The U.S. government-funded Merida Initiative was supposed to bolster Mexican government efforts to promote the rule of law and human rights. The accountability failures exposed by the Iguala atrocity suggest that it’s time to take a closer look, to ensure that U.S. taxpayer money is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Yet so far, Mexico’s government has long treated Guerrero’s civil society as a threat rather than as a partner – jailing its leaders – like Nestora Salgado, a migrant who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in the state of Washington. She returned to her hometown of Olinala to lead the community police, taking on rapists and murderers. Her “crime” was to challenge her local government’s collaboration with organized crime, naming names. She remains in federal prison even though a court dismissed the charges – and her daughter has recently received death threats.
Back in May, 2013, Iguala’s now-infamous mayor had presided over a kidnapping of eight, followed by the murder of three local opposition activists. According to the testimony of a surviving witness, the mayor followed a bad movie script, declaring “I’m going to enjoy killing you” just before he fired. For more than a year, Mexican Bishop Raul Vera’s human rights campaign, indigenous congressperson Carlos De Jesus Alejandro and others had tried to persuade the federal government to intervene, but the Attorney General responded that this was a local matter. Besides, he said, concerned citizens needed to provide more evidence - as though it wasn’t the government’s job to investigate. It’s not just a local problem anymore. Now, to find solutions, the government should listen to the Guerrero public interests groups that had sounded the alarm.
President Peña Nieto, in a rare admission, has now recognized that the country’s institutions and society are being “put to the test.” Indeed, the local army base was within earshot three kilometers away, and survivors report that soldiers told them they asked for it. The state government had looked the other way for years while the region fell into a reign of terror, ignoring even a public plea from Guerrero’s usually-influential business leaders.
Impunity is the norm in part because Guerrero’s courts are opaque and ineffective, while a once-promising 2008 national judicial reform gathers dust. The official National Human Rights Commission has been absent. The mayor and the governor had been elected on the ticket of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution, once a defender of human rights. All the checks and balances failed.
The Mexican federal government has recently made a show of force in the region, taking over policing in a dozen municipalities and sending local officers off for training and apparently belated vetting. What is missing in the government’s response so far is an effort to partner with Guerrero’s deep, diverse civil society. The state’s repeated waves of of pro-democracy movements goes back to the 1920s, when a grassroots organizer was elected mayor of Acapulco (later murdered).
Today, in spite of the climate of repression, Guerrero is filled with groups that are ready to be listened to: brave human rights defenders, coffee cooperatives, indigenous rights advocates, grassroots environmentalists, women’s health promoters, cross-border migrant philanthropy clubs, as well as broad-based community-based police forces in the state’s mountain and coastal regions. The kidnapped teacher college students were part of this non-partisan civil society, and their cause was the defense of the right to public education for the rural poor.
U.S. aid to Mexican security forces included human rights conditions. Until the Mexican government tries harder to protect its citizens who stand up for human rights, rather than putting them in jail, it’s hard to see how those conditions are being met.
Fox, professor in American University’s School of International Service, has carried out extensive research in rural Mexico and focuses on the relationship between citizen participation. transparency and accountability.