Mexico's Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of a legal reform that limits the amount of information the federal Attorney General's Office (PGR) must hand over to the government's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). Under the new law, the PGR will give the CNDH only information that it determines "does not put active investigations or individuals' security at risk." Human rights lawyer Luis Miguel Cano told the Mexican daily El Universal that the new law gives the PGR discretion to decide what information it will withhold from the CNDH.
When former CNDH president José Luis Soberanes Fernández brought the case before the Supreme Court last year, he argued that the new law impedes the CNDH's access to evidence in its investigations into PGR officials who have allegedly committed human rights abuses in the war on drugs. Mexican president Felipe Calderón has deployed the PGR's Federal Ministerial Police (formerly the Federal Investigation Agency) to several states to combat drug trafficking.
The new law limiting the CNDH's access to the PGR's files runs counter to the human rights conditions that apply to 15% of Mexico's funding under the Merida Initiative, Washington’s controversial billion-dollar aid program that since 2008 has provided equipment and training to Mexican counter-narcotics forces.
One of the human rights conditions included in the initiative requires that Mexico improve "the transparency and accountability of federal police forces . . . including establishing police complaints commissions with authority and independence to receive complaints and carry out effective investigations." The CNDH is the independent commission that is tasked with receiving complaints filed against federal police forces, including the Federal Ministerial Police. Giving the PGR sole discretion in determining what information it hands over to the CNDH regarding human rights abuses allegedly committed by its officials and police officers significantly reduces its transparency and accountability.
Soberanes told the court that of all the federal government agencies, the PGR is one of the most prone to committing human rights abuses. “In 2008, of the 10 agencies most frequently accused by individuals as alleged human rights violators, the PGR ranks third,” Soberanes said. Furthermore, he argued, some of the most frequently committed human rights abuses are arbitrary detention, illegal house searches, and cruel or degrading treatment, “conduct that tends to be most frequent during investigations carried out by the District Attorney’s Office and the Ministerial Police.”
The U.S. Congress and State Department have taken little notice of this direct violation of the Merida human rights conditions. On August 13, three weeks after the CNDH challenged the law in the Supreme Court, the State Department sent Congress an unconvincing report on Mexico's compliance with the human rights conditions. Despite human rights organizations' criticism that the rambling report never actually stated that Mexico was complying with the conditions, the Appropriations Committee accepted the report and released about $60 million of conditioned aid from fiscal year 2008. The State Department handed over its Merida Initiative human rights report just in time: 2008’s conditioned funds were set to expire one month later, on September 30.
The PGR is one of the main recipients of Merida Initiative aid in Mexico. Of the initiative’s 25 funding categories listed in a recent Mexican government report, the PGR is set to receive aid under 12 categories—more than any other government agency. This includes “non-intrusive” inspection equipment like wiretapping equipment and ion scanners, police dogs, investigations training, riot gear for police, and the strengthening of special operations teams.
Even before the new law took effect, the CNDH was very limited in its ability to hold human rights abusers accountable. It has the power only to make non-binding “recommendations” to agencies regarding their employees who have committed human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that between 2000 and 2006, government authorities rejected 70 of 354 CNDH recommendations. The agency’s shortcomings notwithstanding, HRW notes that “the victims of abuse who take their cases to the CNDH may reasonably view the institution as the only viable guarantor of their rights.”
The CNDH’s practice of documenting human rights abuses and making them public through its recommendations is arguably its most important function. Even if government agencies ignore its recommendations, the public does not. Unfortunately, the CNDH’s ability to carry out thorough and credible investigations into human rights abuses allegedly committed by PGR officials is severely limited by the new law. In their dissenting opinion, four Supreme Court justices warned, “Those who have suffered mistreatment at the hands of the PGR will be completely defenseless.”
Kristin Bricker is a NACLA Research Associate.