Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Military Justice and Impunity in Mexico's Drug War

by Kristin Bricker, Security Sector Reform Resource Center
SSR Issue Paper No. 3
Monday, September 26, 2011

During Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s administration, over 5,000 human rights complaints have been filed against the military, but only one soldier has been punished by the military justice system. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) has issued several rulings ordering Mexico to reform military jurisdiction so all crimes against civilians are handled by the civilian court system. Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled on July 12, 2011 that the military should not have jurisdiction over cases of human rights abuse by soldiers. This issue paper argues that the Arce Initiative, put forward by Senator René Arce from Mexico’s opposition party, is the only proposed reform to military jurisdiction that complies with both the IACtHR rulings and international human rights law, unlike the proposal put forth by President Calderón. The paper concludes that the UN and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights should maintain their pressure on the Mexican government to reform the Code of Military Justice to ensure all human rights violations are tried in civilian courts.

Download the full report here (2.4 MB PDF file)

Mexico’s human rights violence on the rise, as neither military nor justice system provide security


WATERLOO, CANADA — September 27 — Foreign governments supporting Mexico’s war on drugs should focus on strengthening civilian rule of law and encourage judicial reform to ensure that military personnel accused of human rights abuse are held accountable, according to a new report from The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

Military Justice and Impunity in Mexico’s Drug War, released under CIGI’s Security Sector Reform Issue Papers series, comes at an important time as last week saw the deadliest attacks in Mexico’s drug war when 35 dead bodies were found in Veracruz and earlier this year the Global Commission on Drug Policy published a report stating that the “global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world.”

In the report, it is argued that the military, despite the Mexican government’s obligation to reform the country’s judicial system as per recent rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and obligations set out by the American Convention, has been overstepping constitutional duties as per Article 129, and has been acting with relative impunity. “[During] Calderón’s administration, over 47,337 people – the overwhelming majority of them civilians – have been killed in the war on drugs,” says Kristen Bricker, a Mexico-based freelance journalist who authored the report. “The Mexican military’s jurisdiction over crimes committed by soldiers against civilians is completely out of line with international standards.”

While President Felipe Calderón has proposed reforms to the Code of Military Justice, monthly averages of 48,750 soldiers continue to fight the war on drugs with support from the US’s Medina Initiative. Particularly concerning is that Calderón’s proposal, which has since been annulled by a Supreme Court decision, would only prosecute three human rights crimes – torture, forced disappearance and rape committed by soldiers against civilians – in federal court. And as per Article 57.11 of the Code, the military would continue to assume jurisdiction over all other crimes committed by active-duty soldiers. The Arce Initiative, put forward by Senator René Arce from Mexico’s opposition party, is the only proposed reform to military jurisdiction that complies with both the Inter-American Court of Human Rights rulings and international human rights law.

Mexico, finding itself forced to reform an unbalanced judicial system, is in need of civilian rule of law in order to address human rights violations, according to the report. This is a priority that can be promoted by donor governments who are committed to increasing transparency, combating corruption and halting rampant human rights abuses.

For more information on this publication, visit

Kevin Dias, Communications Specialist, CIGI
Tel: 519.885.2444, ext. 238, Email:

The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) is an independent, nonpartisan think tank on international governance. Led by experienced practitioners and distinguished academics, CIGI supports research, forms networks, advances policy debate and generates ideas for multilateral governance improvements. Conducting an active agenda of research, events and publications, CIGI’s interdisciplinary work includes collaboration with policy, business and academic communities around the world. CIGI was founded in 2001 by Jim Balsillie, co-CEO of RIM (Research In Motion), and collaborates with and gratefully acknowledges support from a number of strategic partners, in particular the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario. For more information, please visit

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Drug War Meets Dirty War In Guerrero

By Kristin Bricker, Americas Program
“The Dirty War never ended in Guerrero,” declares Rosario Cabañas, the niece of guerrilla leader Lucio Cabañas. The Mexican military killed Lucio Cabañas in 1974, carrying out an order toexterminate the guerrilla leader and anyone who collaborated with him.
In July, unknown assassins murdered Rosario’s mother, Reyna Anaya Nava, and the guerrilla leader’s widow, Isabel Anaya Nava, as they left church in Xaltianguis, Guerrero.
As drug war violence spirals out of control in many parts of Mexico, people living in the countryside of the state of Guerrero are threatened not only by the traditional forces of the Dirty War—the military, paramilitary groups, and corrupt political bosses—, but now by narco-paramilitaries and drug trafficking organizations aw well.
Dirty War Crimes
Guerrero’s murder rate has more than tripled since Felipe Calderón ordered drug war operations in that state in January 2007.
To put the drug war violence into context, in a thirteen-year span of the government’s Dirty War against guerrilla forces and political opposition, between 1968 and 1981, 529 people were forcibly disappeared in the state. This was known as the most violent period in Mexico’s history since the revolutionary war. Today, the Committee of Families of the Kidnapped, Disappeared, and Murdered in Guerrero has counted 299 disappearances over the past six years alone, meaning that Guerrero is on track to surpass its Dirty War record.
The increase in violence was no surprise in Guerrero, where the drug war is the latest chapter in a decades-long history of military occupation, paramilitarism, and state violence. The military has occupied large swaths of Guerrero since the 1970s, when President Luis Echeverría sent 24,000 soldiers—one-third of the Mexican military at the time—to the state to suppress guerrilla organizations. The military terrorized civilian peasants. Forced disappearances and summary executions at military checkpoints became common. As a result of the intense militarization, Guerrero suffered more forced disappearances during the Dirty War than any other state—eight times more than second-place Mexico City—and a huge increase in summary executions.
In a chilling foretelling of what was to come in the war on drugs, a suppressed 2006 government report on the Dirty War criticized the military campaign against the guerrillas:
“Even now, when these crimes come to light, there are those who try to justify the State’s actions, arguing the necessity of bringing to justice—by any means—those who participated in illegal acts committed by guerrillas. This justification is so weak and contradictory that it necessarily concludes in the argument that crime is fought with crime, leaving aside the law…”
Most Dirty War crimes remain uninvestigated and unpunished. In 2002, then-President Vicente Fox created the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Past Political and Social Movements (FEMOSSP) to investigate Dirty War crimes. However, the federal government refused to publish the FEMOSSP’s groundbreaking report on Dirty War crimes. Instead, it published a watered-down version and shut down the FEMOSSP. The crimes mentioned in the report, particularly the meticulously documented disappearances carried out by government forces, remain unpunished. And the Dirty War continues in Guerrero.
In the decades since the Dirty War ended in other parts of the country, the military has continued to “fight crime with crime” in Guerrero. It is unknown exactly how many soldiers currently occupy the state, because the Secretary of Defense has denied Freedom of Information requests regarding the number of soldiers deployed by state.
But the effects of the military occupation are painfully obvious. When the peace caravan led by poet and drug war victim Javier Sicilia visited Guerrero on September 9-10, many residents recounted how soldiers murdered their family members. Their stories were similar to those in northern states: loved ones were shot or disappeared at military checkpoints. The only difference is that in the north, military checkpoints and human rights abuses committed by soldiers are a relatively recent phenomenon. In Guerrero, soldiers have terrorized residents for forty years.
Alvaro Ramírez Concepción recounted how the military massacred eleven people on June 7, 1998, as they met in El Charco to discuss community-led economic development. Ramírez Concepción’s Organization for the Future of the Mixteco People has fought to bring those responsible for the massacre to justice. As a result, they have suffered attacks from unknown assailants.
“Five people were injured in my community. I was shot, too,” Ramirez says as he recalls an attack that occurred just a year ago. “I have these wounds because I go out and knock on doors. I’m working against the government.”
Tita Radilla recounted how the military was responsible for the disappearance of her father, Rosendo Radilla Pacheco, at a military checkpoint on August 25, 1974. His crime: he sang folk songs about human rights abuses in Guerrero. Despite winning her case against the Mexican government in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the government still hasn’t told her where her father’s body is, and it has not punished the soldiers responsible for his disappearance and murder.
In many disappearances, however, it is unclear who is responsible. Activists may receive threats for the work they do, but when they disappear, they disappear without a trace. That was the case with Jorge Gabriel Cerón Silva, who disappeared in 2007. Cerón Silva was an organizer with the Community Development Workshop (Tadeco, in its Spanish abbreviation), a Guerrero-based community organization. On March 14, 2007, witnesses saw that as he left his office, a recent-model truck with tinted windows and no license plate pulled up next to him. Men got out of the truck, threw Cerón Silva inside, got back in the truck, and drove off.
“From that moment, he was never heard from or seen again,” says Isabel Rosales of the Committee of Families of the Kidnapped, Disappeared, and Murdered in Guerrero, known simply as the Committee of the Disappeared.
Tadeco helped form the Committee of the Disappeared to search for Cerón Silva. “In the beginning the Committee was just family and friends of Jorge,” explains Rosales. “But when we went public, a lot of other families contacted us because they had the same problem: that someone in their family had been disappeared.”
Drug War Crimes
When Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared “war on organized crime” in late 2006, his decision to deploy the military to regions controlled by drug trafficking organizations set off a wave of human rights abuses, gruesome executions, kidnappings, and other violent crimes around the country. In Guerrero, where state-sponsored violence never ceased following the official end of the Dirty War, drug war violence has compounded residents’ security problems.
Guadalupe Orozco’s son Francis Alejandro Garcia Orozco was kidnapped from work on March1, 2010, along with five other young men. She has a security camera video that shows that soldiers kidnapped her son.

"Send the Army Back to its Barracks"
“The military refuses to accept this evidence,” she complains. “They say that they don’t know anything, that it wasn’t them.” Her family visited several area military bases, but they all deny having her son. She says neither her son nor his friends were activists, nor were they criminals. Her son and his friends simply disappeared into the back of a military truck and haven’t been seen since. She has no idea what motivated the detention and subsequent disappearance and she can’t get any answers from military authorities or ghe government.
Orozco is one of the many parents who have joined the Committee since the drug war broke out. Unlike the Committee’s founding members, they say no one in their family is a political activist,. They insist they aren’t criminals, and have nothing to do with organized crime. The families of the organization tend to come from very humble backgrounds. Some worked repairing computers; others worked in retail—in other words, not ideal extortion victims. Many families never received ransom demands.
Orozco is one of the lucky ones, because an anonymous tipster sent her the video of her son’s detention, providing evidence that the military was behind the disappearance Most families don’t know if the kidnappers were soldiers, police, organized crime, or petty criminals simply taking advantage of a violent and chaotic situation.
A lot of the Committee’s newest members can’t even begin to guess who could have taken their loved ones, nor do they have any idea as to why they were targeted. The problem is that the impunity and suspension of justice that has plagued Guerrero since the beginning of the Dirty War has allowed government corruption to fester for decades. Now it also provides a cover for violent crimes that are not politically motivated. In short, criminals in Guerrero know that there is almost no chance they will be caught, and if they are caught, there’s even less chance they will be punished.
Government Turns Its Back on the Problem
Even as forced disappearances increase to alarming proportions, the Committee of the Disappeared’s proposals to combat the problem fall on deaf ears. “We’ve proposed that the government of Guerrero implement a search plan, that it form a state-wide tactical group that would search and find them [the disappeared], that it re-open the cases and that it follow the leads that we have provided to learn their whereabouts,” said the Committee in a written statement. “We want to help with the investigations despite the risks entailed, but the government refuses to give in. It insists on keeping us isolated, separated, and to keep ignoring us and shutting us up. As for our proposal that the government create a contingency fund for victims of social violence, we haven’t received any response.”
The government’s refusal to search for the disappeared is due to a lack of will, not resources. Proceso’s Marcela Turati points out that a new system called Plataforma Mexico already has all the equipment necessary to track kidnapping victims and locate mass or clandestine graves. Plataforma Mexico, which receives funding from the United States government through the Merida Initative, is designed to connect federal, state, and local police to a national communications system, a security network and satellite cameras, databases of ballistics information from crimes, police reports, and the biometric data on both criminals and victims. Turati points out that, if used correctly, the government could use satellite photos to detect geographical anomalies that would indicate a recently dug clandestine grave.
Likewise, Plataforma Mexico’s network of government security cameras, highway cameras, and tollbooth cameras could be used to track perpetrators as they flee the scene of a crime, and the nationwide, multi-level communications network should allow police to coordinate actions between jurisdictions. Theoretically, this same system could be used to track kidnappers and their victims. Turati points out that instead of using Plataforma Mexico to combat violent crime and impunity, the government currently only uses the system to track and interdict drug shipments.
In Guerrero, many human rights organizations believe that the government’s refusal to investigate kidnappings and disappearances indicates it may be afraid that thorough investigations would uncover government corruption and complicity with organized crime.
Javier Sicilia, whose son was kidnapped and murdered, argued in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, that corruption and impunity have “erased the line between the State and crime. It keeps us from seeing where one begins and the other ends.”
When ranchers Rodrigo Camacho Rodríguez, Pedro Salgado Mora, Cuauhtémoc Román Navarro, and Artemio Soroa Brito disappeared in separate incidents in Guerrero, the Committee of the Disappeared took up their cases. The prime suspect was Rogaciano Alba, a corrupt political boss, president of the Guerrero cattle ranchers union, and former mayor of Petatlán, Guerrero.
For years, locals had accused Alba of being in cahoots with the military to repress local peasant communities. Many civilians reported that his henchmen often acted as guides for the military during raids of their communities.
“There were various incursions into communities in the Sierra where residents said they saw that the people leading the incursions were Rogaciano Alba’s people, and that the military was protecting them,” says Rosales. “People also say that when he was being pursued by rivals, he hid out by living in the Petatlán and Altamirano military barracks. People who live near Rogaciano’s ranch say soldiers go up there to feed his animals. This tells us that he still has influence” over the military. This evidence of blatant collaboration between Alba’s gunmen and the military led locals to label his operation a paramilitary organization.
In recent years, however, rumors began to circulate in the Sierra that Alba worked for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera’s drug trafficking organization. Then in February 2010, the government confirmed locals’ worst fears: it arrested Alba, accusing him of controlling the Costa Grande region of Guerrero for the Sinaloa cartel. Alba is currently in prison awaiting trial on drugs, weapons, and organized crime charges, but according to Rosales, his closest collaborators continue to run his ranching and drug trafficking operations. A clear indication that Alba’s reach extends beyond the jailhouse walls is the recent assassination of Javier Torres, a witness who testified against Alba. Torres accused Alba of ordering the assassination of human rights lawyer Digna Ochoa and the murders of over twenty members of Torres’ family. Torres was assassinated in April; at that point Alba had been in jail for over a year.
The fact that Alba was arrested on organized crime charges, is a political boss and former government official, and has a team of armed men who collaborate with the military against indigenous and peasant communities has led to the conclusion that Alba runs what could be Mexico’s first official narco-paramilitary organization.
When the Committee took up the four cattle ranchers’ case in 2009, it publicly accused Alba’s narco-paramilitary organization of disappearing the men. As a result, the Committee began to receive threats. “They told us to give up the fight,” says Rosales, “because if we didn’t, it would be our names and photos that would show up on the Committee’s list of disappeared persons.”
The government offered no help to the Committee in its search for the cattle ranchers. “They told us that they were disappeared for a reason, that they must have done something, or that they were involved in something that they shouldn’t have been,” says Rosales. “Public officials even told family members, ‘Don’t denounce [the disappearances]. You have other children, you have a family, don’t do anything because they could come for you.’ When they tell you this, it makes you think that the authorities know what happened to your relative.”
Cuaúhtemoc Ramírez of the Guerrero-based Organization of the Me’phaa Indigenous People (OPIM) argues, “The state has been using [narco-paramilitaries] to eliminate any political or social opposition.” He, along with many other Guerrero residents who have encountered narco-paramilitaries, says Rogaciano Alba is behind the narco-paramilitary apparatus in Guerrero.
“Everyone in the small towns knows” who the narcos are, he says. “They are armed and they drive around town in luxury trucks.” Since the narcos don’t attempt to maintain a low profile, Ramírez explains, residents easily identify them when they accompany the military or mingle with government officials. “One time at a town New Years Eve party, everyone saw the local [drug] boss at the party with the interim mayor.”
Ramírez believes that in Ayutla, the military has an agreement with narco-paramilitaries: “they [the military] will let them [the narcos] work, selling narcotics for example, but in exchange the narcos have to eliminate us.”
Testimony from the Insurgent People’s Revolutionary Army (ERPI), a guerrilla organization that appeared in Guerrero in 1998, supports Ramírez’s assertion that the government is using narco-paramilitaries against the political opposition in that state. The ERPI’s leader, Comandante Ramiro, said that when the military detained him in 2001, known drug traffickers participated in his torture sessions inside the prison. Ramiro escaped prison in 2002. The ERPI has publicly stated that drug traffickers are on the organization’s list of enemies. The ERPI says that it has battled drug traffickers and narco-paramilitaries on multiple occasions, and that it seeks to keep them out of the indigenous and peasant communities that make up the guerrilla army’s popular support base.
On November 4, 2009, Comandante Ramiro was shot and killed with an AK-47. The ERPI claims that the government paid one of Rogaciano Alba’s hitmen, Cayetano Alvarado Palacios, to assassinate him.
Whether or not this is true, testimonies from a range of leftist organizations in Guerrero all point to the same conclusion: in Guerrero, the government is using narco-paramilitaries to repress and terrorize popular movements.
The Drug War and the Dirty War have become one.
Kristin Bricker is a reporter in Mexico. She is a contributor to the CIP Americas Program
Photos by: Santiago Navarro

Saturday, September 17, 2011

BREAKING: Fray Tomas Gonzalez Detained By Military in Tenosique, Tabasco. Amnesty International Activist Beaten By Police

by Kristin Bricker

UPDATE 9:11 PM CENTRAL TIME: Fray Tomas and Ruben Figueroa have been released.  The authorities never informed them of why they were being detained.

Fray Tomas Gonzalez
Soldiers and Tabasco State Police have detained Fray Tomas Gonzalez outside of Tabasco's Mesoamerican University.  He has been detained for three hours in his car by the following cars: Tabasco State Police patrol cars 332 and 287, and military vehicle 0818304.  The official reason for his detention is unknown, but what is certain is that Fray Tomas is in grave danger.

Also detained is Ruben Figueroa from Amnesty International.  A state police officer beat Figueroa when the men refused to get out of their truck.  As they were beating him, they told him, "We will teach you some respect."

The men told the police and soldiers that they are participating in the "Peace Caravan" led by poet Javier Sicilia.  The agents responded, "What caravan?"

Amnesty International reports that later, a man in a white pickup truck with license plate number RB94861 stopped nearby and yelled at the police and military, "Take him away!" The man yelled at Fray Tomas, "Conniving indian! You're worthless!" and "Here there aren't any witnesses, I'm going to kick the shit out of this jerk."

The state police eventually left when the government's National Human Rights Commission intervened, but the men are currently surrounded and detained by municipal police and the military.

Fray Tomas has repeatedly denounced authorities' complicity with the drug cartels that pray upon Central American migrants who pass through Mexico to reach the United States.  Last night he stated that despite a recent purge in the government's National Migration Institute (INM), immigration agents are still in collusion with drug trafficking organizations.  The purge occurred because immigration agents were detaining migrants and handing them over to drug cartels.

Fray Tomas was one of the organizers of the "Peace Caravan" event last night in Palenque, Chiapas.  There, in an interview, he stated that he told authorities fifteen days ago that he knows where 40 migrants are being held hostage by criminals in Tabasco.  He said he offered to accompany authorities to the house where they're being held, and authorities refused to act.

Fray Tomas has received threats for his work with migrants, the most recent being a death threat he received last week. The National Human Rights Commission ordered that the government provide him with "protective measures," that is, a police escort.  The government has not complied with this order, forcing Fray Thomas to take his case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.  

Friday, September 16, 2011

On the Mexico-Guatemala Border, Migrants Demand End to the Violence

By Kristin Bricker, Americas Program
The caravan of drug war victims led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia arrived at the Mexico-Guatemala border in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, on Sept. 14, where they asked for forgiveness from the migrants who risk their lives to cross Mexico to reach the United States.
Simultaneous marches from the Mexican and Guatemalan sides of the border met on the international bridge that connects the two countries.  The Guatemalan marchers greeted Sicilia and the marchers from Mexico with cries of “Long Live Mexico! Long Live Guatemala!”
Standing on the imaginary line that divides the two countries, Sicilia said, “We came to ask our Central American brothers and sisters to forgive us for having not spoken up before, for not having the consciousness and the strength necessary to prevent the kidnapping and murder that has affected thousands of migrants and Mexican citizens and has torn apart their families.”
When the Caravan for Peace set out from Mexico City on Sept. 9, some thirty Central American migrants accompanied it south towards the border.  Just before dawn on Sept. 14, about ten more migrants from a migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, joined the trek south. In Ciudad Hidalgo, the migrants told of how both organized crime and Mexican authorities abuse them as they cross the country precariously perched on the top of cargo trains.
One young Salvadoran migrant said organized crime members kidnapped him last December in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. The kidnappers called his family in El Salvador to demand ransom money.  His family couldn’t come up with the money, so, on Christmas Eve, the kidnappers called his family so that they could hear him being tortured.
The kidnappers beat him has he held the phone in his hands; they told him that they would kill him if he didn’t cry and beg his family for the money.  He refused to cry, so they beat him harder.  The young man was also forced to witness the torture of other migrants who were being held in the same house.  He saw them cut off a 14-year-old’s finger as the boy’s father listened on the telephone, and he was present when the kidnappers raped a woman in front of the rest of the kidnapped migrants.
“I saw with my own eyes that the police came to the place where we were [being held hostage],” he said. “The police are the most corrupt ones here.”  Four migrants managed to escape and went for help, which is how the young Salvadoran lived to tell his story even though his family couldn’t pay his ransom.
“[Mexican] authorities have robbed me; they’ve beaten me in my travels,” recalled a middle-aged Salvadoran migrant.  “Four months ago, I was violently robbed by [Chiapas] State Police as I crossed the border right here.”  His misfortune didn’t end there.  “My wife was kidnapped in Mexico State. She’s still kidnapped, and because we’re migrants in this country, the authorities don’t want to listen to us.  It’s really difficult to get the authorities to listen to us when we want to report a crime.”
Honduran migrant Daniela Melendez, mother of five, recounted how her coyote, the man she paid to help her cross Mexico and enter the United States, tried to rape her as she traveled through Chiapas.  In an attempt to pressure her to have sex with him, he told her, “Here, I’m just one man.  But I work with the Zetas, and if I turn you over to them, it’ll be fifteen or twenty men raping you.”  Melendez managed to reach the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, run by Father Alejandro Solalinde. “Father Solalinde’s team in the shelter rescued me,” she recounts.
Melendez was spared, but too many undocumented migrant women aren’t.  Drug trafficking organizations—particularly the Zetas—have branched out into the sex trafficking industry.  The problem is becoming so severe that Fermina Rodriguez of the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center  said, “When you talk to women, they consider rape to be part of the price they pay to migrate.” Germán Guillermo Ramírez Garduaza of the “Santa Faustina Kowalska” migrant shelter in Veracruz estimates that 80% of female Central American migrants are rapedas they transit Mexico.
As Mexicos’ drug war rages and more and more migrants fall victim to the cartels that have taken over the migrant routes, many Central Americans are still willing to risk traveling through Mexico to reach the United States because they feel as though they have no other choice.
Unemployment or underemployment are the reasons most Central American migrants give for why they decided to travel to the United States.  Two young Guatemalans staying in Father Solalinde’s shelter in Ixtepec, for example, are from sharecropper families who don’t make enough money to survive.  Even though they finished high school, the boys haven’t been able to find work.  So the boys, who are neighbors, made their first attempt to reach the United States.  They want to make enough money to help their families get ahead, and then they plan to return to Guatemala.
Twenty-one-year-old Francisco Rivera* first migrated to the United States from his native Honduras when he was twelve years old.  A gang was threatening to harm his family if he didn’t join, and his older brother’s job sewing American Eagle clothing in Honduras’ “free trade zone” wasn’t enough to pay his family’s bills.  After several attempts, he managed to reach the United States, but was deported back to Honduras.
In 2008, his father, the leader of an organization that helped landless peasants occupy government land to obtain deeds, was assassinated.  Rivera’s family believes a mayor who lost land to his father’s organization ordered the execution.  Days after the Honduran coup occurred in 2009, Rivera was nearly shot as a coup supporter opened fire on his neighborhood.  As more and more bodies were dumped in his neighborhood in the weeks following the coup, Rivera’s mother told him, “I’d rather you be far away than dead,” so Rivera migrated again.  This time, he sought political asylum in the United States.  After spending a year in jail in general population as he fought for asylum, his petition was denied and he was deported.  Rivera is now on his way back to the United States.
In crafting its immigration policy, the Mexican government is taking a cue from the United States.  Whereas migrants cross Guatemala fairly easily and inexpensively by bus, Mexico’s strict immigration enforcement means migrants must take extra precautions.  “You can cross Guatemala in a bus, and if the authorities catch you they might make you pay a bribe of 100 quetzales (about $12 dollars),” says Rivera. “In Mexico they have so many immigration checkpoints along the highways.  And if they catch you at one checkpoint, they’ll make you pay a $500 peso ($38 dollar) bribe, but then they’ll radio ahead to the next checkpoint to advise them that you’re coming so that they make you pay the bribe at that checkpoint, too.  When you get to the last checkpoint they’ll detain and deport you even though you already paid all those bribes.”
Mexico’s immigration checkpoints mean that many migrants prefer to brave the elements while perched on top of cargo trains.  Some fall off and are maimed or killed by the train, and others are pushed off by organized crime members looking to extort money from the migrants. Still, every day thousands of migrants ride Mexico’s rails.
Rivera calls Mexico’s immigration policies hypocritical: “Mexico demands respect from the United States for Mexican citizens, but they treat us so terribly, and they accept money from the United States through the Merida Initiative.”  The Merida Initiative, an aid package designed to support Mexico’s war on drugs, provides funds to expand immigration databases and monitoring, and equip and train border personnel. It includes support to implement biometric tracking of immigrants and build up security measures on both Mexican borders.
But some studies show that U.S. and Mexico’s tough immigration policies are actually driving migrants into the hands of organized crime.  According to a 2003 brief by the American Immigration Law Foundation:
“A July 2002 study by the Public Policy Institute of California concluded that there is no ‘statistically significant relationship between the build-up and the probability of migration. Economic opportunities in the United States and Mexico have a stronger effect on migration than does the number of agents at the border.’ The study found that ‘the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has increased’ since the strategy was first implemented, due in part to the fact that ‘migrants who successfully cross the border stay longer in the United States than they did in the past.’ The study also notes that the more dangerous border crossings have led to the ‘increased use of hired guides, or coyotes,’ which ‘may have expanded the very profitable human smuggling industry.’”

Migrants Targetted
Increasingly dangerous conditions for migrants in Mexico have led them to support the nascent Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, which seeks to end violence and impunity in Mexico. While the migrants aren’t the only drug-war victims in the Movement, they are the only ones who have consistently been attacked while participating in Movement-related caravans.
When Sicilia called for a four-day march from Cuernavaca, Morelos, to Mexico City this past May, Central American migrants organized a trek from southern Mexico to meet the march in Mexico City.  The plan was to walk along the railroad tracks that lead to Mexico City.  The migrants never made it to the march in Mexico City because on May 6 in the state of Veracruz, gunmen attempted to kidnap women from the group.  The presence of media that was covering the migrants’ march apparently scared away the gunmen, but they told the terrified migrants that they would return.  The migrants called Mexican authorities for help, but for hours no law enforcement agency showed up to protect them.  The migrants were left stranded by the tracks for the rest of the day, terrified that their attackers would return.
In June, migrants organized a second protest, this time a five-day caravan that would travel on top of the trains from Ixtepec, Oaxaca, to Veracruz. On June 24, gunmen armed with assault rifles stopped the train and kidnapped 40 to 60 of the 250 migrants who were onboard.  Those migrants are still missing.
Migrants organized yet another caravan, the “Step by Step Toward Peace” Caravan from July 25-August 2, to protest violence against migrants.  This time, they travelled with family members of Central American migrants who went missing in Mexico.  After the second caravan, one of the participants, 19-year-old Guatemalan migrant Julio Fernando Cardona was detained by municipal police in Tultitlán, Mexico State, according to witnesses.  Later that day, Cardona’s body was found dumped along the railroad tracks in Tultitlán.  He had been stoned to death.  Cardona’s participation in the second caravan led to an unusually high amount of media attention to his case.  Under pressure, the government investigated the police that witnesses identified, and it found blood in the bed of the officers’ pickup truck, according to a source close to the case.
The brazen violence against migrants participating in the protest caravans has underlined the need for Mexico to make immediate changes to how it treats immigrants. Migrants and human rights defenders demand that Mexican authorities investigate crimes against migrants and punish the perpetrators. Migrants are also demanding that Mexico allow them to legally pass through the country on their way to the United States by cancelling the requirement that Central Americans hold visas in Mexico. North American and European travellers, for example, are automatically given tourist cards when they arrive at any Mexican port-of-entry, making the visa application process unnecessary for them.  The migrants say that if they were permitted to legally travel through Mexico, they would stop using the dangerous trains and would start using buses to cross the country.
The migrants on the peace caravan say that despite their fear that their participation in the protests will make them targets, the caravans are working.  They note that due to pressure from the caravans, the Mexican government has awarded 300 visas to migrants so that they can safely travel through Mexico. Moreover, two Central American mothers who participated in the “Step by Step Toward Peace” Caravan found their missing sons alive and well in Mexico, thanks to the caravan. Also, the police officers who allegedly killed Julio Fernando Cardona have been arrested, although it remains to be seen if they will do time for the brutal murder.
Many Central American migrants say they are glad to march side-by-side with Mexicans against the drug war, because migrants have to endure the same violence that terrorizes Mexicans on a daily basis.
“We’re here to support Mexico,” says Angie, a 21-year-old migrant who participated in the second caravan and is on the Caravan for Peace with Sicilia now.  “There are a lot of people from other countries who migrate through Mexico every day, and we know about the kidnappings and the extortion all too well.”
* This name has been changed.
Kristin Bricker is a reporter in Mexico. She is a contributor to the CIP Americas Program and is currently covering the 10-day Caravan of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity for the Americas Updater.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Guerrero Protesters Demand Education, Not War

By Kristin Bricker, Americas Program
Acapulco: Fourty-nine students are on hunger strike
for the right to attend college.
Several thousand people marched on Acapulco, Guerrero, this past Saturday chanting, “We don’t want war, we want education!” The march occurred during poet Javier Sicilia’s visit to the seaside city as his caravan of drug war victims makes its way to the Mexico-Guatemala border.
Acapulco was once an international resort destination. Now, drug war violence has scared away many tourists who are afraid of becoming the cartels’ next victim. Last year, the kidnapping and murder of twenty Mexican tourists in Acapulco dealt a devastating blow to the city’s tourism industry. Drug traffickers apparently mistook the group of mechanics from Michoacan for a rival drug gang.
The increasing violence in Acapulco drove 800 teachers in 300 public schools to \strike last week to demand that the government take measures to increase security in their schools. The strike has kept at least 50,000 students from beginning the 2010-2011 school year. The teachers say they won’t return to classes until it is safe to do so. Teachers around the state are supporting the Acapulco strike by occupying all of the Ministry of Public Education buildings in the state. They are threatening to strike, too, if the government doesn’t reach an agreement with the union this week.
Shoot-outs outside schools are now a regular occurrence. Just this past week, shoot-outs occurred outside of three public schools in Acapulco. The teachers are afraid that criminals will seek refuge on school grounds during shoot-outs. One of their strike demands is to improve the schools’ facilities to prevent outsiders from entering the schools.
“There’s schools here that don’t even have a telephone,” complains Roman Maynardo López Pachuca, spokesman for the Guerrero State Education Workers Coordinating Committee (CETEG), the democratic organization within the National Education Workers Union. “They installed these so-called ‘emergency buttons’ in the schools, but they’ve never worked. If a teacher hits the button, sure, the police will arrive eventually. But it’s usually an hour later, or whenever they feel like showing up.”
“There’s been a wave of extortions, phone calls, anonymous threats, and, in some cases, some teachers have been kidnapped, and others have been carjacked at gunpoint,” explains López Pachuca. “Last month, we received an anonymous threat that named certain teachers by name,” recalls Lopez Pachuca. “It demanded that those teachers who earn more than eight thousand pesos per fifteen-day pay period turn over half their salaries” to a criminal group.
“They’re also demanding 50% of the Christmas bonuses,” says César Gonzalez, representative of the CETEG in Chilpancingo, Guerrero. “In exchange [for the payments], the schools would be protected by them [the criminal organization]. Moreover, if these teachers [who pay the quota] have problems with other teachers or with students’ parents, they [the criminal group] will make sure that the teacher or parent stops causing problems.”
Gonzalez says that organized crime first started demanding quotas from teachers in Acapulco, but now they’ve extended their threats to teachers in other parts of the state, such as Tierra Colorada.
The union has refused to pay. “If they tried to make good on their threats, there would be an uprising of all of the teachers in Guerrero, ” warned Lopez Pachuca.
The union spokesman isn’t making empty threats. His local, Section 14, has historically been one of the most militant locals in the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), and it is one of just a handful of democratic locals in the union. The local stood up to the military during the Dirty War in the 1960s and 70s in Guerrero, which was ground zero for the military’s brutal campaign against social movements across the country. Now, decades later, Section 14 refuses to be intimidated by organized crime.
“We teachers are not proposing a repressive police-military operation,” insists Lopez Pachuca.  ”Instead of responding to crime, they focus more on repressing the social movements that protest the situation.”

Hunger strikers' sign reads, "Stop Militarization, We Want Education!"
The union spokesman blames the violence on the government’s decision to declare war on organized crime.
“This strategy of all-out-war, far from solving the violence problem, has only made it much worse,” he argues. “The problem is exacerbated when they ignore the simplest part, which is the extreme poverty that prevails throughout Mexico.”
According to the Mexican government’s own statistics, 46.2% of the population—that is, 52 million people—live in moderate or extreme poverty. Another 34.5% percent are classified as “vulnerable.” Lopez Pachuca explains, “This drives people to obtain money through illicit means out of necessity to pay their bills.”
“The strategy of all-out-war has failed, and it is time to change that strategy,” argues Lopez Pachuca. “A new strategy should combine intelligence work with social justice. There are students who were rejected from public universities, and they don’t have money to attend private colleges. There needs to more access to high school and college education, and special attention needs to be paid to the poorest sectors of society.”
Education Deficit
The striking teachers are demanding that the government dedicate more resources to education in Guerrero, particularly in the poverty-stricken outskirts of Acapulco. They want all students to have free access to all levels of education, including universities.
According to UNESCO’s Education for All Global Monitoring Report, 19% of Guerrero residents aged 17-22 have fewer than four years of education—one of the worst rates in the country. The average Guerrero resident has only a middle school education, and indigenous peoples fare much worse. Forty-two percent of Mexico’s monolingual indigenous population (that is, those who only speak an indigenous language) is in the bottom twentieth percentile for the number of years they attended school.
Most of Mexico’s students are forced to end their education early due to a severe shortage of schools and teachers across the country. Last year, children in 46 rural towns in Guerrero did not attend school because the schools in their communities didn’t have any teachers at all.
The nation’s public universities also suffer severe shortages, leaving scores of young Mexicans with no hope of a professional education if they can’t afford private universities. The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) rejected 90% of applicants in 2010; it turned away 105,386 applicants in just one of its admissions cycles that year. That same year, the Autonomous University of Guerrero rejected 35%, or 3,408 applicants.
Forty-nine rejected applicants are currently on their 32nd day of hunger strike in Acapulco’s town square to demand admission to the Autonomous University of Guerrero. “We have 9.9 [out of 10] grade-point averages,” says Berta Zuñiga, one of the hunger strikers. “We will not let an admissions exam undervalue us as human beings.”
Unfortunately, Mexicans’ demands for increased access to education have fallen on deaf ears. In July, Javier Sicilia and other drug-war victims met with Congress. During the dialogue, legislators agreed to significantly increase the education budget. “They promised that there would enough money for college and high school education so that any student who wanted to study could,” recalled Sicilia in Guerrero. “We don’t see that promise reflected in the 2012 budget.”
The proposed budget increases the Ministry of Public Education’s funding just 1.9% over last year, while the already bloated drug war budget would increase more than 10%.
“We demand that by next week, those who want to study are incorporated into the student body,” said Sicilia to cheering Acapulco residents. In the war on drugs, “it’s young people who are dying, and it’s young people who are killing. We can’t let this go on, because if we do, we’ll lose Mexico altogether.”
Kristin Bricker is a reporter in Mexico. She is a contributor to the CIP Americas Program and is currently covering the 10-day Caravan of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity for the Americas Updater.