RIGHT TO LIFE INTRODUCTION
130. One of the basic problems that IACHR investigated during its in-situ visit to Mexico in July 1996 concerned violations of the right to life. Frequent complaints of such violations alerted the IACHR to the need for appropriate measures to be taken to combat the problem. The situation was found to be particularly acute in some of the southern states of Mexico, notably in Chiapas, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Hidalgo. The right to life is a fundamental requirement for the exercise of all other rights. Because of the importance of this issue and the realities of the situation in Mexico, it is necessary for the IACHR to carry out a special survey of how the right to life is respected in that country.
I. LEGAL FRAMEWORK - RIGHTS
131. In Mexico's legal system, the right to life is protected by the following instruments:
A. International law
132. Article 4 of the American Convention provides that:
Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.(13)
B. National law
133. Article 14 of the Constitution provides that no one may be deprived of his life or liberty or of his property, possessions or rights. Article 22 prohibits the death penalty for political offences and, in other cases, it may be imposed only on persons guilty of treason during war with a foreign country, parricide, aggravated or premeditated homicide, kidnapping, highway robbery, piracy and serious military infractions. Article 22 of the Civil Code of the Federal District provides that natural persons acquire their civil rights at birth and lose them at death, but that from the moment of conception a person enjoys the protection of the law and is deemed to have been born for purposes of the Code.
134. Despite these codified standards, the main violations of the right to life in Mexico occur in cases of extra-judicial executions and forced disappearances.
II. EXTRA-JUDICIAL EXECUTIONS
135. In the past few years, the increasing number of homicides in some parts of the country has made it clear to Government officials and human rights organizations that the problem is a complex one and that steps must be taken to prevent this sort of situation from continuing to occur.
136. A grave example of this was the assassination of Norma Corona Sapien, a human rights defender, whose killing had all the characteristics of an extra-judicial assassination. In the days prior to her death, the teacher Norma Corona had been investigating the torture and assassination by federal judicial police of persons accused of drug trafficking. The discovery of the motive behind these violations would have implicated the senior officials involved in the crimes. This brings into the picture certain suspicions and presumptions as to the causes of her death and the identity of those responsible. Another widely publicized case is that of the Quijano family, alleged victims of the abuse of authority by agents of the federal judicial police, who often act under orders of their hierarchical superiors. Only one member of the Quijano family survived the torture and extra-judicial executions and she wants to put the entire tragedy behind her because of the terrible scars caused by her horrifying experience.
137. Along with these executions, political murders of the worst kind have taken place which still not been solved. Among them are the cases of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas, who was shot to death at the Guadalajara airport, in Jalisco, in May 1993; presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, assassinated in March 1994; and the Secretary General of the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI), Francisco Ruiz Massieu, who was killed in September 1994. These horrific crimes and the indelible impact that they have had on public opinion have further exacerbated the crisis of lack of public confidence in the institutions responsible for the prosecution of crime and the administration of justice.
138. The Commission continues to receive reports from various sources that indicate that the shameful practice of extrajudicial executions, followed by the impunity of the perpetrators, continues in Mexico. In this regard, the December 19, 1997 report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions contains a list of persons who, according to reports received by that international official, had been executed extrajudicially by Mexican police:
Celerino Jimenez Almara, who died on April 24, 1997, shortly after having been detained by investigative police in Oaxaca; Adrian Sebastian Antonio, who died in December 1996 in San Agustin Loxicha; Fernando Gonzalez Perez, Carmen Gonzalez Gomez, Juan N. and Miguel Gomez Hernandez, who died on March 14, 1997 in San Pedro Nixtalucum; Misael Tovar Rodriguez, who died on February 19, 1997 in Conejos, Municipality of Tula de Allende; Erick Cordenas Esqueda, 16 years of age, who died on January 4, 1997 in the cells of the municipal police station in Laredo, Tamaulipas, as a result of abusive treatment; Sixto de la Rosa Martinez, whose body was supposedly found on May 2, 1997 in Calero de Cofrados, shortly after he was arrested by investigative police in the State of Nayarit; Reyes Penagos, who died on December 17, 1995 in Jaltenango, Chiapas; Jose Lopez Reyes and Ricardo Rico Lopez, who died on October 24, 1996 in Cordoba, Veracruz; Antonio Torres Estrada, who died in November 1996 in Leon, Guanajuato, after being beaten; Alejandro Herrera Flores, who died in October 1996 in Morelia, Michoacan, shortly after his arrest; Belisario Villegas Perrelleza, Silvestre Bernal and Jose Mario Payon Beltron, members of the PRD, who died on December 3, 1996 in Leon Fonseca, Municipality of Sinaloa de Leyva.(14)
139. The referenced report of the Special Rapporteur also refers to complaints of extrajudicial executions at the hands of members of the armed forces, and specifically the execution of the following persons: Marcial Oribe Zarco on November 7, 1996 en Agua Fria, by six men wearing uniforms and badges of the Mexican Army and carrying AK-47 firearms; Valentin Carrillo Saldava, on October 12, 1996, in San Juan Nepomuceno; and, Juan Aceves Cruz, in November 1996 in Oaxaca. Mention is also made of other serious complaints, including executions of PRD opposition party politicians, committed by PRI members, or under the orders of local officials belonging to that party. The Rapporteur passed on all of these reports to the Mexican State. After reviewing the State's response, the IACHR observes that the overwhelming majority of these cases were never cleared up, and so the perpetrators continue to go unpunished.
140. The grave situation described by this high international official coincides with data received by the IACHR from Mexican and international non-governmental organizations. For instance, the Mexican Committee for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights has indicated its concern over the increase in extrajudicial executions in recent years, and especially ever since the Zapatista rebellion in January 1994. In 1997 alone, that Committee received 27 reports of extrajudicial executions associated with operations to combat the insurgents and with State security operations.(15)
141. Nevertheless, the Commission saw during its on-site visit to Mexico the great efforts being made by the various State agencies to control the surge of violence in the country. Indeed, the programs created by the National Human Rights Commission and the Public Prosecutor's Office in the Federal District to educate the public and prevent situations of violence are clear examples of this.
142. Likewise, mention should be made of the willingness demonstrated initially by President Zedillo to negotiate a peace accord with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), with a view to seeking a peaceful solution to this internal problem of violence in Mexico. Unfortunately, with the recent dissolution of the National Mediation Committee (CONAI)--followed by the violent incidents which occurred in various parts of Chiapas during June 1998--the outlook for peace is relatively discouraging in the short run. This delicate situation will be examined in greater depth further on in this report.
143. Finally, it is important to refer to the alarming reports formulated with regard to a recent operation by the security forces in the town of El Charco, in Guerrero State. This operation took place on June 7, 1998, when, according to official reports, members of the military and police force were attacked after surrounding a school in which several members of the ERPI (Revolutionary Army of the Insurgents, a splinter group of the EPR) were sleeping. According to preliminary data, the results were eleven dead, five wounded, and 22 arrested. The Commission had access to information from the people based on what was reported by eyewitnesses who were arrested at the site of the attack and later released:
Entrenched inside, with the desks piled up, the ERPI militia fired sporadically at the soldiers. At around 9:00 a.m., they called out that they would surrender. The soldiers entered the room, while civilians were dragged to the military vehicles. A guerrilla was overheard asking for pardon before he was shot several times and killed. A number of the local indigenous people could see how some of the militia were led out of the school unarmed, with their hands over their heads. They were also taken to the field, where the soldiers made them lie face down and shot them. Afterwards, they turned them over and shot them again. According to Martin Macario Salazar, Francisco Cristino Crescencio, and Eugenio Edudosio Trinidad, other members of the militia remained inside, wounded.
The evidence of the Army's attack had vanished scarcely 72 hours afterwards. Sergio Ramos Aguilar, a mason, along with three helpers, replastered the walls of the rooms which were perforated with hundred of shots. They took out the broken windows and replaced them with new ones made of aluminum and steel. And then they used white paint to hide the blood that stained the walls.(16)
144. The Mexican State, speaking through the Assistant Attorney-General, Jose Luis Ramos Rivera, denied the reports. At a press conference, that State official made the following statement: "There was a confrontation during which the Mexican Army was attacked …. it was not a massacre, nor were weapons planted, nor were people detained and tortured so that they would admit to being members of the EPRI." The Human Rights Committee of the Mexican Chamber of Deputies initiated an investigation into the events. Following a visit to the community, the head of that Committee, Benito Miron Lince, made a public statement to the effect that there was evidence that what happened on June 7 was a massacre and not a confrontation. Consequently the federal lawmaker and one other member of that Committee indicated that they would demand an investigation into the crimes committed by the soldiers and punishment of the persons responsible for the operation.(17) The IACHR will follow this investigation as it unfolds, in addition to any efforts made by the Mexican State to obtain a full disclosure of the events that occurred at El Charco.
III. FORCED DISAPPEARANCES
145. The phenomenon of forced disappearances of people began in Mexico in the late 1960s, mostly in the state of Guerrero, where armed dissident movements were strong at the time. These acts were carried out in some cases by private parties tolerated by the State, and in others directly by State agents.
146. In recent years, despite vigorous efforts by the Mexican State to eradicate this kind of activity (including the creation by the National Human Rights Commission of a program for the presumed victims of forced disappearances and various State initiatives to educate and purge the security forces), complaints about forced disappearances continue to be made. Mexican human rights groups and the IACHR have information on forced disappearances which have occurred in conjunction with fighting guerrilla movements or drug trafficking, and even in conjunction with efforts to fight common crime. In 1997, for instance, the Mexican Committee for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights received direct reports of 65 presumed disappearances, which occurred primarily in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and the Federal District. That organization provided the following information:
The authorities cited most frequently as the ones probably responsible are the state public prosecutor offices, members of the Mexican Army, state police agencies, and the Office of the Attorney-General of the Republic.(18)
147. Complaints received by the IACHR indicate that persons suspected of collaborating with the armed dissident groups are reported to be arbitrarily detained by members of the Armed Forces, usually in cooperation with other branches of the security forces, such as the judicial police or agents of the public security services, sometimes with the help of paramilitary groups known as "white guards."
148. The IACHR is aware of the drug-trafficking problem in Mexico and of the stated goals of the State to combat this threat to public safety. The IACHR also understands how complex these police operations are and the need for secrecy in order to achieve their objectives. Nevertheless, it has received complaints linking State agents in charge of these operations with the disappearance of persons. The IACHR states in this connection, without prejudging the truth of the complaints, that any action taken by State institutions to fight drug trafficking must adhere strictly to the norms laid down in domestic law and in international treaties that have been duly ratified by Mexico, including the American Convention.
149. With regard to the fight against common crime, the IACHR also has heard of cases of forced disappearances. It has been alleged in this connection that senior officers of the preventive police have coordinated operations that sometimes result in the unlawful detention of individuals and their subsequent disappearance.(19) In this connection, the IACHR must reiterate its view that, regardless of the gravity of the crime committed by a person, agents of the State must at all times respect that person's human rights, including, in particular, the right to life and to personal freedom.
150. Unfortunately, Mexican legislation does not yet provide for the characterization of any category of crime which includes the forced disappearance of persons. Though the crime of unlawful deprivation of liberty exists, it is not the most appropriate characterization for the prevention and punishment of the practice of forced disappearance. The IACHR has learned of the initiative of the Mexican National Human Rights Commission to submit to the Legislative Chamber a bill to reform the Federal Penal Code by including the crime of forced disappearance. The IACHR places high value on this initiative and hopes it will be well received by Congress. Approval of the bill by the legislature would help to address this problem and combat the impunity enjoyed by the guilty parties.
151. The Commission has received various complaints of violation of individuals' right to life by police agents or members of the Mexican army.(20) In particular, based on the information received and the experience gained by the IACHR during its Mexico visit, it attaches special importance to the problems of violations of the right to life in some parts of southern Mexico, especially in the states of Chiapas, Veracruz, Hidalgo, Guerrero y Oaxaca, and these will now be looked at in greater detail.
A. The State of Chiapas
152. Most of the population of Chiapas lives under extremely backward and impoverished conditions. Of the 111 municipalities that comprise the state, 94 exhibit high levels of exclusion, making the state the poorest in the country.
153. Chiapas is also one of the states with the greatest inequality in land tenure patterns and the greatest fragmentation of property. This largely explains why most conflicts in Chiapas are land-related. The nature of such conflicts varies from one part of the state to another. In municipalities in forested areas, small landowners frequently complain about eviction from their land. Conflicts also arise over property lines and demands for the enforcement of presidential decisions. Evictions are frequent in municipalities in the north of the state. In municipalities along the frontier with Guatemala, most disputes are over boundary lines caused by the overlapping of maps. And, finally, in the Altos de Chiapas region, almost all of the problems have their roots in internal disputes within communities and over public land.
154. The region is rife with social, religious, and cultural contrasts. In Chiapas there are indigenous people and mestizos living side by side, there is the traditional political system and the majority of the inhabitants living in poverty, properties with vast expanses of land bordering barren land with strong population pressures, there are the traditions and modern ways, traditional, indigenous religions existing alongside the Protestant and Catholic churches, traditional indigenous authorities and municipalities, and there are the contending forces of the dominant official party, the PRI, and the opposition PRD. To all of this is added the presence in Chiapas of a dissident armed group, the EZLN, which has been operating there ever since 1994. In the past four years, the Mexican State has allocated a large quantity of resources to Chiapas, so that it now reports that "regions free of conflict have attained standards of living similar to the national average." According to the State, "the refusal on the part of the EZLN and its members to receive government assistance has been the sole reason why no assistance has reached the areas of conflict and why conditions are worsening in those areas."
155. For decades, rural dwellers and indigenous people in many northern municipalities have been engaged in an intense struggle over land with landowners --mostly non indigenous--, "white guards" and members of police organizations. It is against this background that local indigenous groups have repeatedly denounced the existence of paramilitary groups that harass, threaten, assault, and in extreme cases murder those whom they consider to be opposed to them. The same complaints point out that the reaction of authorities to these grave crimes is in many cases an indifferent and tolerant one; and in others, it includes support and even the direct participation of security forces.
156. The IACHR also learned that during the period leading up to the municipal elections in October 1995, the "white guards" became noticeably more active in carrying out acts of aggression, intimidation and even murder against members and supporters of political parties.
157. The delicate and important process of dialogue, which was initiated to negotiate a response to the demands of the indigenous people and local peasants, has encountered numerous obstacles. During 1997, the spiraling violence against members of social organizations continued, including the unfortunate events that occurred towards the end of the year in the town of Acteal, where presumed paramilitary groups executed 45 indigenous people, many of whom were women and children. The National Mediation Commission (CONAI) was dissolved in June 1998, and a few days later an armed conflict broke out in the Chiapas municipality of El Bosque, leaving nine dead and various people wounded in both camps, and leading to the arrest of over 50 indigenous people. Both events will be analyzed in greater detail in this chapter.
a. State security forces
158. Dozens of peasant leaders and activists have been assassinated since 1994. Both the federal and state police have been frequently accused of arbitrary executions. In a specific case, the deaths occurred as a result of excessive force by police during operations to control peasant demonstrations arising from land disputes with local landowners. In January 1995, for example, the NGO coordinating committee reported that seven peasants had been killed in Chicomuselo, Chiapas, during a peasant rally. The coordinating committee reported the incident as follows:
At about 1.00 p.m., in an operation led by the state attorney-general, Jorge Enrique Hernandez Aguilar, a force of municipal, public safety and state judicial officers violently attacked the members of the peasant organization OCEZ-CNPA, of Chicomuselo. The peasants were petitioning the state government to respond to their demands. During the demonstration, the police launched tear gas canisters and fired at the demonstrators and at the public in general. At about 12 noon the presence of armed civilians was reported (persons known as "white guards" who could be identified by the red armbands which they wore and because they worked in coordination with the police). At the same time, two helicopters of the Federal army flew over the area at low altitude, spreading panic among the people. Two truckloads of armed soldiers patrolled the city threatening the civilian population with their weapons. Shooting continued for another fourteen hours. Seven protestors were killed."(21)
159. Again, in November 1996, three peasants were reportedly killed in a police attack on demonstrators in Venustiano Carranza, in the state of Chiapas.
160. Over the last two years, the Mexican army has also been accused of killing unarmed civilians. During the armed uprising in Chiapas, in January 1994, the army was accused of killing 11 civilians who were taken from the hospital in Cosingo and their bodies buried in a garbage dump. The bodies of six other men were allegedly dragged through the main square with their hands tied behind their backs and bullet wounds in the back of their heads. At the same time, three elderly people from the nearby indigenous community of Morelia were arrested and reportedly tortured. They were taken away in a military vehicle with Red Cross markings and their remains were identified months later by forensic experts.(22)
161. Various cases of disappearance have also been reported. On this point, the United Nations Working Group on Forced or Involuntary Disappearances said that in 1995, most of the 21 cases reported related to disappearances in the State of Chiapas and involved indigenous people, peasants and members of political organizations.(23)
162. Numerous cases of forced disappearance have also been reported. The IACHR received information on fourteen indigenous Tzeltales who disappeared after having been kidnapped by members of the army while it was conducting operations in Chiapas in January 1994. According to the report, the list of victims included the following: Juan Mendoza Lorenzo, Eliseo Perez Santis, Leonardo Mandez Sanchez, Vicente Lopez Hernandez, Manuel Sanchez Gonzalez, Enrique Gonzalez Garcia, Marcelo Perez Jimanez, Nicolas Cortoz Hernandez, Alejandro Sanchez Lopez, Doroteo Ruiz Hernandez, Marcos Guzman Perez, Diego Aguilar Hernandez, Fernando Ruiz Guzman, y Antonio Guzman Gonzalez. The report indicates that the Mexican authorities have refused to provide information on the whereabouts of these persons.(24)
b. Death squads and "white guards"
163. A large number of murders have been blamed on unidentified individuals or on the paramilitary groups known as white guards, which are sometimes connected to landowners and local political bosses. According to information received by Commission, 292 activists of the PRD party were killed between July 1988 and January 1995. Amnesty International has stated in that connection that "In January 1994, the National Human Rights Commission officially confirmed the responsibility [of these groups] in 60 of the 140 murders of PRD members reported to the Commission. In most cases, those responsible for the attacks, including the white guards, acted with the approval of the local authorities, and have still not been prosecuted."(25)
12. On this point, in its comments on this report, the government had the following to say:
…as of 1992, the jurisdiction of the federal and local authorities was clearly established, as were the requirements to be met in order to file complaints or objections, and the special cases in which the National Commission may exercise its power of attraction.
13. Mexico issued a statement of interpretation with respect to article 4, paragraph 1, to the effect that the expression "in general", which is used in the above-mentioned paragraph, does not create any obligation to adopt or maintain in force legislation to protect life "from the moment of conception", since this matter is within the exclusive competence of States.
14. United Nations, E/CN.4/1998/68/Add.1, December 19, 1997, par. 262 (unofficial translation)
15. Mexican Committee for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, Los derechos humanos en Mexico, report presented to the IACHR, Document Series No. 10, October 1997, p. 33. Reference should also be made to the following passage from the 1997 report of the nongovernmental organization, Amnesty International:
Various persons, including political party members, were executed extrajudicially by members of the security forces and paramilitary groups. Most of these perpetrators were granted impunity. In January, Gildardo Dorantes Munoz, a member of the OCSS and PRD, was assassinated in Mexcaltepec, Guerrero State, by local agents who had threatened him previously for his political activities, In February, nine peasants in El Para so, Guerrero State, were killed by the state police. They had supposedly discovered evidence of local police involvement in kidnappings. In April, Marcos Olmedo Gutierrez, a CUT party member, was executed extrajudicially by members of the Morelos State police force. He had been wounded and arrested during a peaceful demonstration which was attacked by the police. In September, members of the Alianza San Bartoloma de los Llanos, a paramilitary group with close ties to local government officials, arrested Manuel Martinez de la Torre, a politically active peasant, put a hood over his head, and shot him twice in the head outside his home in Venustiano Carranza, Chiapas State. In November, three peasants who were activists were assassinated in Laja Tendida, State of Chiapas, when state police and soldiers fired on the participants in a peaceful demonstration.
Amnesty International, AI Report 1997: Mexico, AMR41, page 4 (Internet publication, unofficial translation).
16. The weekly "Proceso" No. 1128, Testimony from indigenous people confirm that several members of the militia and two civilians were executed in El Charco, Internet publication dated June 14, 1998, pages 6 and 2, respectively.
17. La Jornada" newspaper, PGR: en El Charco hubo enfrentamiento, no matanza ["Confrontation but No Massacre in El Charco"] Internet publication dated June 19, 1998.
18. Mexican Committee for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, op. cit., p. 19.
20. The Commission does not prejudge in any way the final outcome of these denunciations, which are being investigated.
21. Garrett, Frances. Parliamentary Human Rights Group. Mexico: Human Rights Traded In. January, 1997.
23. Report of the Working Group on Forced or Involuntary Disappearances, E/CN.4/1997/34, December 13, 1996, par. 231-237.
24. MEXICO "Disappearances": a black hole in the protection of human rights" Amnesty International, AMR 41/05/98, May 7, 1998, p. 21.
25. "Human Rights Violations in Mexico: A Challenge for the Nineties", Amnesty International, London, November 1995.