OAXACA, MEXICO — Before he was tied up, thrown in the back of a truck, and tortured in prison, Gonzalo heard words he'll never forget. "The poor will always be poor and the rich will always be rich," a police officer taunted. "So why don't you go home and abandon your struggle."
But the violent crackdown didn't work. The teenage Gonzalo (whose last name I won't give) and many Mexicans like him are still waging their fight for economic justice. Such determination poses a problem – and an opportunity – for Mexico's newly elected president, conservative Felipe Calderón. Last summer's hotly contested election, which he won by a razor-thin margin, underscored Mexico's political, economic, and regional divisions. Unifying the country won't be easy. But he could begin by repairing Mexico's appalling human rights reputation. To do so, he'll have to rein in the country's infamously abusive police forces. United Nations and European human rights investigators have condemned the police abuse. The United States should do the same.
For his part in a protest march last fall demanding an end to state corruption and higher wages for state employees, Gonzalo says he was beaten multiple times during his 21 days in prison, not allowed to see an attorney, and never formally charged.
I heard his story and many others during an investigation here in the restive southern state of Oaxaca this past December as part of a nongovernmental human rights delegation. They reinforce the dismal picture given by the latest Human Rights Watch report. It says torture remains "a widespread problem within the Mexican criminal justice system." Some judges continue to accept evidence obtained through torture. And more than 40 percent of Mexico's prisoners have never been convicted.
Tension between demonstrators and police has been growing. In Oaxaca, at least 23 people have died in recent months during demonstrations that turned violent when some protesters fought attacking police with Molotov cocktails and slingshots. Such confrontations last year kept most tourists – and their business – away. This angered many middle-class shop owners and others who cater to tourists, widening the split between the haves and have-nots.
It doesn't help that Oaxaca State's governor, Ulises Ruiz, hasn't developed the regional economy. Indeed, its lack of jobs has made it a main point of departure for Mexicans entering America illegally. "When I go back to my village, I see all those barefoot kids," says Gonzalo. "The only hope they have is to go to the US."
The few federal officials who agreed to meet with us defended the actions by state police as restrained and necessary to restore public order, while indicating their displeasure with federal police, sent in by Mr. Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, with tremendous force and firepower to break up demonstrations.
Therein lies the great test for Calderón. He took office with a two-pronged pledge: greater economic security for the half of Mexico that lives in poverty, and greater physical security against lawlessness and drug trafficking. He's confronted the latter with a hard-line approach: sending federal police to take on drug lords in several locations. Addressing the former will require similarly bold action – but in the opposite direction. Mexico's poor feel the oppression of poverty, but they also feel the oppression of state and local police.
For Calderón to succeed on human rights, he must:
• Stop the suppression of a legitimate protest movement and open negotiations on underlying issues of poor pay, lack of state government transparency, and allegations of state electoral fraud.
• Investigate the violence and prosecute those responsible.
• Ensure that Mexico complies with its international human rights commitments.
Protesters, meanwhile, must rein in the minority among them (including infiltrators) who would resort to violence.
Police have a duty to keep order, but Calderón has a duty to clamp down on abuse of power. If he does that, his effort to unite Mexicans while fighting poverty just might succeed.
• Robert M. Press, a former Monitor correspondent, teaches political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. He's the author of "Peaceful Resistance: Advancing Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms."