Human rights and narcos

The UN says that organized crime is threatening human rights activists in Mexico, impeding their work and making it more dangerous by the day to promote human rights.

This is no doubt true: in Sinaloa, human rights commissioners no longer even go into the Sierra Madre, it’s too dangerous. About 3 times a month, they take a van and go to some of the villages in the foothills, just to deal with immediate issues (domestic violence is the main one). Perhaps the biggest problem facing human rights commissions is that the people who live in the sierras don’t even know they have any rights. The commission is currently printing up booklets to inform the masses (of course, most of the people in the mountains can’t read, but the pictures should tell them something) but if they’re not able to enter the area, what good does it do? Organized crime is definitely an impediment to education, progress, freedom etc.

But what about the army and government? About a month ago, Mercedes Murillo, a well-known and respected human rights activist in Culiacan, received a visit from a group of soldiers in the middle of the night. The general had sent them to search her home, they were suspicious of narco-activity. (They didn’t elaborate.) Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a rights activist in Juarez, says he too has received threats from the military on account of his work.

It’s a common perception (and it may well be a misperception, i have no proof) among the military that rights activists are bleeding hearts who suffer from a stockholm syndrome-like relationship with the narcos, in large part because they have such an acute distaste for the army. But no activists have ever knowingly harbored narcos or criminals, they’ve simply pushed the authorities to apply a rule of law that barely exists.

I recently spoke with Murillo in her little office in Culiacan; she had this to say about the army: “The army wasn’t created or educated to be police. They don’t obey the law, they obey the general. Disobedience is [considered] worse than killing.”

She’s got a point. With all the talk about police reform, Calderon would be smart to adopt some sort of transparent military reforms. There have been cases in Mexico where the soldiers have been put to work on reconstruction and social activities (Michoacan, for instance), and the army has long been well-respected for its handling of hurricanes and other natural disasters. It’s time the military learned to show this more popular face in the context of the drug war.

I’m not saying the army should treat the narcos with kid gloves. But I am saying that innocent bystanders, or even those who might be suspected but against which there is no proof, should be not be subjected to harassment or worse.

Tomorrow: Are human rights in Mexico a complete joke?