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New Attorney General Confronts Mexico's Past

The choice of human rights reformer is seen as signaling a new high-level commitment to halting police abuses

THE watchdog has now become the one to be watched.

Human rights groups here and abroad are crowing about the unprecedented appointment last week of Mexico's human rights ombudsman Jorge Carpizo MacGregor to be the country's new attorney general.

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"I'm plain excited about the appointment, given what Dr. Carpizo accomplished at the National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH)," says Ellen Lutz of Americas Watch, a Washington-based human rights organization.

"It's an historic political change of the utmost importance," says Maria Teresa Jardi, director of the human rights department of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico.

Carpizo is now in charge of the agency accused - by the CNDH and others - of being one of the main human rights violators in Mexico. The attorney general oversees the 2,000-odd members of the federal judicial police, the frontline force against illegal narcotics, which is notorious for torture, murder, arbitrary arrest, extortion, and other violations. Police officers who torture, Carpizo said as head of CNDH, "know that in most cases, even when they exceed themselves to the point of homicide, then won't

be punished because their chiefs will defend or cover up for them."

The birth of the CNDH in 1990 was a response to the killing of human rights activist Norma Corona by federal judicial police. Shortly thereafter, the police officer chiefly in charge of the drug fight was fired. And in May 1991, Ignacio Morales Lechuga took over the attorney general job with a mandate to clean house. Mr. Morales Lechuga fired officers, set up oversight committees, and took some steps to improve the situation, human rights activists say, but political ambitions kept him from persistently and effectively attacking the problem for fear of stepping on political toes.

The CNDH reports that torture has dropped from first to eighth place as a percentage of the total number of complaints of human rights violations it receives. But the total number of torture cases reported actually rose in the last half of 1992 compared to the previous six months.

One catalyst for Carpizo's appointment is believed to be a recent United Nations statement critical of Mexico's lack of progress in eliminating torture. A lawyer with strong academic background, Carpizo won praise for being hard working, principled, and dogged in his pursuit of justice at the CNDH. Upon receiving the appointment as attorney general, he issued this brief warning: "Nothing is above the law. Nothing can oppose it."

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On his first day in charge, Carpizo demanded the resignations of almost all top management, telling them some would be asked to stay on after review. Concern has been expressed that the wholesale firing of officials and agents would undermine the anti-drug war. But sources in the attorney general's offices say Jorge Carrillo Olea (now in charge of this effort) and his team will remain. "Carrillo Olea is a serious reformer, too," says Ms. Lutz at Americas Watch.

Carpizo is expected to announce his new management team today. Among the first tasks likely to be tackled are the 96 unfinished recommendations made by the CNDH to the attorney general's office. The CNDH has no power to enforce its findings. The recommendations typically are cases whereby the CNDH calls for an arrest, suspension, or investigation. One of the biggest problems facing the CNDH is foot dragging or lack of compliance by government entities.

"More than 50 percent of the recommendations made by CNDH to the attorney general over the last two and a half years were not satisfactorily resolved," notes the Rev. Miguel Concha, president of the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Center for Human Rights in Mexico. "This indicates a need for profound change."

Another important task, Fr. Concha says, is cleaning up the judicial system. More than half the apprehension orders issued in the last six months were not completed, according to CNDH figures. The orders need a judge's approval. "The judges, some of them, are corrupt and inept," he says.

Ending torture will likely be another priority. "Police torture stops when they are told in no uncertain terms it will not be tolerated. It's not an intractable problem. Anyone who breaks ranks must be ... prosecuted," Lutz says. No federal judicial policeman has been convicted of torture.

"It will be important to see if the Mexican government will prosecute, and if [its officers are] found guilty, will compensate the families as required by the law," says Curt Goering, deputy director of Amnesty International in New York.

Mexican human rights activists are generally optimistic about the change. But Sergio Aguayo, president of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights, has given courses in human rights to police officers. And he has his doubts.

"I'm hopeful we'll finally see the judicial police under control, Mr. Aguayo says. "But their behavior is tied to the authoritarian system - a system which by its nature needs a blunt instrument. Is the government willing to surrender its instrument of coercion? Can the police force be "born again" ethically? I respect Carpizo, but I have my doubts if one man can change this culture."

Some analysts also see the Carpizo appointment as a way to stave off criticism from a Democratic administration in the US. But Lutz says it is more than a "brilliant" political stroke.

"It would be simplistic to say [President Carlos Salinas de Gortari] is simply catering to the US. If he wants Mexico to have a modern government - and Salinas says he does - then modern governments respect human rights."

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