Surveying the damage: Enrique Peña Nieto

By Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

Today is President Enrique Peña Nieto’s official last day of work, and he leaves one of the worst human rights crises in the entire hemisphere as his legacy. A shared legacy, the result of a series of failures and poor decisions made by his government and the ones that came before.

When Peña Nieto came to power six years ago, Mexico was already embroiled in a serious crisis of violence, with thousands of people caught in the crossfire of a so-called “war against drugs”.

During his election campaign, Peña Nieto promised to tackle the crisis using different strategies; it is clear now that those promises were nothing more than rhetoric. Instead of changing strategies, he increased militarisation, creating a fertile breeding ground for serious human rights violations.

During his election campaign, Peña Nieto promised to tackle the crisis using different strategies; it is clear now that those promises were nothing more than rhetoric. Instead of changing strategies, he increased militarisation, creating a fertile breeding ground for serious human rights violations
Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

In February 2014, hoping to be able to influence a drastic change in strategy to one in which human rights were central to government action, the then Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, and I met with Peña Nieto at his official residence, Los Pinos. As Mexico has always been a priority for Amnesty International, and in recognition of the complex situation faced by the country, we told the president at that meeting that we would be setting up our International Secretariat for the Americas the following year and its headquarters would be in Mexico City. During the meeting, we also provided Peña Nieto and the members of his cabinet with a document outlining specific recommendations and concerns, gathered from our experience on the ground and from the many legitimate voices of victims and national human rights organizations.

President Peña Nieto said that he was deeply concerned about the human rights situation in the country and promised to take concrete measures to move forward with regard to the matters we discussed, giving instructions to each member of his cabinet who had attended the meeting, including the Interior Minister, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and the Federal Attorney General. Despite the circumspection required when working to defend human rights, and our scepticism regarding government promises, we left that meeting feeling cautiously optimistic. We knew that the challenges were enormous, but we hoped that the government would take action and make the necessary changes to turn the situation around.

Six years later, the tally of the damage done by the outgoing government in terms of human rights is deplorable, and many terrible events that were not made public have yet to come to light. The legacy of the outgoing president has been translated into horrifying facts and figures: more than 37,000 disappeared persons, around 60% of whom disappeared in the last six years; multiple instances of extrajudicial executions carried out by security forces; and the widespread practice of torture, including sexual torture, as a standard procedure in the justice system. The last two years have been the most violent in recent history, with an average of more than two thousand murders a month; there is a femicide epidemic across the country; Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders and journalists; and the scourge of discrimination and inequality continues to affect most of the population, where impunity and corruption are the norm.

Six years later, the tally of the damage done by the outgoing government in terms of human rights is deplorable, and many terrible events that were not made public have yet to come to light
Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

In September 2014, the same year that we heard the government make its promises, a horrific event not only marred Peña Nieto’s presidential term but also went down in the country’s history. Students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ training college in Guerrero were attacked by the security forces that were supposed to keep them safe. The result of this attack was one of the greatest tragedies of the human rights crisis and the failure of the system. Six people were killed, dozens were injured and 43 students were subjected to enforced disappearance. Their whereabouts is still unknown.

What followed was a series of incidents and responses from the state that exposed its absolute incompetence, the lack of political will to tackle the crisis, and the indifference with which Peña Nieto’s government treated all instances of serious human rights violations. Despite the efforts of the families of the 43 students and the human rights organizations bravely accompanying them, not to mention the outrage expressed by society and the international community, the government clung to its “historic truth”which had little to do with the truthin order to cover up crimes under international law. Neither the proof submitted by a group of international experts, nor the multiple allegations of irregularities and fabricated evidence, nor condemnation and global campaigns demanding justice, managed to get Peña Nieto and his government to take this case, or the severe crisis into which the country had been plunged, seriously.

The reactions of Peña Nieto’s government in the face of human rights challenges have been characterized by an intolerance to criticism and suggestions from civil society. The numerous frontal attacks, accompanied by espionage and smear campaigns, against human rights organizations and even regional and United Nations mechanisms have been a signature of his administration.

In 2015, I remember attending a presentation in Geneva of a report by the then United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and renowned human rights lawyer Juan Méndez, in which he detailed how torture had become a widespread practice in the country. The government response to Méndez’s conclusions was not only vague, aggressive and inconsistent, it was also a slap in the face for the people of Mexico: because of its contempt, the government missed the opportunity to implement concrete recommendations on how to put an end to a practice that casts one of the darkest shadows over justice and the prospect of access thereto. 

During this presidential term, there have also been cases of extrajudicial executions, including those in Tlatlaya, Apatzingán and Tanhuato, and many reports of serious human rights violations committed by military forces, almost all with total impunity and often demonstrating collusion between authorities and organized crime. Cases such as these highlight the effects of a heavy-handed militarized policy, a policy that the government regularly boasted of having left behind.   

To ensure that this security strategy went out with a bang, Peña Nieto submitted a legislative proposal, the Law on Internal Security, that was approved by Congress last December. Through this law, the government sought to institutionalise its failed militarized strategy and hand over control of public security to the army and the navy, the same military command that had perpetrated so many human rights violations over the course of the presidential term. The law was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Justice, and this ruling opened up the opportunity to adopt a new strategy to address the security crisis faced by the country.  

The absence of justice is yet another of the debts left by this administration. With the departure of Peña Nieto’s government and with no certainty that the new government will fight against impunity, victims of human rights violations continue to have their rights infringed and face a difficult journey on the road to truth, justice and reparation, all of which are necessary to build a future in which such atrocities and suffering can never be repeated.

With the departure of Peña Nieto’s government and with no certainty that the new government will fight against impunity, victims of human rights violations continue to have their rights infringed and face a difficult journey on the road to truth, justice and reparation
Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

Nevertheless, in spite of this dismal outlook, we at Amnesty International have learned, over nearly six decades, that justice does prevail in the end, even if it takes time getting there. And we will be here, standing with the courageous human rights defenders and their organizations, joining the victims in their fight, with the evidence we have gathered over the years.

This article was published in Spanish by Huffington Post

Sergio Ortiz/Amnesty International