In Mexico, the law is an empty promise

Protestors in Mexico City demand answers from the government in the case of 43 missing students believed taken by security forces.
Protestors in Mexico City demand answers from the government in the case of 43 missing students believed taken by security forces.

A few weeks ago, the front page of Mexico’s pro-government tabloid La Razon carried a picture of President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife watching school children play with Lego, on the last day of their state visit to Denmark. Smaller headlines pointed inside to another big story: a new video showing two Mexican soldiers and a federal police officer torturing a young woman suspect by suffocating her with a plastic bag, pulling her hair, and placing a gun to her head.

Such is the contradiction of Mexico today.

The president has been a prophet of the positive. Mexico is economically advancing, open to foreign investors, and playing a constructive role on the international stage.

But then there is the Mexico of the plastic bag. The electric shock. The gun. A country where government forces, as well as the drug cartels, have committed atrocities that, according to an extensive legal analysis by my colleagues at the Open Society Justice Initiative, may amount to crimes against humanity.

In this Mexico, the law is an empty promise.

The two soldiers in the video, for instance, should be tried for torture. But only six people have been convicted of torture by federal courts in Mexico since 2006, though it is widely used.

Consider the killings at a place called Tlatlaya in June 2014. Mexico’s human rights commission concluded that the army executed at least 12 persons in cold blood, then altered the scene to suggest they had died in an exchange of fire. Charges initially brought against seven soldiers have since been dropped.

But no case has transfixed Mexico more than the September 2014 abduction by police of 43 students attending a college in Ayotzinapa, a small town in the poor, rural state of Guerrero. The victims have not been seen again. The case captured public attention precisely because it was symptomatic of the widespread brutality and impunity that have poisoned Mexican criminal justice since the onset of a militarized war on drugs a decade ago.

Thousands have disappeared, many, like the students from Ayotzinapa, last seen in the custody of government agents, others kidnapped by drug gangs. There have been many complaints of military involvement in enforced disappearances, yet it took until August 2015 for a single soldier to be convicted of the crime.

The authorities have pursued a legitimate goal: subduing organized crime. But they have done so by allowing the use of indiscriminate force against civilians assumed to be associated with criminal cartels, with almost no accountability.

Given the scale of crimes, the International Criminal Court, which Mexico has joined, could intervene. But it would be better for Mexican authorities to act. Mexico has the resources it needs to investigate and prosecute those who pulled the triggers and those who gave the orders. What has been lacking is political will.

The popular anger still provoked by the Ayotzinapa case offers an opportunity to undertake genuine reform.

Together with five Mexican rights groups, we are calling for the creation of an investigative body, based inside Mexico with both Mexican and international staff, with the power to independently investigate atrocity crimes and introduce cases in Mexican courts.

For a country rightly proud of its national heritage, this would be a hard pill to swallow — although the idea is now being discussed by liberal commentators. Others, including close neighbors in Central America, have begun to see the benefits of this kind of international assistance.

The government could take other steps, such as setting up an independent national forensic institute and an autonomous witness protection center — essential in any struggle against organized crime. It could withdraw the military from public security operations.

Back in January of 2015, as the fate of the 43 students sparked a national crisis, President Peña Nieto declared, “In this sorrowful, tragic and painful moment in the history of Mexico . . . [t]here has to be justice. There has to be punishment for those who were responsible for these regrettable acts.”

It is time to make good on that pledge, not just for the victims of Ayotzinapa and other atrocities, but for the future of Mexico.

James A. Goldston is executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative.