved complicity or collusion by state officials.
Meanwhile, according to the most recent report from Global Witness, covering 2020, Mexico was second only to Colombia in the number of murders of land and environmental defenders:
“In Mexico, we documented 30 lethal attacks against land and environmental defenders in 2020, a 67% increase from 2019. Logging was linked to almost a third of these attacks, and half of all the attacks in the country were directed against Indigenous communities. Impunity for crimes against defenders remains shockingly high – up to 95% of murders do not result in prosecution.” Women and journalists continue to be especially vulnerable as well, including well-known human rights defenders such as Ana Lorena Delgadillo, Mercedes Doretti, and Marcela Turati, whose vital work continues to be criminalized..
In short, AMLO’s initial promise of a national transitional justice process targeted at state crimes committed prior to his election in 2018 has been replaced by incomplete, exclusionary measures, such as the “dirty war” commission decree and a similar commission on the unresolved September 2014 case of 43 missing students at Ayotzinapa. This commission is also under tight control by the country’s executive branch. There are no indications that a more comprehensive overall truth commission initiative is being contemplated, and certainly nothing comparable to what is underway currently in Colombia, which has had two national truth commissions and dozens of human rights prosecutions, including that of former President Alvaro Uribe.
A U.S court recently highlighted the “symbiotic relationship” between key sectors of the U.S-funded Colombian military and narco-paramilitary forces responsible for mass killings during Uribe’s presidency, in a case brought pursuant to the Torture Victim Protection Act. This is the same kind of “symbiosis” that has characterized the relationship among Mexican authorities, the country’s narco-paramilitary sectors, and U.S authorities participating in the drug war, as human rights crimes have recurred persistently since 2007.
But this is precisely the kind of inquiry that AMLO seems determined to avoid. The Biden administration also is showing no signs that it will act on these issues. This state of affairs seems unlikely to change until both AMLO and Biden are compelled to do so by mobilized public pressure, congressional scrutiny, and court action, whether domestically, regionally, or internationally.