Salinas Rights Commission Still Too Weak, Critics Say

Mexico's human rights commission has released report detailing abuses that include murder and torture

ILLEGAL arrests, torture, and murder top the list of complaints against Mexican authorities, according to the country's National Human Rights Commission. Founded by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in June, the commission (known as CNDH) released its first report here Dec. 13. The CNDH is Mr. Salinas's response to charges he was preoccupied with economic reform while human rights abuses escalated in his first two years in power. Human rights groups attribute the rise to the war on drug trafficking and political tensions resulting from growing support for opposition parties.

Upon receiving the report, Salinas declared that crime fighting would not be at the expense of human rights. ``My government will not tolerate abuses, incompetence, arbitrary actions, crimes, or excesses committed by public servants,'' he said.

Salinas recently replaced Mexico's top drug policeman, Javier Coello Trejo. Although United States officials considered Mr. Trejo very effective, his transfer to another post was interpreted as a move to curb police abuses. An overhaul of the federal police staff has begun. Yet abuses continue. On Dec. 2, in a predawn raid in Sinaloa, eight innocents were mistaken for drug traffickers and summarily shot. Eight police officers have been charged.

The CNDH has received 1,343 complaints against government officials so far. Most were filed against federal and state police and judicial agencies, with the states of Mexico and Chiapas receiving the greatest number. Complaints include: illegal deprivation of freedom (190), torture (180), murder (101), abuse of authority (91), threats (79), assault (75), false accusations (72).

The CNDH has concluded investigations in 397 cases. Of those, 201 were resolved without an official recommendation. The commission has no judicial or ministerial or police powers. It acts as an ombudsman - receiving complaints, investigating, and issuing recommendations. Of the 33 recommendations made to date, 30 are being acted upon, including making illegal police confessions obtained by torture.

But political analyst and Salinas critic Jorge Castaneda says, ``Torture has been prohibited by Mexican law for 300 years. Why will having one more law against it change anything?''

Two days before the CNDH report was made public, Salinas ordered an opposition mayor in Aguililla state, Salom'on Mendoza Barajas, released from prison based on the commission's recommendation. In this celebrated case, the mayor was arrested last May on drug charges. Mr. Mendoza says he was brutally tortured before signing a confession. For political reasons, drugs and weapons were planted in his home by federal police, say Mendoza and family members. The police are also alleged to have stolen 5 million pesos ($1,700) from Mendoza's home.

But Mendoza's release is just part of the commission's ``show,'' says Mr. Castaneda. ``Like all shows it has some effect. There is somebody you can go to now,'' he allows.

He argues, however, that the underlying causes of abuse are not being addressed. ``The commission recommends so and so be fired, but isn't answering the question: Why are there systematic human rights violations in Mexico? There is no effort to address policies. And the abuses are continuing.''

Opposition political party leaders generally praise the commission for starting a political culture that respects human rights. But they point out the CNDH is not looking into electoral fraud. The opposition questions the commission's lack of power and independence. For example, some government officials have ignored the CNDH's recommendations and requests for information. Critics say the Commission should not be part of the executive branch. ``Salinas can select which cases should be followed and which can be ignored,'' said Ciro Mayen, a congressman in the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party.

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