Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission Blames Plan Mexico for APPO Arrests

Official human rights ombudsman says the government believed Plan Mexico funds were conditioned on resolving Brad Will case

The Mexican government's human rights watchdog, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH in its Spanish initials) slammed the Federal Attorney General's office (PGR) yesterday over the arrests of Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) supporters in the Brad Will murder case.

The PGR arrested three APPO supporters and has issued warrants for eight more in the Will case. José Luis Soberanes Fernández, the head of the CNDH, said that with the arrests, the PGR made the decision "to ignore the body of evidence that we sent it" regarding the case.

One principal component of the CNDH report that the PGR explicitly rejected was that Will was shot from a distance of 35-55 meters, not the 2 meters that the PGR claims. Despite the fact that a forensic video specialist hired by the Will family has found bullet streaks in the last two frames of Will's video, and that anyone who shot Will at close range would have appeared in his video since he was shot head-on, the PGR maintains that the APPO supporters standing around Will were the ones who murdered him.

The CNDH and the PGR have exchanged harsh criticisms since the APPO arrests. The CNDH accuses the PGR of making arrests "on a whim" and that its behavior "lacks professionalism and responsibility."

The PGR criticized the CNDH after it publicly released its report and recommendations in the Will case, saying that the CNDH had "leaked" information about the case, and threatened legal action as a result.

The CNDH's Soberanes Fernández shot back, saying, "Whatever. There will be more [threats]. They've gotten into that nasty little habit recently. It's all part of the job. It's a very despicable way for the PGR to fight: instead of using reason and arguments, it fights with threats. This dispute will have to go to court."

It's all about the money

Soberanes Fernández believes Plan Mexico is to blame for the recent and sudden arrests in the Will case. He says the government arrested the APPO supporters "because in the United States they are pressuring them," he responded. "It's said that they weren't going to give them the Merida Initiative resources if they didn't resolve this case, and therefore they had to clear it up at any cost, and now we see the results."

While Plan Mexico funds are not legally conditioned on resolving the Will case, an earlier House version of Plan Mexico did call for a "thorough, credible and transparent investigation" of the murder, along with investigations into police behavior in San Salvador Atenco, where 26 women reported physical, verbal, and sexual violence--including gang rape--perpetrated against them by police. This language was removed from the version of the bill that was signed into law, but it remains in an explanation that accompanies the bill.

Mexico and the United States are currently in final negotiations over the release of Plan Mexico funds. The arrests in the Will case came just six days before US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited with her Mexican counterpart to discuss Plan Mexico, and just one day prior to US drug tsar John Walters' visit to Mexico city to discuss the release of funds.

Human rights conditions backfire

Friends of Brad Will, an organization of Will's friends and family who are fighting for justice in the murdered Indymedia journalist's case, have opposed Plan Mexico since it was first proposed in October 2007. They were joined in their opposition by Global Exchange, Witness for Peace, the Center for International Policy's Americas Program, the AFL-CIO, Tikkun, CISPES, Alliance for Democracy, Maryknoll Global Conerns, the Latin American Solidarity Committee, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

According to Robert Jereski from Friends of Brad Will, his organization chose to oppose Plan Mexico outright instead of pushing for human rights conditions because "we saw what happened with Plan Colombia and those human rights conditions. They didn't stop that country from becoming the worst country in the world for rights for labor activists, where hundreds have been assassinated by the government or government-supported paramilitaries. We saw how ineffective the conditions were, that [Plan Colombia] resulted in 4 million displaced people driven off of resource-rich land by the same thugs the US government has been supporting through the Uribe government and military. We had serious doubts about the value of human rights conditions."

The big players in human rights, however, remained silent throughout much of the debate over Plan Mexico. Human Rights Watch did not take a stance on the initiative until after it was passed. Amnesty International only weighed in publicly after the measure had passed both houses of congress. Its Mexico office circulated a letter calling US collaboration with Mexico "appropriate and timely" and simply requested that human rights conditions be included in the final version that would be sent to the president.

Only the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) testified before Congress regarding the initiative. WOLA strongly criticized the bill, saying that it would not lead to an overall reduction in drug trafficking and noting that US training has often backfired in Mexico, as in the case of Los Zetas, an elite special forces team that defected from the Mexican military to become the armed wing of the Gulf drug cartel. WOLA did not, however, oppose the bill; it merely offered suggestions for how to improve the military and law enforcement strategy of combatting drug cartels, such as "be careful who you train."

When Plan Mexico passed, Amnesty International praised the human rights conditions and failed to take a strong stance on further US support for corrupt and brutal Mexican military and police forces and the continuance of the failed policy of using the military to combat cartels. Amnesty International's post-passage press release stated, "the final bill is an important first step to prevent military and police abuses, including torture."

Tamara Taraciuk from Human Rights Watch revealed her organization's position on the Initiative on Al-Jazeera English's Riz Khan show: "The question from our point of view...has not been whether or not to pass Merida...the question has been whether the package will include some sort of human rights requirements.... The debate has been how to ensure that this money that is given to Mexican security forces, both the military and the police, which have very poor human rights records, could be used somehow as leverage to improve their human rights records and accountability."

Those organizations that opposed Plan Mexico from the beginning were horrified--but not at all surprised--that the human rights conditions regarding the Will case backfired. Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy's Americas Program, said, "Of the cases that Congress demanded progress on as a precondition to releasing finds under Plan Mexico, both have resulted in movement by the Mexican government--to scapegoat the protesters. One was Brad Will where pressure by the family and Friends of Brad Will has kept the issue alive and made it impossible for the US government to ignore. The Amendment Three to the House version demanded proof of progress within 45 days of enactment although the final version omitted this particular demand. Now the government has imprisoned not the government-affiliated thugs directly implicated by videos and forensics examinations, but APPO members."

Carlsen noted that Will's case was not the only one that seemed to be affected by Plan Mexico's human rights conditions. Plan Mexico also called for a "thorough, credible and transparent investigation" of police behavior in San Salvador Atenco in May 2006. According to Carlsen, "the response [in this case] was to sentence movement leaders to 69 years while granting impunity to the police and politicians who orchestrated the rape, torture and beatings of protesters in police custody."

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