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Disappeared: Justice Denied in Mexico’s Guerrero State
Disappeared: Justice Denied in Mexico’s Guerrero State
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Mexico’s New Neutrality in the Venezuela Crisis
Mexico’s New Neutrality in the Venezuela Crisis
March in Mexico City on 26 September 2015, marking the first anniversary of the 43 students’ disappearance. CRISIS GROUP/Martha Lozano
Report 55 / Latin America & Caribbean

Disappeared: Justice Denied in Mexico’s Guerrero State

Violence is up but impunity remains the norm in Guerrero, where the lines between organised crime and legitimate authority are often blurred. President Peña Nieto’s government must turn a new leaf and embrace new investigative bodies and international expertise capable of regaining the trust that Guerrero’s corrupted institutions have lost.

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Executive Summary

Horrific, unpunished human rights violations have blurred the lines between politics, 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 teaching college in September 2014 by police allegedly acting in league with gangsters was no anomaly. To break the cycle of violence, ensure justice for the disappeared and bring rule of law to an impoverished, turbulent region, the federal government must give 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 by 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 disapproves of federal prosecutors’ work. Victims and human rights defenders have demanded a probe into possible obstruction. Distrust of authorities is so profound that these and other investigations into major human rights violations in Guerrero require the credibility conferred by international expertise.

The federal government on 19 October took an important step by agreeing to put a new team of prosecutors in charge of the case that is to work with the IACHR experts to 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 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 authority to open new lines of inquiry.

Secondly, these investigations should be assisted and monitored by an international commission, under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) and/or the UN and composed of experts in criminal law and human rights. This commission should have 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 that 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 security responsibility, 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 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 homicides 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 rising. Despite deployment of more federal police, homicides in the state rose 20 per cent in the first half of 2015. And official statistics may not reflect the true insecurity level in a state where some 94 per cent of all crimes go unreported. Impunity, even for homicide, is the norm. Over a decade, a recent study found, only about 7 per cent of Guerrero homicides have resulted in convictions. Nationally, another report said, about 16 per cent of registered homicides end in convictions.

President Peña Nieto vowed in November 2014 that “after Iguala, Mexico must change”. He can still make good on this, 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 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 U.S. 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 rule of law by demonstrating that neither violent criminals nor corrupt officials will go unpunished.

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gestures during a news conference at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico December 26, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

Mexico’s New Neutrality in the Venezuela Crisis

Bucking the U.S. and several large and influential Latin American states, Mexico has not recognised Juan Guaidó’s claim on Venezuela’s presidency, and has instead argued for negotiations to end the country’s crisis. As Crisis Group’s Senior Mexico Analyst Falko Ernst explains, this position is rooted in a new Mexican foreign policy doctrine.

What is Mexico’s position on the fast-developing events in Venezuela? 

Mexico has declined to recognise Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, and has adopted a neutral position as regards his battle for power with incumbent President Nicolás Maduro. This stance is unique among the major powers in the Americas.

Other regional heavyweights, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada and Colombia, have followed the U.S. lead in accepting Guaidó’s claim to the post on the basis that the sitting president, Maduro, won re-election last year fraudulently. These countries have echoed Guaidó’s demands – and his blunt language – in calling on the “usurper” Maduro to step down in deference to a transitional government led by Guaidó while Venezuela prepares for free and fair elections. By contrast, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who assumed the Mexican presidency on 1 December 2018 following a landslide election victory last July, and his foreign secretary, Marcelo Ebrard, have made clear that they will “not participate in the de-recognition of the government of a nation with which [Mexico] maintains diplomatic relations”. López Obrador and Maduro are acquainted with one another: the Venezuelan was in Mexico City to meet his counterpart on the day of his inauguration.

Regarding how to resolve the Venezuelan crisis, Mexico has staked out a middle ground between the other major American powers’ insistence that Maduro leave and Russia’s and China’s position, backed by Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua, that he should stay. Mexico has also stopped short of the position adopted by several European nations, including France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK, which together issued an ultimatum demanding that Maduro call elections within eight days or else they will recognise Guaidó as interim president. Instead, Mexico has signed a joint statement with Uruguay calling for a negotiated exit from the current standoff so as to avoid “an escalation of violence that could make matters worse”. Both countries have also called for an international conference of countries and multilateral organisations that adopt a neutral position regarding Venezuela, to be held on 7 February in Montevideo. For now it remains uncertain which other countries or UN and international bodies will take part, while the Brazilian foreign minister and many domestic and foreign supporters of Guaidó have already lambasted the initiative. It remains to be seen whether these two countries will get the opportunity to act as mediators in a crisis that has generated stark international divisions and could lead to much greater turmoil in Venezuela, either through messy regime change or through Maduro’s entrenchment in power.

What are the main strands of Mexican public opinion regarding Venezuela? How is public opinion shifting as the crisis unfolds?

Mexican public opinion is fractured roughly in three.

At one end of the ideological spectrum is a camp that regards the Maduro government as a bastion of resistance to undue U.S. interference in Latin America and that sees Mexico’s continued recognition of Maduro as essential to that cause.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a larger camp composed of President López Obrador’s opponents reads Mexico’s posture toward Venezuela as yet another sign of his ideological affinities with Latin America’s authoritarian left. This camp includes critics who tend to portray the president as an irresponsible populist of the same ilk as the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and fear he will speed the country toward economic disaster, while overrunning its institutions with partisan loyalists. These depictions formed the backbone of a political campaign, waged in large part on social media, that sought to stymie López Obrador’s bid for the presidency. A similar effort now aims to discredit him in office. Images, prominent on social media, of long queues at gas stations provoked by panic buying as a result of petrol shortages, which were provoked by the new administration’s crackdown on oil theft, have helped feed the perception of an economy headed in the wrong direction. Attacks of this nature are a common part of efforts to discredit the democratic left across Latin America, and have been deployed in elections in Argentina, Brazil and Colombia among others since 2015.

López Obrador would like to cultivate greater autonomy in domestic and foreign policy vis-à-vis the U.S. while remaining a good neighbour to everyone.

In between the two poles lies a sizeable but less strident third camp, including many leading analysts, which welcomes the López Obrador administration’s cautious response, contrasting it favourably to the previous Mexican government’s vocal opposition to Maduro. This camp is home to those who hope that Mexico might emerge as an advocate for nuanced diplomacy between antagonistic parties in the region, and a counter to forces that threaten to pull the region into conflict.

Two months into López Obrador’s presidency, how is Mexico’s new foreign policy taking shape? What are the main continuities and changes from the past?

Mexico’s response to the Venezuelan crisis is by no means improvised. It is the first real test of a foreign policy credo that Ebrard outlined on 9 January. Based on the Estrada doctrine formulated in 1930 by Mexico’s then foreign minister, this doctrine preaches strict non-intervention in other states’ affairs and respect for sovereignty paired with non-violent conflict resolution. For 70 years this doctrine helped keep Mexico on the sidelines of contentious regional disputes, and thus helped insulate the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party from attracting the attention and meddling of outsiders. Even after 2000, when an opposition party candidate won the presidency for the first time since the party’s rise to power in 1930, the Estrada doctrine was generally preserved for more than a decade – with the notable exception of Mexico’s tougher line on human rights abuses in Cuba – and the country remained largely passive on the international stage. The traditional character of Mexican diplomacy nevertheless changed two years ago under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, when his government joined calls for political change in Venezuela, partly as a result of a perceived need to placate the new Trump administration and soften its hostility to trade with and migration from Mexico. 

Despite steering back toward the Estrada doctrine, López Obrador’s government has given it a tweak by insisting that Mexico’s foreign policy should include a “profound commitment to human rights”. But this addition comes with caveats. The president and his team have indicated they will throw no stones so long as Mexico sits in a glass house: in other words, they will not complain about human rights abuses elsewhere until Mexico’s own human rights record, tarnished by enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions by state forces during the “war on drugs”, improves. How this defence of human rights will be weighed up against non-interventionism remains to be seen in practice. This also means that it is hard to predict how the new administration’s foreign policy will deviate from its predecessors’.

How are U.S.-Mexican relations evolving under López Obrador?

López Obrador would like to cultivate greater autonomy in domestic and foreign policy vis-à-vis the U.S. while remaining a good neighbour to everyone. These twin aims are already somewhat in tension when it comes to the U.S. Ebrard and his team are trying hard to soothe Mexico’s northern neighbour, and have attempted to secure U.S. backing for a laudable economic development initiative that would address some of the root causes behind migration through Mexico and into the U.S. They have also curried favour with Washington by continuing to act as a buffer state, absorbing or deporting Central American refugees and migrants and housing those seeking asylum in the U.S. This risks backlash from the Mexican president’s supporters on the left, although López Obrador has said he wants no “beef” with anyone, including Donald Trump.

But this goal is not perfectly aligned with the objectives of a White House that continues to push Mexico to cooperate on its own terms in curtailing migration from Central America, and shows little of the same interest in tackling the economic causes and insecurity that drive emigration. Moreover, none of López Obrador’s above initiatives will keep the U.S. president from pressing hard on his core campaign promise to “build that wall” in one form or another – a plan that the Mexican president has so far avoided condemning, calling it an “internal matter” for the U.S.  However, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric toward Mexico and the humanitarian needs provoked by U.S. policy on asylum claimants staying south of its border while cases are processed are likely to translate into pressing domestic issues for the Mexican government. With Trump in office, relations will inevitably remain volatile, and frictions over issues closer to home than Venezuela will no doubt pose the starkest tests of the López Obrador administration’s new foreign policy.