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The same week that a coalition of Mexican activists appealed to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate President Felipe Calderon for war crimes, a leading member of the country’s peace movement was gunned down in the northern state of Sonora. The reverberations sent through the peace movement aside, it amounts to one more example of the fragile public security in a country that has seen around 50,000 homicides since 2006.
The petition of 23,000 signatures – the largest citizens’ complaint ever put to the ICC – urges the court to investigate both organized crime bosses and state actors for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the country’s five-year-old “Drug War”. Since December 2006, President Calderon has deployed some 50,000 troops and federal officers around the country to crack down on drug-traffickers, and the violence has long since spun out of control.
Prominent peace activist Nepomuceno Moreno Nunez was killed last Tuesday; shot seven times by gunmen while driving through the city of Hermosillo. He had joined the citizen-based peace movement “No Mas Sangre” (“No More Blood”) after his son disappeared last year. Moreno had been repeatedly refused police protection by authorities despite multiple threats against both him and his family for his role in the campaign.
Impunity reigns. Far from condemning the execution of Moreno, Sonora’s attorney general, Abel Murrieta Gutierrez, simply informed a press conference that the victim had a criminal record: he was arrested and jailed on firearm charges in 2005. Murrieta neglected to mention that Moreno was later released from prison and absolved of the charges.
The Movimiento Por la Paz (“Movement for Peace”), which opposes both the drug gangs and the government’s militarization policy, gathered steam in May with a 100,000-strong march on Mexico City’s Zocalo square. It was organized by a poet named Javier Sicilia who has become the symbolic leader of the movement since his son was murdered in an apparent case of mistaken identity earlier this year.
“His family is terrified,” Sicilia said on national television in response to Moreno’s murder. “This is collusion with crime. Otherwise, it’s not possible for a man to be killed like this… I don’t know where the state ends and organized crime begins.”
Ironically, Moreno was one of several representatives of the movement who met publicly with President Calderon in July. Sensing the campaign’s growing momentum, the government made a move to co-opt it, indulging Sicilia and co with a chic public relations op at Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle.
But Sicilia and many like him haven’t budged from their stance. Since the initial march in May, the movement has organized “Caravans for Peace” that have crisscrossed Mexico to promote an alternative strategy in the “war on drugs”.
Speaking in Guadalajara last week, Sicilia proposed a truce between drug gangs and authorities to last two days over Christmas (December 24-25) while the principal actors reflect on the destruction they’ve caused. One gang – Los Caballeros Templarios from the state of Michoacan – has even claimed it will respect the ceasefire, so long as the government does the same.
It’s not only the stark failure of the government’s security policy that makes so many Mexicans uneasy, but also the stockpile of evidence of government collusion with organized crime. Of the two major political parties – the Institutional Party of the Revolution (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN) – both have a history of cloak-and-dagger deals with drug-trafficking organizations, often backing one group to eliminate another. Felipe Calderon’s PAN, in power since 2000, has been repeatedly linked to the country’s largest criminal organization, the Sinaloa Cartel; led by Forbes Rich List member Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
It’s a result of this frustration that a coalition of activists, lawyers, academics and journalists began collecting signatures to petition the International Criminal Court to investigate Calderon, along with other government officials and leading drug lords, for their role in the violence. Netzai Sandoval, the lawyer representing the complaint, argues that both sides have been complicit in murder, rape, forced disappearances, torture, and attacks upon the civilian population.
The bare statistics speak for themselves. Of the some 50,000 murders tallied since 2006, authorities have investigated less than 10 per cent of cases. During the same period, over 4,000 complaints have been brought by civilians against the military; with just one officer convicted so far. In one of the most notorious examples, soldiers killed two university students in Monterrey and then planted weapons at the scene so they appeared to be gunmen – shades of Colombia’s “false positives” scandal.
The International Criminal Court has so far investigated eight countries for either war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide; seven of which are African nations. Three of these cases were referred by the states in question, two by the UN Security Council, and two by ICC prosecutors. The court can only investigate countries party to the Rome Statute that founded it and unlike the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, may only bring cases against individuals, not states.
Sandoval has presented the ICC with a list of names involved on both sides of Mexico’s “Drug War” conflict, from Calderon and his ministers of Public Security and Defense to several leading drug lords; which prompts the tantalizing, if unlikely, image of Calderon and “El Chapo” Guzman sharing the defendants’ table in The Hague.
The petition also accuses the Mexican state of neglecting the rights of migrants, both Mexican and Central American, who face kidnappings, beatings, extortion and death on a daily basis as they transit the country. The government’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) reported 214 cases of mass kidnappings in 2010 alone, for a total of 11,333 victims. Such abuses often get lost in the haze of coverage about drug-related violence, although occasionally they are one and the same. The shocking discovery of 193 suspected migrants in a mass grave in August – a massacre widely attributed to the Zetas drug cartel – made headlines worldwide.
However, many international law experts are doubtful over how successful an ICC investigation into Mexico would be, if indeed the court finds reason to prosecute at all. Based on its admittedly short history, the ICC prefers to investigate a specific and limited range of crimes and reserves the right to decline cases that don’t meet its “threshold of gravity” (it declined to investigate coalition forces in Iraq on such a basis). The court receives up to 3000 individual complaints every year, opening investigations into no more than twelve.
A professor of international law at Britain’s Middlesex University told the UK Guardian that: “The prosecutor has [so far] been very focused on Africa. The pattern is he stays within the comfort zone of the United States… going after Mexicans for the war on drugs falls outside that comfort zone.”
To illustrate the point, the ICC has been conducting preliminary investigations into Colombia, which has the worst human rights record in Latin America, since 2006. State authorities there have been accused of using the country’s two-headed war on drug-trafficking and left-wing guerrillas as a cover for all manner of abuses against union leaders, social movements and marginalized communities. Like Mexico, however, Colombia has received billions of dollars of US aid to purchase military equipment and is held up by Washington as “one of the leading democracies in the region”.
The Calderon administration came out fighting against the allegations, calling the petition to the ICC “absurd” and threatening legal action against the organizers. The more criticism the PAN receives, the more right-wing it becomes. Last Wednesday in the Senate, the party once again argued for legislation that would effectively equate social movements which “pressure the authorities with their demands” with terrorists; an add-on to prior anti-terrorism reforms. It’s beyond ironic; Calderon’s six-year term began with mass protests and demands for a recount after he was accused of a fraudulent victory over his left-wing rival.
The reform is unlikely to get by political opponents, but it raises the question of just what constitutes “terrorism” in a country where impunity, corruption and murder are daily events.
PAUL IMISON is a journalist based in Mexico City.. He can be reached at email@example.com.