Fighting Impunity in Mexico

By | March 28, 2013 at 1:01 pm | One comment | Blog | Tags: , , ,

At least 46 Mexican journalists and writers have been killed or disappeared since President Felipe Calderón launched a drugs war in December 2006. During that time Mexico’s “shameful record of impunity” has forced many journalists to continue working without adequate protection or to censor themselves. PEN Canada Honorary Member Lydia Cacho, (pictured above) is one of the writers who has continued to report on organized criminal syndicates within Mexico at great personal risk. Earlier this month, an editorial in Zócalo, a leading daily newspaper in Coahuila State, announced that it would no longer publish any information relating to organized crime in order to protect the lives of its staff. During a visit to Mexico, the freelance journalist Kimberley Brown spoke to John Ralston Saul, president of PEN International, about the organization’s efforts to press the Mexican government for more action on reducing impunity for violence committed against journalists.

Defending freedom of expression and democracy

Kimberley Brown

Kimberley Brown

In March 2013, a small PEN delegation travelled to Mexico for the launch of the Mexican edition of The Dissident Blog, and to press the Mexican government for more action on impunity. The group met with key figures from the Justice department including the Attorney General, the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, and senior officials from the Ministry of the Interior (Gobernación). PEN came with two main messages: that Mexico needs further legal reforms to allow the Federal Justice Department to act, and President Enrique Peña Nieto should condemn acts of violence towards freedom of expression.

It’s astonishing that the head of state has not stood up regularly and said, in a major way, ‘This is wrong. Freedom of expression is central to democracy. I am the elected leader, and I am instructing my government to move with all urgency on this front.’”

“This is a country where the president has enormous influence, as well as power,” said John Ralston Saul, the President of PEN International. “It’s astonishing that the head of state has not stood up regularly and said, in a major way, ‘This is wrong. Freedom of expression is central to democracy. I am the elected leader, and I am instructing my government to move with all urgency on this front.’” He noted that during the recent election campaign, freedom of speech and violence against journalists and were rarely mentioned by any candidate – an astonishing omission given the high number of deaths and kidnappings. The Attorney General promised to convey this message to the President.

According to Saul, a key difference between the new administration and its predecessor is that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) feels comfortable with power. (The PRI returned to power when President Nieto was elected in July 2012, bringing to an end twelve years of rule by National Action Party (PAN) governments. Before the PAN’s historic victory in the 2000 elections, the PRI controlled Mexico for 71 years.) Saul added that the former administration always seemed to be struggling to figure out the system and to decide what could be done.

Saul noted that unlike PEN’s conversations with the previous government in January 2012, the new administration agreed that freedom of expression is central to the proper functioning of the state. But while the current administration agrees that violence and impunity must be tackled, it still seemed that no level of government was prepared to believe that the necessary changes could be implemented soon.

“It’s really not good enough to be constantly told that the reason we’re not doing something is because the constitution is so complicated. When your citizens are being killed, you figure out how to do something.” 

The Justice Department warned that political complexity, administrative challenges, and subtleties of the penal code would cause delay. The Interior Minister and his Deputy were frankly pessimistic and warned of long delays. Both seemed to think that endemic local corruption would take a very long time to clear up.

Saul doubts that these complications justify so much hesitation. For him impunity and violence against journalists are unambiguous challenges, not obscure problems that need to be carefully weighed and thought out. “It’s really not good enough to be constantly told that the reason we’re not doing something is because the constitution is so complicated. When your citizens are being killed, you figure out how to do something,” he says. “They keep saying we don’t get any witnesses coming forward so how can we do trials?  Well you’re not going to get any witnesses unless they think the police system and the justice system functions.” The system needs to change immediately if citizens’ confidence is to be restored.

“It’s not about a war between government and organized crime,” said Saul. “It’s about unacceptable and untenable levels of corruption, resulting impunity, and a justice system that’s not functioning. That’s what it’s about. They have to attack corruption, prove that they can make a dent in impunity, and demonstrate that the justice system works.”

Though Mexico has made systemic changes, major reforms are still necessary. PEN has called for secondary legislation to support constitutional amendments approved under the Calderón administration in June 2012, to enable federal authorities to investigate crimes against journalists and other media (Article 73, Clause 21).  The amendment would transfer the power to investigate and prosecute crimes against the media to federal authorities, away from the local officials who are more susceptible to corruption. Saul noted that although the Mexican government seemed pessimistic about change it would nevertheless be a small victory for freedom of expression if the secondary laws are passed later this year.

While Mexico remains a priority, Central and South America also figure prominently on PEN’s agenda. After his visit to Mexico, Ralston Saul visited Nicaragua to talk about expanding PEN’s presence throughout Latin America, where high levels of impunity demand immediate attention. Brazil for example is now the third most dangerous place for journalists, while Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua all suffer similar reputations with rising levels of violence and impunity.* “This is clearly a moment when PEN has an obligation to beef up what it’s doing and to be much more present,” says Saul.

Kimberley Brown is a freelance writer and multimedia artist whose work focuses on the social and visual anthropology of different locales. She has worked with several communities in different parts of the world and is currently based in Toronto, Canada.

* Editor’s Note: PEN Canada and the IHRP are currently working on a study of freedom of expression in Central America.

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  1. Fighting Impunity in Mexico – An interview with John Ralston Saul | Kimberley Brown (4 years ago)

    […] To read the full article continue here […]

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