Mexico at a crossroads: More than words needed to avoid lawlessness

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took office two years ago, he knew full well the job was a challenging one.

Back in 2012, Mexico was already immersed in one of the worst security crisis in its history. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children across the country were caught up in a brutal war between powerful drug cartels and corrupt security forces.

Little seems to have changed since then.

The alarming levels of crime in many parts of the country and the consequences of the militarization of many states as a way of combating organized crime and drug cartels has increased insecurity and generalized violence. Respect for human rights and the rule of law are under great threat.

Every day, new names are tragically added to the list of more than 100,000 people who have been killed in Mexico since the “war on drugs” began in 2006. At least 22,000 are missing. Thousands more have been forced to leave their homes as a consequence of the increasing violence in their towns.

Reports of human rights violations committed by police and security forces including arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearances continue and impunity for all crimes remains the norm. Federal and state institutions are failing to fulfil their human rights obligations, sending the message that these abuses are actually allowed.

Mexico’s human rights and security crisis has gone on for so long, many of the killings hardly make the front pages of national, let alone international, newspapers.

The disappearance of 43 students from a teacher training college in Ayotzinapa, in the southern state of Guerrero, has changed the distorted perception that things were looking up for Mexico. The massive demonstrations that have taken place across the country since then have put Mexico´s reality in the spotlight.

In what looked like an attempt to counteract this, President Peña Nieto announced a re-organization of local police forces, the development of new legislation to tackle it, the creation of a national help line and the deployment of even more armed forces to conflict areas.

The fact that measures are being taken is welcome but we have heard the same commitments many times before, with little results.

Mexico’s police has been re-structured many times, new laws have been put in place, politicians have come and gone but across the country people continue to live as if they were in a war zone.

The problem is not what President Peña Nieto said but what he failed to acknowledge.

He chose not to talk about the need for justice or Mexico’s embarrassing statistics when it comes to the lack of investigations into disappearances or the high levels of torture and ill-treatment by the security forces. He said nothing about the whereabouts of the 43 missing students or the prosecution of those responsible.

The President believes the root cause of the national security crisis lies at the bottom of the police chain. The opposite is true. For many years now, corrupt practices have originated at the highest levels of government and dripped down the chain, rotting the entire system.

By proposing to replace municipal police forces with state ones, and deploying federal agents in “problematic” states, such as Guerrero and Michoacán to combat “organized crime”, the President is singing from the same song sheet as the previous administration. By now, it is crystal clear that strategy catastrophically failed.

These solutions are nothing but cosmetic changes.

Impunity is the main ingredient in the lethal cocktail that is driving Mexico into a state of lawlessness. Uncontrolled violence and entrenched corruption are the others.

Ignoring the need to bring those responsible for abuses to justice and instead creating a hot line is naïve and makes President Peña Nieto look like someone trying to fix a broken leg with a band-aid. And the leg has been broken for a long time.

The only way for Mexico to move away from its dark present is for authorities to put in place structural changes to bring human rights to the centre of the political agenda.If the government is truly committed to changing the prevailing culture of abuses and impunity, it must demonstrate that it is prepared to make this its priority. Above all, President Peña Nieto must publicly acknowledge the scale of the crisis. As his own political ethics are questioned, the fight against impunity must be at the top of his agenda to “modernize and transform” the country.

He must ensure that anyone directly or indirectly implicated in human rights abuses will face justice and that victims will have access to truth and reparations.

Authorities have the power to make these changes but they will need the political will to do it. Grand speeches are not enough.

The question is: How many more lives will be lost before concrete action is taken?

For more information:

Surviving Mexico’s torture epidemic (Feature, 26 November).