By Emilio Godoy
“Open the door! Open the door, you SOBs!” Policemen dressed in black, wearing balaclavas and carrying “what I suppose were high-power rifles” broke down the door of the home of Efraín Bartolomé, a poet who lives on the south side of the Mexican capital. They had no warrant.
“Lie down on the ground! On the ground! On the ground you SOBs! On the ground and don’t move!” the police continued to shout as they stormed into Bartolomé’s house late Thursday night, looking for a paid gunman who works for a drug cartel. “One of the men slapped me on the head and knocked my glasses off,” the victim of the raid said later.
Human rights groups are alarmed at incidents like this and worried about an escalation of human rights abuses as the all-out offensive on drug cartels by the conservative government of Felipe Calderón heats up.
“Human rights defenders are in danger, and the organisations are on the alert, reporting incidents, protesting and mobilising,” the director of the human rights programme at the private Iberoamerican University, Antonio Ibáñez, told IPS.
Dozens of activists are meeting Thursday through Saturday at the “fourth national meeting of human rights defenders”, held under the slogan “the defence of human rights and exercise of journalism: dangerous work”
Human rights group report that 27 activists have been killed since 2005, while the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), an independent government agency, says 68 reporters have been murdered and at least 13 have gone missing in that same period of time.
By reporting violent incidents, “victims become human rights advocates. We are facing a situation of violence, made possible by the breakdown of the Mexican state,” a special guest at the national meeting, Catholic bishop Raúl Vera of the diocese of Saltillo, in the northern state of Coahuila, told IPS.
The bishop, a prominent defender of the rights of indigenous people and undocumented Central American migrants who pass through Mexico on the way to the United States, has come under scrutiny from the Vatican for his defence of the rights of homosexuals and his pro-choice stance on abortion.
The CNDH has documented 3,786 complaints of unwarranted police raids between 2005 and May 2011.
After he took office in December 2006, Calderón put some 45,000 troops on the streets to combat at least 11 drug cartels that are fighting bloody wars for control over the lucrative smuggling routes into the United States – the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs.
Since then, an estimated 50,000 people have lost their lives in drug-related violence, according to the weekly magazine Zeta, published in Tijuana on the U.S. border.
The militarisation of the so-called “war on drugs” has led to a rise in human rights abuses, like extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and warrantless police raids, according to human rights groups. The government, for its part, blames the abuses on criminal groups.
In July, Secretary of the Navy Francisco Saynez even accused human rights organisations of acting in collusion with the cartels to discredit and smear the image of the armed forces – although he presented no evidence to back up the allegation.
“We are mainly persecuted by agents of the state. By defending rights, we become victims, and they see us as enemies,” Margarita Villanueva, a representative of the Movement of Popular Struggle, which forms part of the National Front Against Repression, told IPS.
The Mexican army and activists are on a collision course, since the Supreme Court ruled in July that military personnel must be tried in civilian, not military, courts when accused of torture, killings and other abuses. This runs counter to the controversial military justice code in effect since 1933.
And a government mechanism for the protection of human rights advocates went into effect in July, including an early warning system, the distribution of satellite phones, and police bodyguards for activists who have received threats. But protection mechanisms for journalists have not yet been designed.
“The application of these mechanisms could be effective. But we have to create networks, watch out for each other, take responsibility for each other, get to know each other and stay in touch in order to respond to dangerous situations,” said Ibáñez, whose programme is drawing up a system of indicators to assess the human rights situation in Mexico.
The “fourth national meeting of human rights defenders”, organised by the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Centre, the Iberoamerican University and the Decade Against Impunity Solidarity Network, issued a statement that expresses the concerns of the human rights groups and urges the government to provide guarantees for the safety of human rights defenders so they can carry out their work.
“There is an extremely serious lack of administration of justice in Mexico,” Vera said.
The Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Freedom of Expression is handling 40 cases against public officials for crimes like abuse of authority, aggravated theft, threats, bodily injuries and attempted murder against journalists.
“The situation is deteriorating. Rights are not respected, and people are starting to organise and demand respect for their rights,” said Villanueva, whose organisation works to secure the release of political prisoners and to track down victims of forced disappearance.
After describing the late-night raid on his home, Bartolomé remarked: “Does President Calderón know this is happening in homes in this city? Does (Mexico City) Mayor Marcelo Ebrard know? Does (Mexico City Attorney General Miguel Ángel) Mancera know? Do (Attorney General) Maricela Morales or (Secretary of Public Security) Genaro García Luna order these raids? Do they know who was in charge of this operation against innocent people?”