Mexico's Human Rights Record Faces Popular Challenge

Political repression, drug war seen as behind growing abuses

IN the three weeks since it was formed, Mexico's new National Human Rights Commission has been showered with denunciations over the growing number of human rights violations here. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari formed the commission on June 6, just days after human rights activist and respected lawyer Norma Corona was gunned down on the streets of Culiac'an, Sinaloa. In the wake of that brazen and unprecedented attack, the commission has rapidly become the central test of the president's pledge to end impunity for rights violators.

``We will confront the new threats to human rights wherever they come from,'' Salinas said in forming the commission. ``The political line of this government is to end all forms of impunity.''

But human rights has become a hot new issue in Mexico both because of the high number of violations since the Salinas administration took office, and because of Mexicans' growing intolerance toward abuses, political analysts say. The shift in public attitude is illustrated by the formation in March of an independent nongovernment Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.

``Never before have human rights been so extensively violated with such political purposes,'' says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a leading political commentator. He says the new Human Rights Commission must work quickly if it is to demonstrate the government is genuinely concerned.

Within a week after the government commission opened its doors, the United States-based human rights group Americas Watch issued a harshly critical report entitled ``Human Rights in Mexico: a Policy of Impunity,'' charging that killings, torture, and other abuses have become ``institutionalized.''

Commenting on the ``excessive violence and abuse'' committed by police, the report concluded that: ``Either the Mexican government has adopted a policy of tolerating such behavior or it has lost control over its police, security, and prosecutorial agencies.''

The church-related Dominican Human Rights Center says that between December 1988 and February 1990, there were 511 illegal arrests, 331 cases of mistreatment or torture, 33 disappearances, and 90 other violations.

The Americas Watch report cites two reasons for growing human rights problems: the government's zeal in the US-backed war on drug trafficking; and heightened political tensions caused by an active new political opposition led by former presidential candidate Cuauht'emoc C'ardenas.

In a recent interview, Mr. C'ardenas said ``the climate of violence imposed by the government, mainly stemming from failing to respect the vote'' is a major obstacle for his center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution). The PRD reports 70 PRD activists slain since the July 1988 presidential elections. Roughly 30 were killed in confrontations over electoral fraud in the states of Guerrero and Michoac'an in the first three months of this year.

Mexico's situation is not without irony, since its government has denounced rights violations in nations like Chile and El Salvador, while denying abuses at home.

The National Human Rights Commission has already recommended dismissal or arrests of several Federal Judicial Police for the torture and extortion of a Sinaloa farmer, the death of a customs employee, and threats against the rector of the University of Sinaloa.

Indeed, the judicial police appear in several prominent rights cases. The government commission (which has no binding legal power), in its investigation into the slaying of Norma Corona, found she had been investigating the torture deaths of a Mexican lawyer and three Venezuelans in Culiac'an. She had received numerous death threats, and told friends she suspected the judicial police, according to her father and newspapers. All four of the victims' cases she investigated had been taken from their homes by heavily armed men who identified themselves as Federal Judicial Police anti-narcotics agents.

In another case, Salomon Mendoza Barajas, the PRD mayor of the town of Aguililla, Michoac'an was arrested May 5, after a still unexplained shooting in a distant village left three federal antinarcotics agents dead.

``They arrested me because I am a member of the PRD,'' Mr. Mendoza said in a prison interview. Before the shooting, Mendoza had led protests against federal police looting in Aguililla.

The governors of the states of Durango, Sinaloa, and Sonora have publicly denounced abuses by the antinarcotics police.

But those police, led by Assistant Attorney General Javier Coello Trejo, are considered one of the success stories of the Salinas administration. Mr. Coello has denied charges of abuses by his agents. ``We are the protectors of society,'' he said in an interview.

Earlier this year, however, four judicial police agents, including three from Coello's staff of bodyguards, were charged with 19 gang rapes between March and September last year.

In case after case, towns and individuals subject to anti-narcotics police raids claim agents ransacked homes and businesses.

More recently, Jorge Castaneda, an academic and a leading government critic, charged he was the subject of a government campaign of harassment and intimidation by security agents.

Mr. Castaneda's assistant, Mariana Rodriguez Villegas, was twice accosted by unidentified men who threatened here with a gun and threatened Castaneda's life.

Castaneda told the magazine Proceso this week that now was the moment for Salinas to act to rein in the situation.

``This bit of violation of human rights,'' says Castaneda, ``with the international scandal that it provokes, with the conscience that the government is expressing that something is wrong, could be an opporturnity for Salinas himself to try to achieve national reconciliation.''

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