Public Security, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law: Challenges for Mexico's Next President
Andrew Selee, Director, Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center
Laurie Freeman, Mexico Associate, Washington Office on Latin America
Mariclaire Acosta, Director for the Promotion of Good Governance, Organization of American States
Presentations on Public Security and Rule of Law
Gabriela Pérez, Independent Consultant on Police Reform, formerly with FUNDAR; Mexico City
Sigrid Arzt, Director, Democracia, Derechos Humanos y Seguridad; Mexico City
Ana Paula Hernández, Deputy Director, Centro de Derechos Humanos Tlachinollan; Tlapa, Guerrero
Laurie Freeman, Mexico Associate, Washington Office on Latin America; Washington, DC
Daniel Wilkinson, Deputy Director for the Americas, Human Rights Watch; Washington, DC
Moderator: Eric Olson, Advocacy Director for the Americas, Amnesty International
Crime is a hot-button issue in Mexico, ranking about equal to the economy among the chief concerns that Mexicans will consider when casting their votes in the upcoming elections. Yet the main presidential candidates, beyond indicating that they will be tough on crime, have not always been clear about their proposals for reforming and strengthening police and justice institutions so that they may more effectively prevent and punish crime. On June 9, 2006 the Mexico Institute and the Washington Office on Latin America hosted a conference to address how Mexico's law enforcement and criminal justice systems contribute to crime and impunity, as well as provide recommendations for how Mexico's next president should address longstanding problems of police and prosecutorial corruption, abuse, and inefficiency. Andrew Selee emphasized that while the Fox administration has advanced in addressing some concerns related to public security, there are many challenges that still face the Mexican government in order to achieve a judicial system that is both trustworthy and respectful of human rights.
Mariclaire Acosta pointed out that although Mexico has made significant progress towards political democracy, it needs institutions based in the rule of law that guarantee civil, political, economic, and social rights before it can be deemed fully democratic. As it is now, she characterized Mexico as a degraded democracy with deficiencies in three main areas: the application of the law, the relationship between state institutions and citizens, and access to justice. The danger, she asserted, is that many political parties maintain the false belief that democracy has already been achieved, and therefore fail to recognize and focus on the structural reforms needed in the justice system. The presidential campaigns exemplify this neglect, where the issues of judicial reform and public security have gone unaddressed. Campaign rhetoric has been limited to calling for increased punishment of criminals instead of dealing with true flaws of the justice system that include structural human rights abuses, impunity, discrimination, and the excessive use of force. Acosta cited a 2000 UNDP report that indicated shockingly low levels of confidence in the Mexican judicial system due to the absence of legal equality and protection against discrimination. The report further noted that investment in the judiciary is less than 1 percent of the national budget. She added that in the year 2000 there were only seven judges for every 100,000 people, a statistic she believed not to have improved significantly in the past six years.
Acosta emphasized the importance of the role of civil society in pushing for reform, noting that presidential candidates might address judicial reform and public security if civil society put more pressure for action on the issue. Acosta challenged the incoming Mexican government with two important tasks: to deal with its past of impunity of state repression and to establish institutional reforms to ensure democratic governance and access to justice. She asserted that the rule of law should guarantee and sanction participation as well as establish networks of accountability within the judicial system that go beyond electoral accountability. Acosta warned that if the judiciary is not reformed, that Mexican democracy will be incapable of satisfying basic needs of the Mexican people, thus jeopardizing its sustainability.
Eric Olson commented that one of the great ironies in Mexico is that although the issue of public security is crucial for all Mexican citizens, Mexican politicians and political parties still can do well in public opinion, even if they fail to address this issue.
Gabriela Pérez pointed to structural causes at the root of the public security crisis, where institutions that functioned efficiently in an authoritarian system do not in an open and democratic society. Pérez asserted that far too few criminals were adequately punished but emphasized that the solution is not stricter sentencing but rather improved judicial institutions. She stated that although there has in fact been an increase in funding to the justice system through the National System for Public Security and Justice, the money is not being distributed to where it is most needed, instead going solely towards crime prevention. Pérez drew attention to another crucial structural flaw of the judicial system- the inefficient and costly separation of police forces among the municipal, state, and federal levels, as well as into preventative and judicial bodies at the municipal and state levels. President Fox's proposal in the year 2000 to create a unified police force that would incorporate both groups would have been an improvement, but further necessary changes to the system would include creating a presumption of innocence and a separate criminal justice system for minors. Pérez noted that a challenge for the incoming administration will be to protect human rights while simultaneously enacting a "tough" policy against crime.
Sigrid Arzt outlined key structural, political and social changes that need to be made in order to promote public security in Mexico: an increased and strengthened civilian capacity, equal distribution of responsibility among the three levels of government, increased transparency and accountability, and the promotion of a culture of legality. She argued that although some positive reforms have been made since the 1990's; for example, the fact that there is now political plurality at the state level helps prevent state governments from abusing the law to prosecute political "enemies." However, local human resources are still insufficient in capacity and preparation. Police officers have no training or knowledge in ethics, police work, tactics, or the use of force. As a result, federal officers who are meant to only deal with federal crimes end up subsidizing what the state and local level officials are not willing to do. Further, in many states governors have opted to use the military instead of investing in the police and public prosecutors, with whom the legal responsibility lies. Arzt pointed out that the candidates have said very little on the subject of public security, aside from all agreeing that the system should be changed from accusatorial to inquisitorial, but she questioned whether there would be incentives for them to institute change when the uninvolved civil society remains uninvolved and is unlikely to press for reform.
Focusing on the state of Guerrero, Ana Paula Hernández emphasized that policy based on strengthening and militarizing the police is not the solution. In Guerrero, one of the poorest states in the country and known historically for being affected by drug trafficking, this tactic has not succeeded in lowering the level of violence or ensuring public security. Even since the PRD came to power in 2005 promising reform, corrupt government officials who have been implicated in various crimes and human rights violations continue to remain in power. Further, the lack of financial, human and material resources has made police forces a very weak match for organized crime. Hernández pointed out that organized crime has embedded itself into the structure of state and federal institutions, where public security forces and members of the army have become deeply involved in drug trafficking. She asserted that the system of public security is a reflection of democracy, where the quality of democracy is directly proportional to the quality of security. The case of Guerrero demonstrates that the institutions of justice and security have not gone through the democratization process, especially considering that police forces are the principle human rights violators. Hernández emphasized that control and accountability mechanisms must be created, as well as human rights training programs. She warned that unless mistrust and the common perception that police are allied to crime is combated through better relations between citizens and police public security, democracy will not improve in Guerrero.
Laurie Freeman called attention to the case of Ciudad Juárez, where over 400 girls and women have been murdered since 1993. She asserted that Juárez is an extreme example of how weak public security and law enforcement institutions, along with the lack of respect for women's rights and the rule of law, has led to a chain reaction of human rights violations. She pointed to how the system has failed the families of these women, who are often denied access to justice. The community lives in a state of profound insecurity where indifference and negligence have characterized the government's reaction to the murders. Distrust has been further heightened by the fabrication of evidence and torture of scapegoats into false confessions. Freeman pointed out that only when the situation gained national and international attention did the government begin to act and since then the federally-appointed prosecutor found 177 state police, prosecutors and forensic personnel responsible for negligence, malfeasance, and abuse. Freeman noted that the only way for judicial institutions to earn the trust of society is through transparency, accountability and by treating victims with respect. She further emphasized that the political will necessary to solve the crimes is often impeded by the corrosive impact of rampant drug trafficking and organized crime on judicial institutions.
Daniel Wilkinson gave an overview on President Fox's human rights agenda and its outcome after the six years he has been in office based on the report prepared by Human Rights Watch, Lost in Transition: Bold Ambitions, Limited Results for Human Rights under Fox. After a history of an absolute lack of accountability for those in office, systematic cover-ups, and denial of human rights, President Fox's election raised hopes that improvements would be made to the system. Although President Fox welcomed input from the international community and enacted a transparency law, little other progress was made. Wilkinson commented that while many of the problems with the system were exposed, they were not sufficiently addressed, and those policies that were implemented, often fell short. He did emphasize, however, that some elements of the government's proposed reform package could still be salvaged. President Fox's proposals to address two of Mexico's most prominent problems, the use of torture and excessive preventive detention, should be implemented. To combat the use of torture in extracting confessions, President Fox proposed making confessions only valid if given before a judge. Wilkinson also commended President Fox's proposal to shorten list of serious crimes that require preventive detention in an attempt to relieve overcrowded Mexican prisons, since many people are currently jailed without ever being convicted of a crime. Wilkinson emphasized a fear held by several of the panelists that the incoming administration, whoever is elected, might not pick up where President Fox left off.
Drafted by Kate Brick