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US Congressional Human Rights Commission Hears Testimony on Mexico

(2012-05-15) The U.S. Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) was host to a hearing on human rights in Mexico last week. The hearing was the first on Capitol Hill to focus on the human rights situation in Mexico since the rise in violence related to the war between drug cartels over key trafficking routes to the U.S.

Santiago Aguirre from RFK Center partner organization – the Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights of the Montaña (Tlachinollan) – testified at the hearing about key areas of concern for the human rights community in Mexico, including a series of emblematic cases of military and police human rights violations. Especially important to the commitments made under the U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative are the Inter-American Court cases of Inés Fernández Ortega and Valentina Rosendo Cantú, as well as the upcoming Supreme Court case of Bonfilio Rubio Villegas.

Mr. Aguirre began his testimony describing the impact of the “war on drugs” on human rights and security in Mexico:

"None of us could imagine the extent of the human rights impacts that this policy would have: almost six years later, more than 50,000 people have died in killings caused by this so called war; nearly 160,000 people have been displaced from their homes, and not a few of them are looking for asylum here in the U.S."

Also testifying at the hearing were leading experts on Mexico Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State from the Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy and Labor, Kathleen Fitzpatrick.

A key issue in the hearing was whether Mexico has met its commitments under the U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative. Under Merida, 15 percent of select funds are conditioned on Mexico taking steps to ensure civilian investigations and prosecutions for military and police abuses and a prohibition on the use of torture to obtain confessions. The panel of civil society experts was in agreement that Mexico has clearly not met these requirements, as was Commission Co-Chairman, Congressman James McGovern.

"Today the military maintains the privilege of a justice system that guarantees impunity," described Tlachinollan attorney Santiago Aguirre. Deputy Assistant Secretary Fitzpatrick made clear, however, that the official position of the U.S. State Department was that it was still uncertain whether the U.S. would certify that Mexico had met its human rights commitments.

In reference to the U.S. government’s continued certification of Mexico’s compliance despite evidence of the contrary, Human Rights Watch Researcher Nik Steinberg made the point directly, "When we say that Mexico is meeting its requirements when they are clearly not, we are not doing all that we can."

The hearing came at an important time, as Mexico nears its presidential election and the window to secure reforms to the civilian and military justice systems close. Over the past two years, Mexico’s human rights and legal community have made important advances on a case-by-case basis to improve protections for civilians, including the transfer of several emblematic cases of military abuses against civilians out of military jurisdiction. But human rights groups, including the RFK Center, WOLA, and HRW have expressed concern that these advances do not represent a codified reform, and rather highlight the reticence of the military and police to be held accountable despite numerous Inter-American Court sentences, National Commission recommendations, and a Supreme Court decision.

"It is extremely important to push for long-term actions to strengthen Mexico’s civilian institutions and to enforce accountability at all levels," Mr. Aguirre concluded his remarks with a note about U.S. assistance to Mexico. "If not, U.S. funds will be going to non-transparent authorities who routinely violate human rights." The hearing was held one day after the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee approves $280 million USD to sustain Merida programs for Mexico in 2013.

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