PROMINENT human-rights lawyer Norma Corona Sapien made a chilling prophecy shortly before she was gunned down in May 1990: "If something happens to me, those responsible will be Federal Judicial Police officers."Until now, the suspected assassins remained unidentified. But her death was a crucial catalyst. Two weeks later, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced the formation of the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH). It's taken nearly a year and a half, but last week the commission got a break in the highly publicized case, and the Salinas administration regained lost ground on human rights. A Federal Judicial Police commander, Mario Alberto Gonzalez Trevino, was charged last Friday with the murder of Norma Corona and three other unrelated killings, as well as torture and illegal detention. The breakthrough came on the heels of two stinging reports by Americas Watch and Amnesty International, a London-based human-rights group, that critique Mexico's human-rights situation. "The Salinas administration has not reversed Mexico's long-standing policy of impunity for those who commit human-rights abuses," says a September America's Watch report. Mexico's Attorney General Ignacio Morales Lechuga, who is responsible for the Federal Judicial Police, characterized Mr. Gonzalez Trevis antinarcotics work as "outstanding." But he said big drug busts did not put the commander above the law.
Cracking the Corona case Mr. Morales Lechuga credited the CNDH with cracking the case by obtaining testimony in recent days that his own investigators could not. "The witnesses had confidence in, they trusted in, the National Human Rights Commission but not in the work of us in the attorney general's office," he said at a press conference. The movement on this case provides the CNDH with a feather in its cap. Begun last June, this ombudsman agency's main role is to investigate complaints of human-rights abuses and make recommendations to appropriate authorities. Since it began, the 260 staffers have received 4,868 complaints and made 119 recommendations. It has no legal authority but it does have President Salinas's backing. "As currently composed, it is a force for good in Mexico," says Ellen Lutz of Americas Watch, a US-based human-rights group. "Commission President [Supreme Court Justice] Jorge Carpizo is strong, extraordinarily independent, and determined to track down abuses." Amnesty International welcomes the legal and organizational reforms taken to date but states in its report that: "Torture continues to be widespread.... But those responsible have seldom been investigated and even more rarely prosecuted." The commission responds that it's been hampered by a lack of evidence in many of the torture complaints. Of the 40 torture cases mentioned in the Amnesty report, the CNDH has investigated 30, and of those, 22 have resulted in recommendations. In a Sept. 25 statement, the CNDH agreed torture has not disappeared - although outlawed by Mexican Constitution - but says it has diminished. As a percentage of total complaints received by the CNDH, torture has dropped from 13.4 percent to 9.06 percent in the late st semester. Attorney General Morales Lechuga, whose appointment in May was widely viewed as a move to curtail human-rights abuses, says he has had 34 police officers arrested for "abuses of authority bureaucratic lingo for torture. Last February, new federal laws designed to prevent the use of torture were put into effect. Confessions, for example, are only valid now if obtained in the presence of a judge, or public prosecutor, or defense attorney, or someone the accused trusts. But human-rights activists say the reforms do not go far enough. "Torture continues not just at the federal but at the state level," says Marie Claire Acosta, president of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, a nongovernmental group. She says public prosecutors often work too closely with the police for a decree to stop the practice of extracting confessions through torture.
Commission lacks teeth Americas Watch recommends confessions only be taken in the presence of a judge and defense attorney. Critics of the CNDH have complained since it was formed that it lacks teeth. In some cases involving top officials, the commission has been blocked and recommendations ignored. "The failure of state and federal officials to comply with the commission's recommendations - and the failure of President Salinas to require such compliance - seriously undermines the commission's ability to assist individuals," Americas Watch says. Without any judicial authority, the strength of the CNDH depends on publicity, the political will of the executive branch, and the commission director. "It's not truly independent. To be a real ombudsman, the appointments should come from the Congress," Ms. Acosta says. Acosta questions whether much progress on human rights would be made without the publicity and attention Mexico is getting in the United States Congress, which is expected to vote on a North American free-trade pact early next year. "Progress on the Norma Corona case is a direct result of the pressure put on the government by Americas Watch, Amnesty International, and local human-rights groups," Acosta says.