Mexico's human rights chief accused of ignoring powerful abusers

Those who monitor Mexico's human rights commission say it often focuses on social ills – like school bullying or racial discrimination – rather than high-profile cases of elected officials abusing power or abuses that put the military in a bad light.

Alejandro Acosta/Reuters/File
A woman stands between embroidered handkerchiefs hanging from a clothes line in a park in Guadalajara May 13, 2012. The display is created by a group of people who gather in the park on Sundays and embroider handkerchiefs with the names and stories of victims killed or gone missing in the drug war.

As Mexico’s national human rights ombudsman, Raul Plascencia Villanueva oversees a sizable corps of investigators who look into the atrocities and massacres that commonly put the country in the headlines.

The job has made Mr. Plascencia a raft of enemies, but they are not the crooked cops and corrupt politicians behind some of the abuses currently roiling Mexico. His fiercest foes are human rights monitors, who say he is inept, unconcerned about crime victims, and beholden to politicians.

They are battling Plascencia’s attempt to obtain another five-year term to lead the National Human Rights Commission, a semi-autonomous entity that receives its budget equivalent of $115 million entirely from the federal government.

Led by a former Roman Catholic priest, Alberto Athie, some 80 groups advocating for human rights, social justice, and more effective government presented Congress with a demand last month that Plascencia be impeached from his post. They accused him of casting a blind eye on “innumerable human rights violations in Mexico.”

The movement against Plascencia began with the failure of the National Human Rights Commission to shed light on the late June killing of 22 civilians southwest of Mexico City that eventually was tied to Mexican soldiers – by the news media. It intensified after the disappearance late last month of 43 student teachers who’d been detained by police in Guerrero state. They remain missing.

“The damage to the country is enormous. Rule of law is at stake,” Mr. Athie says.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, legislators created the National Human Rights Commission to fight the kind of impunity that allowed police and soldiers to routinely use torture, and let the government in the 1960s and 1970s launch a “dirty war” on leftists that left hundreds “disappeared.”

The commission has no judicial or police powers. It receives complaints, deploys investigators to probe them, and issues recommendations. But the ombudsman potentially has a powerful bully pulpit to ensure protection for victims of official abuse, to air cases in public, and to put a spotlight on officials or institutions that prey on the citizenry.

In certain ways, the debate swirling around Plascencia is emblematic of deeper concerns about Mexico’s governance. Legislators create institutions to investigate or prosecute wrongdoing that look good on paper, but then appoint ineffectual leaders who respond to political interests and allow operations to unfold with little transparency and few results, allowing corruption and abuses to go on.

“Mexico suffers from a disease – impunity,” says Ernesto Lopez Portillo Vargas, head of the Institute for Security and Democracy, a think tank on security reform. “It is a system of impunity throughout the institutional establishment.”

The National Human Rights Commission was created because of the weaknesses of the judiciary, and since its recommendations are often poorly done and “deeply deficient,” he says, the commission “adds to and contributes to impunity.”

“I believe this crisis in the National Human Rights Commission represents a broader institutional crisis,” Mr. Lopez Portillo says. “How can it be that a commission with so many resources and that produces so few recommendations gets away with it?”

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, concedes that the commission has “an erratic record.” He points out that it’s been promising for months a report on the tens of thousands of people who have simply disappeared since 2006 but has yet to do so.

He calls the debate over Plascencia’s successor a “unique opportunity” to discuss how the commission “can better fulfill its objectives.”

'A pattern'

Under Plascencia’s watch, which began in 2009, the commission grew in size – it now has some 1,000 employees, including many friends and relatives of members of Congress.

Those who monitor the commission’s work say it often focuses on social ills – such as school bullying or racial discrimination – rather than high-profile cases of elected officials abusing power or abuses that put the military in a bad light.

“It’s a pattern. The commission does not take up strong positions on many, many cases that come before it, and particularly when it involves the military,” says Mariclaire Acosta, director of the Mexican branch of Freedom House, a U.S. nonprofit group that promotes democracy, political freedom, and human rights.

Ms. Acosta, who also is a member of an advisory board to the commission, says the ombudsman “is chosen on the grounds of political criteria, not moral standing.”

The ombudsman has few legal responsibilities apart from overseeing a bureaucracy that is so big that “it is like a ministry,” Acosta says. “As things stand now, the only thing the ombudsman has to do is once a year is present a report. Have you read one? They are encyclopedic, impossible to read.”

Plascencia, a 49-year-old lawyer from Tijuana, rarely speaks publicly. His press office did not respond to a request for an interview, and spokesman Cristobal Montoya said he’d never known Plascencia to speak to the foreign media.

Despite his challenges at home, Plascencia was elected in 2013 as head of the Ibero-American Federation of Ombudsmen, a regional group. Presiding over its annual meeting Oct. 2, he told his colleagues that they “represent indispensable institutions for a civilized and inclusive world.”

'A nation of victims'

Mexico’s Congress must decide by Nov. 15 who will lead the National Human Rights Commission for the next five-year term, and Plascencia’s supporters say he wants to keep the job.

In the meantime, criticism mounts.

“He is a personality who pretends to defend human rights,” says Sergio Aguayo Quezada, an academic and human rights activist. “He’s not concerned about the victims. He’s concerned about his relations with senators and with the president.”

“We are a nation of victims,” Aguayo added, “and this is the tragedy here.”

Relatives of victims of crimes even have sued Plascencia and the commission for what they see as dilatory tactics and even violating their rights.

In June, a circuit court in Mexico City granted an injunction against the commission on behalf of relatives of 72 undocumented migrants who were victims of a mass murder by gunmen from Los Zetas crime group in 2010 as they headed to the US border.

The commission took three years and four months to issue a finding on the mass murder, which relatives say did not stress the right to life of the migrants and cleared the state of any responsibility for ensuring their safety.

“It’s astounding that victims would seek an injunction against the ombudsman,” Emilio Alvarez Icaza, executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, told an MVS Radio talk show.

Acosta, the Freedom House director, says the commission has never lived up to the dreams around its founding in 1990.

“The commission just became another bureaucratic post to favor X, Y, or Z group,” she says. “It’s an institution made in the old mode of Mexican politics.”

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