Death is an occupational hazard for human rights defenders and journalists in Mexico, where more than 100 have been killed or disappeared in recent years. Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, met some of their brave colleagues on his recent visit to the country.
Anabel Hernández, an investigative journalist I met this week in Mexico, is nothing if not courageous.
Her job is to document Mexico’s illicit drug trade and the official corruption that allows it to flourish.
Unsurprisingly, she has made few friends among Mexico’s rich and powerful. What is particularly worrying, however, is the extent and regularity with which she is threatened with extreme violence.
She explained to me that she often receives death threats after her exposés are published—last year she found the headless carcasses of four chickens and a baby goat at her front door.
More recently, several heavily armed men broke into her house after overwhelming the security guard posted at her front door. “It wasn’t an ordinary robbery,” she said. “They didn’t take any money. They just went through the boxes of documents in my office. The only thing they took were the tapes from the security cameras inside and outside my house.”
It is not clear who these men were. “They weren’t in uniform, and they weren’t driving official vehicles. They didn’t show badges, but they told my neighbours that they were Federal Police. They said it was a police operation, not a criminal assault,” Anabel recounted.
The intimidation of journalists and human rights defenders is all too common in Mexico. Another shocking story involves Vidulfo Rosales Sierra, a legal worker at the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre in Guerrero, due south of the capital. Vidulfo was sent the following message by someone trying to intimidate him for his work:
“Vidulfo. You little asshole lawyer defender of vandals and guerrillas stop fucking about, shut up or we will send you back home in pieces. We are not playing, stop talking your nonsense or you will die… Yours, The Law”
Vidulfo had every reason to worry. In June of last year, three political activists from the organization Unidad Popular in Guerrero were found dead. They had been abducted after blockading the highway in protest against local government policy. The day before their abduction, members of their organization had filed a formal complaint with authorities, expressing fear that the local mayor and police chief might have them killed.
It is no exaggeration to say that death is an occupational hazard for human rights activists and journalists in Mexico. More than 60 human rights defenders were killed between 2006 and 2011; another four were disappeared and remain unaccounted for. At least 48 journalists were killed and eight more were disappeared.
Mexico has become the country with the most requests from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for “precautionary measures”. These orders compel the state to provide threatened human rights defenders protection, such as secure telephones, alarms, reinforced doors and windows, bodyguards, and safe houses.
Mexico’s government has launched initiatives in recent years to respond to these alarming trends.
For example, in 2006, it created a special prosecutor’s office for Crimes against Freedom of Expression. In 2012, the Federal Protection Mechanism for Journalists and Human Rights Defenders was set up, with the intention of delivering swift and effective responses to threats against these groups.
But none of the initiatives have been effective.
The prosecutor’s office has resulted in just one criminal conviction, out of 378 investigations opened. Many staff positions for the mechanism have still not been filled, creating a backlog of cases, and its allocated budget US$22.7 million remains largely unspent to the detriment of longer-term measures to ensure consistency and follow-up.
The human rights defenders and journalists working in Mexico deserve better.
In spite of living in a persistent climate of intimidation, threats, and attacks they continue their work with determination and courage. They should not have to face these threats alone. The government really must do more to protect them, and stand by them.
First, the protection mechanism must be fully operational, so that it can ensure the safety of human rights defenders and journalists.
Second, all attacks against human rights defenders and journalists must be fully investigated with those responsible brought to justice.
Above all, President Enrique Peña Nieto himself must convey the message that journalists and human rights defenders are legitimate and vital actors in a democratic society. If the President wants to keep democracy alive, he must lead the way.