'We are millions': Victims of organized crime in Mexico seek justice in new law
In a country where fewer than 4 percent of crimes are ever solved, the so-called 'victims law' will provide financial reparations and additional legal protection.
RocĂo Uribe Ruiz stood at the back ofÂ a conference room in the Mexican presidential residence, silently holding a picture of her missing daughter, as President Enrique PeĂ±a Nieto touted a new law to protect victims of the country's devastating organized crime epidemic.
With more than 60,000 people killed in drug violence in the past six years, and tens of thousands more disappeared, Mexico now faces the monumental task of addressing the needs of the growing group of those affected.Â The new legislation, signed into law this week, promises to do just that.Â For the first time, Mexico will specificallyÂ address victims' rights with additional legal protection and financial reparations, among other benefits.Â
Dozens of relatives whose loved ones have disappeared without a trace â and whose cases have gone nowhere in a country where fewer than 4 percent of crimes are ever solved â squeezed into the packedÂ Los PinosÂ hall as Mr. PeĂ±a Nieto announced that with the law, only the second of its kind in Latin America, âthe Mexican state aspires to return hope and comfort to victims and their families.âÂ
âIt gives me hope,â says Ms. Uribe Ruiz, whose 14-year-old daughter, Maria Fernanda Tlapanco Uribe, went missing nine months ago. âBut really, will it be applicable to us, and not just to whoever they want? The laws arenât for us. They are for the âbigâ people.â
The law, officially called the General Law of Victims, is the joint work of academics, advocates, and victims themselves. Proposed and promoted by the Movement for PeaceÂ withÂ JusticeÂ andÂ Dignity â which is led by the poet Javier Sicilia, whose son, Juan Francisco, was killed in March 2011 â the law received nearly unanimous support in Congress last year before hitting a wall with former President Felipe CalderĂłn.
Mr. CalderĂłn declared the law unviable and unconstitutional. However, Mr. PeĂ±a Nieto promised to revive it.
To start, the law makes âvictimâ a legally recognized entity. It provides for a victimâs right to respectful treatment, a full investigation of the crime, and the awarding of damages whenever possible.
The law also demands the creation of a new National System of Attention to Victims to aid victims in various capacities, a national victimsâ registry, and a fund to dole out reparations â ostensiblyÂ to beÂ paid for with cash and property seized from criminals.
Critics, including other victims' groups, say the law is flawed. In a statement, the victimsâ advocate group Mexico S.O.S. highlighted what it sees as the lawâs failings. For one thing, the group says, it only covers victims of federal crimes, not state and local crimes. And it creates a scheme in which the state must pay out damages caused by a criminal. What's more, they argue that the law defines âvictimâ in terms that are unnecessarily sweeping and vague.Â
PeĂ±a Nieto conceded the law âstill needs to be improvedâ and has asked lawmakers to work up reforms.
Colombia was the first nation in Latin America to enact legislation protecting victims. That country's June 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law sought to restore millions of acres to people displaced by the decades of fighting between the government and guerrilla forces. The law also provides for financial compensation to victims of human rights violations.
It would have been better if Mexicoâs victimsâ law wasn't necessary, Mr. Sicilia said during the ceremony. âItâs the consequence of not applying the laws that are made to protect and provide justice to citizens. Itâs the consequence of impunity, corruption âŠ and of a war that never should have been.âÂ
âI have hopes that theyâll listen to us,â says MarĂa Eugenia Morales, whose 19-year-old daughter, Nayeli Francia Morales, has been missing for nearly two years.
âWe arenât just one or twoâ who have lost someone, she says. âWe are millions.â