Human Rights Watch provided a thorough critique of Mexico’s anti-crime policies, describing a growing pattern of abuses by security officials amid a backdrop of stratospheric levels of violence, but the government's response seems wrong-headed.
The document, which was published last week and is titled "Neither Rights Nor Security," argues that President Felipe Calderon’s aggressive combat of criminal groups has failed on two fronts: It has utterly failed to rein in the violence, and it has proven unwilling or incapable of fielding a security force that does not carry out human rights violations.
The New York-based NGO spent two years compiling the report, which focuses on three different classifications of abuse: torture, enforced disappearances (in which security agencies are suspected of participating), and extrajudicial killings. As the report’s authors write:
Human Rights Watch found evidence of a significant increase in human rights violations since Calderon launched his “war on organized crime.” In the five states examined, members of security forces systematically use torture to obtain forced confessions and information about criminal groups. And evidence points to the involvement of soldiers and police in extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances around the country.
The patterns of violations that emerge in the accounts of victims and eyewitnesses, an analysis of official data, and interviews with government officials, law enforcement officers, and civil society groups strongly suggest that the cases documented in this report are not isolated acts. Rather, they are examples of abusive practices endemic to the current public security strategy.
The report also discusses the inadequacies of the government’s attempts to limit such abuses. Accusations are frequently ignored or downgraded by prosecutors, while government officials often blame the victim by assuming that anyone unlucky enough to be victimized by soldiers or police must have had it coming. Furthermore, just 16 out of 32 Mexican states (including the federal district of Mexico City) have specific laws against torture, while only a quarter have legislation explicitly banning enforced disappearances.
Mr. Calderon responded, as he has in the past, by saying the main threat to citizens is from criminals, not the government. It is almost certainly true that the human rights violators represent a small minority of the government officials, while violating human rights is a rather fundamental part of most gangs’ operations, but in his response, Calderon is skirting the issue.
The most obvious flaw with Calderon’s logic is that he is comparing apples to oranges – the criminal gangs are more abusive precisely because they are criminal gangs. If the best the government can do to address the issues raised by the HRW report is to say that the criminals are worse, it’s hard to imagine a more damning indictment.
Furthermore, while the government is understandably embarrassed by the content of the report, the automatic assumption that the ultimate interests of HRW and the Mexican government are in conflict is short-sighted. One point that does not get made often enough is that the abuses outlined in the report are not the case of a juggernaut government stepping on a few toes while otherwise doing a good job; they are symptomatic of a broadly ineffective force unable to keep up with the demands of the task at hand. If the Mexican military and police agencies were less prone to extra-legal activities, than they would almost certainly be more effective in their pursuit of criminals.
The authors of the HRW report point to the rising violence in Mexico as a sign that the government’s policies are failing. Here the evidence is a bit less clear. The government’s claim is essentially that their aggressive stance against criminals, resulting in many clashes and deaths, is necessary because of years of official collusion or indifference regarding organized crime. The argument is that things have to get worse before they can get better. In other words, insofar as it is related to the government’s strategy and not the dynamics within the drug trade, the violence today is the necessary byproduct of investment in a safer future for Mexico.
That is not implausible, and if it proves true, it will be an effective rejoinder to those who say all the suffering has been in vain. However, it is an impossible claim to prove today. Consequently, Calderon is asking Mexico to endure an enormous amount of bloodshed in exchange for an improvement at an undetermined point in the future. A further problem with with Calderon’s argument, and an inherent flaw with any strategy that entails a huge upsurge in violence for uncertain future gains, is that if he’s wrong, it won’t be Calderon who has to pick up the pieces, as he leaves office in December 2012. Unfortunately, the Mexicans bearing the burden of the criminal battles have nowhere to go.
--- Patrick Corcoran is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.