Laura CarlsenWhen international human rights observers rounded a curve on a remote road in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, they found the way blocked by boulders. They decided going forward would be dangerous. But they didn’t know that going back would be deadly.

As the vans began to turn around, masked gunmen came down from the hills and opened fire on the vehicles. Some of the people scattered into the brush. Others got lucky and were freed by the assailants. Two were murdered, shot in the head — Bety Cariño of the Mexican rights group CACTUS (Center for Community Support Working Together) and Finnish human rights observer Jyri Jaakola.

The activists were traveling to the village of San Juan Copala in the Triqui indigenous region of Oaxaca. Local paramilitaries from a group called UBISORT, which is reportedly founded by Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), had surrounded and cut off the village. The caravan of journalists, state activists, and international human rights observers wanted to investigate the worsening situation in the village. They knew the risks but decided to undertake the mission because the lives of villagers were at stake, and they saw a dangerous precedent in standing by as an illegal armed group took an entire village hostage.

Killings are a common occurrence in the Triqui region for those who defend indigenous rights and resources. Scores of people have been assassinated, including two women from San Juan Copala’s community radio station in 2008.

The leaders advised the state government of its intentions, but the state government provided no guarantees. Gabriela Jimenez, a member of the caravan who escaped, stated that the paramilitary captors bragged of having the governor’s backing.

History of Violence and Impunity

The Triqui region of Oaxaca has seen way more than its share of violent conflict. Over the last decades, conflicts have broken out among groups of Triqui that split into warring factions with alarming frequency, but the problems go even further back. Since pre-Hispanic times Triqui communities have been caught in a cycle of violence, fueled by resource grabs, rebellion, and repression. Through each stage of their bloody history, the same pattern repeats itself, as amply documented in a recent study by Mixtec lawyer and researcher Francisco Lopez Barcenas.

The Mexican government could have stopped or at least reduced this cycle of violence if it had carried out its mandate of administering justice to the indigenous people of the region. Instead, it suppressed the rebellions even as outside interests bled the region.

In 2007, the village of San Juan Copala broke away from a government that had failed to protect its people. When the village declared itself an autonomous municipality, the repression went into overdrive.

Layers of impunity and injustice have covered crimes in Oaxaca for years. In 2006, Oaxacans took over the state capital, demanding the ouster of PRI Governor Ulises Ruiz. For nearly six months, an unprecedented movement of unionized teachers, housewives, students, indigenous people, farmers, and assorted other sectors of society held the city. The central government sent in federal police to retake control, as the governor remained in hiding but refused to resign. During those bloody months, 26 members of the protest movement were murdered and hundreds more captured, beaten, and subjected to psychological torture.

In 2008 I went to Oaxaca as a member of an international human rights delegation that took testimonies of human rights violations in Oaxaca. We installed our team in a church hall. When we opened the doors, we were flooded with complaints. In four days we conducted over 150 interviews that revealed a human rights crisis, accompanied by impunity for the actions of the state perpetrators.

The testimonies were heart-wrenching and often tearful. Some dated back to the repression of late 2006. Both men and women reported that security forces herded them blindfolded into a helicopter and told them they would be dumped into the Pacific Ocean — a practice of Mexico’s dirty wars of the 1970s. More recent accounts poured in of murdered or disappeared grassroots leaders throughout the state, including two Revolutionary Popular Army leaders who are still missing, despite efforts by a congressional mediating commission. The commission cited a lack of political will on the part of the federal government to resolve the case.

Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that Ruiz was responsible for grave human rights violations in Oaxaca during the 2006 uprising. But no criminal charges or impeachment proceedings were initiated, and he remains in office as the governor of the region. Grassroots organizations warn of more violence as the state prepares for elections this July, in which Ruiz´s fate depends in part on his party retaining power.

The public has lost confidence in the government to protect its rights. When we met with the state human rights commission, the commissioner stated his willingness to investigate all complaints but said the commission had received very few. The reason was not hard to find. When we asked complainants whether they had reported their cases they unanimously replied no, saying they would never go through a state government that was complicit in the crimes.
The murder of U.S. journalist Brad Will is perhaps the most well-known case, and a classic example of the way impunity works in the state. Under international pressure, the Mexican state began an investigation that went nowhere, despite forensic and eyewitness evidence that implicated hitmen with ties to local government. Finally, incredibly, the police arrested a member of the protest movement for Will’s murder. After more international pressure, he was released, leaving the case back at square one — impunity.

The last attack repeats the historic and contemporary cycles of violence. Outsiders once again covet the Triqui region, this time for its mineral resources. Self-governing indigenous people get in the way of those interests. The paramilitary targeted the caravan explicitly to take out leaders of grassroots opposition to the state government and movements to protect natural resources. Bety Cariño was one of the state’s most active leaders of the anti-mining and indigenous rights movements.

Human Rights and U.S. Indifference

The April 27 ambush shocked even a nation accustomed to violence in the news. Drug war tolls of 30 or more victims a day are standard fare in Mexico. But the calculated assault on a human rights mission crossed some invisible line. Members of the European Parliament, the Finnish Embassy, and the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner have demanded a full investigation. Demonstrating the arrogance characteristic of his rule, Governor Ruiz announced he would carry out an investigation — of the migration papers of the foreigners on the caravan.

Human rights violations in Mexico have been on the rise in the last few years, with a sixfold increase in complaints against the armed forces since it launched the drug war. Civilian deaths have increased in the context of drug war militarization. The nation faces a crisis of confidence in the government’s ability — or willingness — to provide even the most basic human security.

The U.S. State Department has ignored this crisis to justify its support for the failed drug war of President Felipe Calderón. Security aid to Mexico under the Merida Initiative required that a human rights report be presented to Congress showing progress in ending impunity for crimes committed by the armed forces, an end to torture, and progress in the Brad Will murder. The State Department delayed presenting the report until last year. When it finally submitted the report, it showed no progress.

Security aid to police and armed forces that violate human rights consistently empowers a system of violations. Human rights training by U.S. forces will make no difference whatsoever in that equation. The problem is obviously not a lack of training, but a lack of political will. As long as the same political forces that commit violations receive support and aid, they are encouraged to continue practices that damage society and destroy lives.

Mexico today is at a critical juncture. Its fragile institutions have been shaken by the electoral fraud of the 2006 presidential elections and the inequality and injustice of daily life. The justice system remains bound to the interests of a weak federal government that fears popular protest, and to state and local governments, in cases like Oaxaca, controlled by despots. Corruption by drug cartels adds to the impunity.

Mexico can either take up the challenge to strengthen democratic institutions, or it can fall back into rule by force and authoritarianism. The U.S. government’s blinkered focus on security issues while ignoring systematic human rights violations encourages the latter. The U.S. government should focus on fighting transnational organized crime within its own borders and channel aid to Mexico to development projects that strengthen human rights, citizen empowerment, peace-building, and wellbeing.

International groups must take action

Impunity is not merely a lack of justice and due punishment; it’s an incubator of violence and crime. When impunity becomes state policy, the rule of law crumbles.

International organizations and individuals should demand a full investigation of the April 27 ambush. The role of the Oaxaca state government under Ulises Ruiz must be fully clarified. The international community must maintain pressure to assure that the murderers who carried out this attack and their accomplices be brought to justice.

Anything short of a full explanation and application of the law in the case of the San Juan Copala attack will allow the violence to continue, and add yet another stain to Mexico’s already dismal human rights record.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program ( for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.

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