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Human Rights in “The Land of the Good People”

In April the central Mexican city of Aguascalientes will burst alive with song, drink and dance. Drawing millions of visitors, the San Marcos Fair is Mexico’s annual spring celebration bar none. Extending into May, the three week-long bash is generally a peaceful affair. However, sore spots and controversies do crop up, including allegations of police misconduct.

For the 2015 edition of San Marcos, the official Aguascalientes Human Rights Commission (CEDHA) plans to be on hand observing police as well as informing the public about its rights. We recently spoke with CEDHA President Eduardo Jesus Martin about San Marcos and other themes related to his agency’s work on the human rights front.

According to Martin, CEDHA staff documented problematic policing at last year’s fair. Commission personnel found untrained officers from other municipalities deployed at the fair; patrols carrying assault weapons into extremely crowded quarters; officers failing to inform detainees of their rights; and cops using electric cattle prods on some suspects.

“You can’t enter the fair with long arms because it is a risk in a multitude of people, which can even take them away,” Martin said. “We told the police they have to have action protocols.” Since last year, the CEDHA has met with law enforcement officials, who’ve pledged not to use the electric prods and read suspects their rights, Martin said. In addition to the CEDHA the police department’s internal affairs unit will have a presence at the fair, he added.

Criticized by some and praised by others, the CEDHA is among the state-level human rights commissions that have emerged in Mexico since the 1980s. State commissions like Aguascalientes’ handle cases involving state government agencies and other local institutions, while the National Human Rights Commission focuses on federal agencies and issues.

Budgeted to the tune of about one million dollars, the 50 person staff of the CEDHA processes citizen complaints and issues corresponding recommendations to the appropriate authorities. Among other tasks, the commission inspects local prisons; wages workplace anti-discrimination and other campaigns, participates in an anti-drug program; and gives human rights training to commanders of the Federal Police, which maintains a large base in Aguascalientes.

“Citizens lack awareness of their rights and responsibilities,” Martin maintained, adding that the CEDHA is proactive in publicizing its existence through campaigns such as the mass mailing of flyers tucked into water utility bills to 350,000 state households.

A veteran attorney and long time human rights advocate, Martin was elected by the state legislature last year to a four-year term as the commission’s president. Five councilors also named by local lawmakers function as the board of directors of the organization. Martin said the CEDHA more than doubled the number of complaints it handled from 200 in 2013 to greater than 400 in 2014, while increasing the number of recommendations from 8 to 30 during the same time period.

“On the optimistic side, it is that we are doing well in Aguascalientes,” he said. “The pessimistic view is that we aren’t doing well.”

Like official human rights commissions elsewhere in the country, the CEDHA does not currently have the authority to enact its recommendations or levy sanctions against individuals and institutions determined to have violated human rights after a careful investigation by staff.

But Martin insisted that he is not shy about using the power of public shaming, and will have the CEDHA inform state lawmakers about government agencies and officials that do not follow the commission’s recommendations. In 2014, the CEDHA investigations concluded that several state and municipal law enforcement agencies were likely responsible for committing human rights violations in 67 out of a total of 115 cases examined involving different government and local institutions.

Besides discrimination, the specific violations pertained to rights guaranteeing personal integrity, security, freedom, and private property, according to the commission’s 2014 annual report.

Colloquially known as “The Land of the Good People,” Aguascalientes is not in the category of states with high-profile human rights violations like Guerrero and Chihuahua. Still, the CEDHA documented 40 cases of torture related to the security forces last year. Martin disclosed that the state commission is broadening its definition of torture to conform to international standards, noting that widely accepted definitions of torture include psychological pressures against an individual and/or family member as well as physical mistreatment falling short of popular preconceptions.

The CEDHA president cited a conversation he recently had with a man who complained that police had put him in a cold bath during a detention. Martin said he inquired if the citizen wanted to file a torture complaint, but the man declined.

“’You said you were treated okay?’” Martin asked incredulously.

“’Yes, they didn’t hit me’,” the man replied.

According to the Aguascalientes attorney, reconciling police practices with new legal standards is the burning issue of the times.  Martin cited the Mexican Supreme Court’s ruling that suspect declarations are invalid if they are taken when rights are not respected.

“The challenge for the country is for the police to begin to live with these new rules,” he added.

As a legal benchmark, Martin recalled the saga of Florence Cassez. The French national was arrested along with her Mexican boyfriend and other individuals accused of forming a kidnap-for-profit ring in the Mexico City area in 2005.  Overseen by former federal security chief Genaro Garcia Luna, the arrests of Cassez and the other suspects featured an after-the-fact, staged arrest scene that was sensationally broadcast by the country’s two major television networks, Televisa and Azteca, and later promoted as a stellar example of the Calderon administration’s war against organized crime.

Yet the failure of the Mexican government to provide timely notification to the French government of the arrest of one of its citizens, along with other irregularities in Cassez’s detention, caused serious diplomatic tensions between France and Mexico.

In January 2013, about a month after Felipe Calderon left the Mexican presidency, the Mexican Supreme Court freed Cassez in a ruling that did not address her guilt or innocence but determined that “the process was so contaminated that she could not have a fair trial,” Martin said.

Released after spending seven years in prison and maintaining her innocence, Cassez has filed a $36 million lawsuit for “moral damages” against Calderon, Garcia Luna, Televisa newscaster Carlos Loret de Mola and others.

In a ruling based on technical grounds, a Mexican judge refused to hear the suit earlier this month but Cassez’s lawyer, Jose Patino, told Proceso magazine he would explore other legal recourses. “They destroyed her life,” he said in a separate interview with CNN’s Carmen Aristegui.

For the remainder of his term as CEDHA president, issues of importance prioritized by Martin include winning recognition for same sex marriage, respecting the rights of transgender persons, and passing legislation to give the commission’s recommendations legal teeth.

In his latest report to the state congress, Martin charged that the CEDHA had been the target of telephone espionage, an act which, “apart from moral questions, constituted a federal crime.” He held that the spying was likely done with the intention of gathering information on pending cases and monitoring communications with journalists.

In concluding his report, Martin sketched out a local and national human rights panorama.

“Fortunately, Aguascalientes does not present the grave indices of human rights violations that the rest of the country has, with the exception of 2 or 3 states,” Martin said. “But the task is to struggle for the basic rule of law. Torture is unacceptable, insecurity is unacceptable, violence is unacceptable, corruption is unacceptable, impunity is unacceptable.”

Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur

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Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur

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