Mexican Rights Panel Called 'Disappointing'

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 14, 2008

TIJUANA, Mexico, Feb. 13 -- A leading U.S. human rights group said Wednesday that Mexico's national human rights commission fails to press the military to end abusive practices and "has helped create an atmosphere of distrust."

In a 128-page report released in Mexico City, the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch concluded that Mexico's commission "is failing to live up to its promise" and is "tolerating abusive practices." The report said the commission "has been disappointing," despite having a $73 million annual budget and 1,000 employees, making it "by far the largest of any ombudsman's office in the Americas and one of the largest in the world."

In a statement late Wednesday, the commission said that "many of the assertions in this report are unsupportable because they propose actions and conduct that exceed the legal limit of this institution."

The report adds to a crescendo of recent complaints about human rights abuses in Mexico. In the past week, Amnesty International and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights have raised concerns about abuses allegedly committed by the military during President Felipe Calder¿n's 14-month campaign against drug cartels. Numerous rights groups have called for the military to end its role in that effort.

Calder¿n, who visited several U.S. cities this week, has dispatched more than 20,000 soldiers and federal police officers to fight drug cartels. He says he will use the military less frequently only if Mexico's civil institutions become better prepared to combat crime.

The Human Rights Watch report said abuses committed by the military against civilians "are rarely punished." The report ascribes part of the blame to Mexico's rights commission because it routinely turns over cases to military authorities who "have proven unable to properly investigate and prosecute human rights cases."

The commission "fails to take on the military in a serious fashion, thereby allowing the military to continue to operate without controls," Jos¿ Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch's Americas director, said in an e-mail.

Jos¿ Luis Soberanes, the commission's president, has argued that civilian courts should handle cases involving military troops only when they are accused of committing a crime while off duty. But the Human Rights Watch report said the Mexican Supreme Court has ruled that civilian authorities can handle military cases.

The commission, the report states, settles 90 percent of its cases by signing secret "conciliation agreements" with government institutions that accept responsibility for rights abuses. Victims are not allowed to participate in conciliation negotiations and are often denied access to the commission's files, the report states.

There is seldom any follow-up by the commission to make sure government institutions end abusive practices, according to the report. It also "routinely abandons the human rights cases" that it publicly documents, rather than pushing for change and for violators to be punished, the report states.

"It is shameful that Mexico's human rights commission has so many deficiencies considering that it is one of the largest in the world," said Sergio Aguayo, founder of the Mexican Human Rights Academy, a nonprofit group. "The commission lacks the passion and the commitment needed to be an effective ombudsman."

The Human Rights Watch report states that the commission has opposed attempts to strengthen Mexico's state rights commissions and to bring the country into compliance with international human rights standards. In 2002, it refused to join in an analysis of Mexican human rights conducted by the administration of then-President Vicente Fox and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the report states.

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