Obama in Mexico: Little talk of human rights

The US has noted Mexico's 'significant human rights-related problems' in the past, but some say it and the Mexican government haven't done enough to encourage change.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
US President Barack Obama (l.) shakes hands with his Mexican counterpart Enrique Peña Nieto after a joint news conference at the National Palace in Mexico City Thursday. Obama arrived in Mexico on Thursday for a visit he hopes will draw attention to Mexico's emerging economic might, even as worries about containing drug-trafficking and related violence remain an inescapable subtext.

It didn’t appear to get much play in the meeting between presidents, but civil society organizations in Mexico and the United States say they hope human rights will be higher on the bilateral agenda than they have in recent years. 

Making respect for human rights central to the US-Mexico security strategy is a critical issue for those who have suffered at the hands of soldiers, police, investigators, and other authorities here.

Abuses mounted over the past six years, as the Mexican government deployed the military to police communities wracked by drug-related violence. The US has recognized Mexico's shortcomings on human rights, but some say it and the Mexican government haven't done enough to encourage change.

Separate issues?

In a 2012 report on human rights practices in Mexico, the State Department noted “significant human rights-related problems” such as “police and military involvement in serious abuses, including unlawful killings, physical abuse, torture, and disappearances.”

Ernesto López Portillo, director of Mexico’s Institute for Security and Democracy, or INSYDE, warns against the US providing “blind support” to Mexican institutions with poor track records on human rights.

“They aren’t separate issues, but the United States separates them,” Mr. López Portillo says. “The State Department emits a report systematically criticizing Mexico on human rights and then gives it money at the same time.”

As part of the Mérida Initiative, the US has provided $1.9 billion in aid to Mexico since 2008.

Last week, two dozen US lawmakers expressed similar concerns in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to make human rights a core feature of cooperation with Mexico. The letter cites the fourfold increase in complaints of torture and cruel treatment to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), as well as the high levels of impunity in the country for those who commit abuses.

Mexico’s defense department ranked No. 1 last year for complaints of human rights violations with the CNDH. According to Human Rights Watch, the military attorney general’s office opened some 5,000 investigations into human rights violations during the previous administration of Felipe Calderón; only four cases resulted in sentences.

Current President Enrique Peña Nieto frequently talks about the importance of human rights to his government – although it wasn't mentioned in the joint news conference he and President Obama held yesterday. In a speech last month on security, he said that public security institutions should operate from a “fundamental premise” of “safeguarding of the human rights of all Mexicans.”

But as the saying goes here, entre dicho y hecho hay mucho trecho – a rhyming allusion to the difficult distance that often separates word and deed.

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