U.N. human rights expert criticizes abuses in México

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, is concluding a weeklong visit to Mexico, where she expressed concern over abuse of citizens by police and soldiers fighting organized crime groups. The major effort against drug cartels and other criminal organizations that began shortly after Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in December, 2006, has now claimed around 40,000 lives. Experts say ending official corruption and impunity is the biggest challenge the government faces in trying to win the war.

On her visit to Mexico, Ms. Pillay looked into problems including abuse of migrants and women. In a meeting with President Calderón, Ms. Pillay mentioned allegations against police and military forces in the war on drug traffickers.

“I view with concern the increasing reports of human rights violations attributed to state agents in the fight against organized crime,” Ms. Pillay said.

She said authorities should not view respect for human rights as an obstacle, but as part of the solution in combating crime.

President Calderón responded that the worst abusers of human rights in Mexico are the criminal gangs that have tortured, mutilated and killed thousands of people. The drug cartels are fighting the government and each other as they compete for lucrative smuggling routes and drug profits.

At the inauguration of a new criminal investigation laboratory, supported in part by funds from the United States, President Calderón spoke of the need for reform and modernization of police forces.

Calderón said human rights are protected when police use evidence to prove their case rather than confessions that might be made under duress.

Human rights groups complain that, in far too many cases, police without proper investigative skills detain suspects and torture them until they confess.

But President Calderón also condemned faults in the system that have allowed criminals to escape justice.

Calderón added that as long as criminals get away with crimes and go unpunished they will continue their illegal operations. He said Mexico must break the vicious cycle of impunity that allows transnational criminal organizations to operate.

To circumvent corrupt police, Calderón has used military forces against the powerful drug cartels. But deploying soldiers while trying to protect human rights is problematic, according to Mexico expert George Grayson of the College of William and Mary.

“Mexico has never, never had an honest, reliable, professional police force and this goes back to colonial times,” Grayson noted. “So Calderón had no choice, when he found areas of the country dominated by cartels, but to use the military and the military is trained to pursue, to capture, to kill and, in the process, there is often collateral damage of civilians.”

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