Pressure must be put on the government to reform its legal system, says LILA CABALLERO
THE Paradise Papers investigation, carried out by 95 media partners worldwide, has been all over the media this week, uncovering hundreds of secretive and unethical financial transactions of powerful individuals all over the world.
Media moments like these remind us just how important journalists’ work can be to democracy and society, to realise our rights to know and to hold elected officials to account.
Yet digging into the ins and outs of corruption in some countries can be so dangerous that it could easily cost journalists their life.
Mexico is a case in point. In the first seven months of 2017 alone, Article 19, a human rights organisation focusing on freedom of expression, documented 278 cases of attacks against journalists in the country, including eight murders and one forceful disappearance.
Half of these were at the hands of public officials and all of them happened in broad daylight, involving firearms.
Some of these journalists died uncovering links between the state and organised crime — which is seemingly at the heart of Mexico’s many problems. And journalists are not the only victims.
Since the then president Felipe Calderon launched a war on drugs and organised crime in 2006, violence has escalated across the whole of Mexico, with official records for 2016 showing 36,056 homicides and over 30,000 people reported as disappeared.
And these figures only show those cases that were reported to the authorities.
In Mexico justice appears to be a privilege enjoyed only by the rich and powerful, not by ordinary citizens. Reporting abuses and violence can sometimes backfire and result in victims being blamed by the authorities or even violent retaliation.
It is common for relatives of the disappeared to search for their loved ones through their own means, uncovering dozens of mass graves and exposing themselves to death threats from organised criminals and quite possibly public officials and security forces.
Widely reported by the international media, the forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College — after they were ambushed by the army in Guerrero state in September 2014 and the death and injuries of some of their classmates — raised huge red flags about the levels of impunity in Mexico.
It also pointed to the close ties that drug cartels have to security forces and public officials and the extent to which authorities work hard to prevent public or legal scrutiny of security forces, especially the military.
A group of independent interdisciplinary experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the case concluded that, while those convicted by the general attorney’s office of kidnapping and killing the 43 students were indeed part of an organised crime group, their confession was questionable and mostly came about after hours of torture.
The official account stating that the students’ bodies had been burnt in an open-air rubbish tip was scientifically deemed impossible by the experts.
The experts’ report made a series of recommendations for the Mexican authorities to follow new and more plausible lines of investigation.
But three years after their disappearance, the students have not yet been found, and the government is yet to follow the experts’ recommended lines of investigation.
Shockingly, victims’ families have been mistreated and even threatened by the authorities.
The Ayotzinapa case could easily be one of the most shocking instances where security forces attacked civilians, and one of the most widely reported cases worldwide.
Yet a few other, slightly more low profile, cases have followed. On June 19 2015, at least eight people were killed and dozens injured in Oaxaca state, as police closed in on protesters marching against the government’s education reform.
In May 2015, at least two people were tortured during a federal police security operation in the town of Tanhuato, Michoacan, and 22 of the 43 people killed during that operation were victims of arbitrary execution. The National Human Rights Commission found that police had tampered with evidence at the scene and planted guns in victims’ hands.
A good proportion of the violence in Mexico is at the hands of the army, which has patrolled the streets since 2006.
Even when a 2014 reform of the Code of Military Justice stripped the army of its longstanding exemption to be tried in civilian courts when violating common law, its involvement in recent cases of torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings has not been properly investigated through the mainstream legal system — political elites consider the army’s reputation far too important to tarnish.
While solidarity with the families of the Ayotzinapa victims and murdered journalists has helped keep cases alive on social media, international pressure on the Mexican government to bring about justice has not been strong enough to trigger meaningful actions.
And let us not forget that these high-profile cases are only the tip of the iceberg — in addition to the 43 students and famous journalists like Javier Valdez, there are tens of thousands of victims whose families are still seeking justice and reparation.
Unless threatened by major investors — which are key to keeping the government’s economic model running — or horribly exposed in the international arena to the extent that important global political alliances are at risk, the Mexican government will continue to drag its feet and refuse to shake up the justice system.
Ordinary citizens, politicians, activists and journalists all over the world need to know the extent to which human rights are consistently violated in Mexico and just how far impunity goes.
International pressure needs to start snowballing and that is exactly what Justice Mexico Now seeks to do in Britain.
Since 2015 we have campaigned to raise awareness of the human rights violations in Mexico, working closely with organisations and activists in Mexico and amplifying first-hand messages and victims’ accounts so they can reach British audiences.
We are part of British and European activist networks working towards the same goal and together we will build a solidarity movement that is so big and so loud that it will be impossible to ignore.
Please join us and make our voice heard loud and clear: justice for Mexico now.
• Lila Caballero is a founding member of and spokesperson for Justice Mexico Now.
• You can find more on Justice Mexico Now on Twitter on @JusticeMexicoUK and Facebook: facebook.com/JusticeMexicoNow. You can email the campaign on firstname.lastname@example.org.