This week’s meetings between President Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto almost certainly will focus on investment and trade policy as part of a broader, bilateral agenda that Mexican Foreign Secretary Meade Kuribreña outlined recently.
Together our nations share the busiest border in the world, overseeing 350 million legal crossings a year and a flow of commerce that makes Mexico the United States’ third-largest trade partner. This economic discussion is worthwhile and important. However, no amount of economic activity should overshadow the need to discuss the devastating human-rights crisis that continues unabated in Mexico — a crisis for which the United States shares responsibility.
The Calderon administration’s war on drugs has left more 60,000 people dead since 2006. According to Mexico’s attorney general, more than 26,000 people were “disappeared” during the past six years, and reports indicate that a significant number of these disappearances took place at the hands of Mexico’s armed forces. Meanwhile, 95 percent of the drugs consumed in the United States come from Mexico, and up to 90 percent of assault rifles used in violent crimes are purchased in the southwestern United States.
The United States’ response to southbound gun-trafficking and money-laundering has been virtual silence.
Our two nations also share responsibility for the archaic American immigration regime that leaves a population of 11 million people living and working in the United States without a reasonable avenue to become U.S. citizens. Their combined lack of legal status and exclusion from basic labor protections has resulted in widespread wage-theft, discrimination and physical violence; for women and girls working in factories or agricultural fields, this translates into an epidemic of rape, stalking and harassment. The U.S. government has indicted more than half a dozen growers or representatives on charges of modern-day slavery, taking place in the United States.
Of course, migration is a regional phenomenon and not exclusively a challenge in the United States. The Central America-United States corridor is the largest in the world, with almost 500,000 people moving across Mexico a year. Crossing Mexico without legal status makes them easy prey for abuse by criminal groups and authorities. Reports indicate widespread cases of abductions, sexual exploitation, trafficking in persons and murder; abductions are rampant, averaging almost 2,000 in one month’s time in 2010; rape of women and girls crossing Mexico is pervasive. The discoveries of two mass graves in San Fernando, Tamaulipas — one with 145 victims and another with 72 victims — demonstrate the gravity of the situation. In Mexico, too, legal recognition for migrants is necessary to provide appropriate protections to the millions of people who risk their lives every year to come to the United States.
With an impunity rate at nearly 99 percent, human-rights violations in Mexico must remain a priority in the bilateral agenda. It is widely accepted and documented that the police and military have been involved in enforced disappearances, the widespread use of torture, extrajudicial executions and rape and other forms of sexual violence against women. The lack of civilian investigations and prosecutions most of these cases speaks to an erosion of a civilian government’s capacity to control its own security forces. The rate of impunity for these violations is almost guaranteed by a military justice code that allows the military to investigate and police itself. Yet President Peña Nieto has been slow to put his administration’s weight behind strict civilian control of the military forces, a reform that can immediately limit the human-rights violations by military officers.
In the past decade, Mexico has taken significant steps to advance a legal framework that recognizes international standards for human rights, including unprecedented constitutional reform and a series of groundbreaking Supreme Court rulings to solidify the application of human-rights standards. Nevertheless, the implementation of this framework by Mexico’s current executive would have a profound impact on people’s lives and go a long way toward ending the human-rights crisis that grips that country.
The U.S.-Mexico bilateral agenda will invariably address the myriad of economic concerns that will touch peoples’ lives in both countries. Yet, Mexico must also address an ongoing human-rights crisis that is neither resolved nor diminishing — and the United States must address its own role in that crisis.
Kerry Kennedy is president of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights. Santiago A. Canton is director of RFK Partners of Human Rights.