Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 187 | Febrero 1997



Zedillo Government: Human Rights in Crisis

The current campaign of threats and harassment of human rights defenders is without precedent. Its objective? To reduce the prestige and the radius of action of those who denounce the increasingly authoritarian repression of the government.

Jesús Acosta

With the first third of Ernesto Zedillo's administration now over, a balance sheet can be drawn up from a specifically human rights perspective. This article attempts to do just that.

We are concerned to see that a strategy of social containment and "dirty war" against political opposition and social leaders is behind the significant number of repressive acts and human rights violations registered in our center over these past two years. There is also every indication that this strategy is directed by entities inlaid within the state institutions, which are at work in the shadows of the country's public life. Apparently beyond the control of these institutions, they are indifferent to legality, to respect for human rights and to the democratic aspirations of Mexican society.

The low-intensity war in Chiapas and its repercussions in other regions of the country, the butchery in the state of Guerrero, the menacing and kidnapping of critical journalists, the relentless military pursuit in the indigenous communities, the threats against human rights defenders, the impunity prevailing in the majority of cases of human rights violations, and the penal reforms--which put the system of individual guarantees in Mexico at risk--are only some facets of the strategy. If they reveal anything of the project, it is that human rights are not preeminent in the regime's priorities.

Intolerance and Authoritarianism

According to the records kept by the PRODH Center over the six-year term of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and the first two years of the Zedillo government, the treatment given the democratic demands of the social movements and the sectors critical of and in opposition to the government is permeated with intolerance. Accusations of authoritarianism have been leveled with increasing force against both administrations.

In these eight years we have registered some 500 explicitly repressive actions per year, directed against

those who, at different moments and from

different fields of struggle, have impugned the official national project and sought to express their disagreement with the exclusion and loss of rights suffered by the majority.

Many of these repressive acts are directly carried out by gangsters, "white guards," members of the perennially-in- office Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), shock troops and paramilitary groups. While these different groups would appear to have no organic articulation with any official agency, they nonetheless act under the protection of a structure of institutional power that, whether by omission, tolerance or direct involvement, facilitates impunity for the aggression.

A Bleak Horizon

Over these years the sectors most affected by the government's recurrent use of force have been the peasants, indigenous peoples and political oposition.

During the Salinas administration, indigenous complaints that the government had not fulfilled its promises were common. "We have visited all the agencies and find no genuine desire for change." This sentence expresses the feeling of indigenous peoples toward the violation of their rights, the repression and the negotiation which, as in cases like the Xi'Nich march in 1992, barely reached the point of signing a piece of paper. The Zapatista armed uprising in 1994 was simply the violent expression of indigenous peoples in response to seeing the closure of institutional channels on the horizon of their struggles.

The institutional means for responding to the political and social demands of the majority of the Mexican population, for providing public security and for expeditiously procuring effective justice are completely outmoded. In the past two years, this has made way for the appearance of a new wave of armed violence and a multiplication of actions in which people take justice into their own hands.

EZLN: Surrender or Extermination

With respect to the Chiapas conflict, the Zedillo administration has been marked by the dynamic that began in February 1995. Out of the blue, the Federal government, with the Attorney General and President himself at the head, announced a political and military offensive against the EZLN, after initially promoting a discourse of peace and openness to dialogue. Its objective was to capture the visible heads of the armed movement, particularly Subcomandante Marcos.

The February 9 offensive, planned with the support of those in charge of national security in Mexico, failed in its public objective--apprehension of the Zapatista leadership. Unable to justify the operation, the government soon had to call it off in the face of international pressure and the social mobilization of Mexicans.

Nonetheless, the war did not stop after that; put in low-intensity terms, it only lost visibility. The offensive had consolidated its strategic objectives, which were encirclement and the creation of conditions for eventually exterminating the entire Zapatista movement in its political as well as military expressions.

The elements of that overall strategy included the February attack against goods indispensable for the survival of the civilian population in Chiapas, manipulation of the term Zapatista in the media, and the reinforcement of military troops, patrols and reconnaissance flights over Chiapas to sow terror in the indigenous population. Hand in hand with this was the official closure of the San Andrés Larráinzar negotiations and the harassment of social organizations promoting peace in Chiapas.

This process was implicitly set out as a preamble to surrender, or to a possible final offensive against the EZLN which is being continually and perversely prepared for and justified to national and international public opinion.

"Zapatistas" Detained; Dialogue Gets Rocky

The publicity campaign mounted to justify the military advance against Zapatista positions included the detention of 23 citizens in Cacalomacán, state of Mexico, in Yanga, in Veracruz and in the Federal District. All were accused of various crimes, including sedition and terrorism, by the Solicitor General of Justice.

The legal basis for the detentions was so weak that a coordinated group of five lawyers from the PRODH Center was able, through a strict application of the law and unimpeachable professional ethics, to take the accusations apart one by one. Combined with public pressure, these defense lawyers forced the release of one "Zapatista" prisoner after another.

At that point the dialogue in Chiapas turned quite rocky, and has remained so. Mistrust is rife in each of the encounters, and the weak agreements, not yet firmed up, seem to be foundering in a setting where the federal government delegates use shock negotiation tactics at the table and military asphyxiation ones in the field.

The Chiapas government has also sought to undermine this fragile dialogue process with violent acts against indigenous mobilizations, tolerance of and even support for the white guards and paramilitary groups, approval of the virtual civil war in the northern part of Chiapas, threats to human rights defenders and the harassment of foreigners who are supporting the various peace activities.

Indigenous Autonomy

While all this is going on, the constitutional regulation of indigenous rights is being put on the back burner. Nonetheless, like winter waiting for spring, indigenous autonomy is turning into "the backbone of a political program that pulls together ethnic and national concerns with democratic urgency," as anthropologist Héctor Díaz Polanco, from the Democratic Revolutionary Party's parliamentary group, put it.

The demand that indigenous rights be respected has created a convergence of previously dispersed voices across the country and has provided unity and consistency to the struggle of millions of indigenous people whose soil is now called Mexico.

The Temptation Of Authoritarianism

In December 1994, the indigenous rebellion in Chiapas came on top of the devaluation of the peso and the unleashing of the worst economic crisis that Mexico has suffered in its modern history. With that crisis, the mask fashioned by the Salinas government for the neoliberal economic model was stripped away, revealing its patent failure as a valid development option.

Faced with the economic and political crisis, the serious danger of a social crisis and the erosion of its own legitimacy, the PRI regime fell into the temptation of authoritarianism. In the two years of the Zedillo government, a series of signs point to the buttressing of authoritarianism by those unwilling to lose their privileges, even if what is lost instead is peace and the exercise of human rights.

Various phenomena indicate that the country is far from moving toward a democratic way out of the crisis. Rather it is being propelled toward the reaffirmation of its old authoritarian features.

Violence Against The PRD

The virulent treatment of the Democratic Revolutionary Party during the Salinas de Gortari government, which translated into the political assassination of hundreds of its militants, has not only not diminished in the two years of Zedillo government, it has worsened. PRD leader CuauhtÚmoc Cßrdenas has sounded the alert.

According to Cárdenas, "They have killed 75 PRD members per year in this administration, while the annual average during the six years of Salinas was 60. It is perhaps less visible now, but the results are more serious."

More Crime Breeds More Authoritarianism

The crime index has also increased significantly in the past two years, with evidence that current or former police are involved in 60% of the violent crimes committed in the Federal District. In addition, sensationalist programs detailing the reporting of bloody events have proliferated on the TV screen.

The first draft of a Federal bill against organized crime and public statements by some officials justifying more severe punishments for crime--including the death penalty--appeared to be elements of a possible strategy by groups in power to generate a feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability among the citizenry. The idea would be to prod the public into demanding strong measures and even legitimizing constitutional modifications that would undermine their own guarantees.

It is our suspicion that there has been some sort of official encouragement or at least tolerance of the increase in crime, precisely to induce a social response that paves the way for those who want a much more authoritarian society. It is even possible that there has been some official involvement in crime to thus frustrate the transition toward democracy.

Violence with Impunity

Because the concept of public security is being reoriented from protection of the citizenry to a political-repressive logic, this perversion is leading to a dangerous heedlessness of what is happening. In the past two years, Mexico was rocked by cases of women raped and killed in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, yet no greater security was assured and not even minimum justice was procured. On the other border, in Chiapas, public security forces have intervened in the northern region to cover for two armed PRI groups, the "Chinchulines" and "Peace and Justice." Other examples of violence with impunity have multiplied in Tijuana, Sinaloa, Tabasco, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Morelos and the Federal District.

In both the Salinas and Zedillo administrations, according to our registries, the repressive violence has been centered in the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, the Federal District, Veracruz, Mexico, Oaxaca and Tabasco, and not without reason. The growing economic inequality of these states has in turn generated high indices of conflict and social polarization. The political and social participation of thousands of citizens and the possibility of organized or spontaneous expressions of social discontent are turning these states into geopolitical enclaves where the national security and counterinsurgency schemes currently operating in the country are set in motion.

The Army's Dangerous Role

The Zedillo administration has also distinguished itself by having the Mexican army intervene in civilian tasks such as public security. It is also using army personnel in indigenous communities and roadblocks across the country on the pretext of looking for weapons of either drug traffickers or guerrillas.

This militarization has been carried out with such intensity that it is leading the army into a new and dangerous role and a higher political profile.

Human Rights Under Siege

Finally, threats against and harassment of organizations that defend human rights have also multiplied in the past two years. Although there were some offenses against this humanitarian work during the Salinas government, there is no precedent for the siege these organizations have been under during the current administration. It is a campaign whose objective is to undermine the moral quality and reduce the maneuvering room of a movement which finds itself called upon to be the main challenger of the strategy of repression and social control.

In barely two years, the Zedillo government has managed to position Mexico among the countries in which, according to international judgment, those who defend human rights suffer the greatest persecution.

In all aspects of the human rights balance sheet, then, there is a basis for serious worry.

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