Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Rights Court Holds State Responsible in Forced Disappearance

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Dec 16 2009 (IPS) - Tita Radilla’s last memory of her father Rosendo was when he came to say good-bye, because he was leaving for a nearby city in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. The next day he disappeared at a military checkpoint. That was in August 1974.

“He didn’t look scared; he told me he wouldn’t be back soon,” Radilla, a thin woman with greying hair told IPS Wednesday with tears running down her face.

Thirty-five years later, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Mexican state guilty of violating Radilla’s right to life, personal liberty and integrity and the judicial guarantees and protection of the descendants of the community leader and former mayor of the city of Atoyac, 400 km southeast of the capital.

“This is an achievement by the movement of victims’ families who for decades have tried to put an end to the impunity surrounding an atrocious crime like forced disappearance,” Juan Gutiérrez, director of the Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), which represented the Radilla family, said to IPS.

In the ruling that was announced Tuesday, the Inter-American Court, presided by Chilean magistrate Cecilia Quiroga, instructed the Mexican state to carry out a thorough investigation of Radilla’s forced disappearance.

The Costa Rica-based Court also ordered Mexico to pay the Radilla family 238,000 dollars in reparations plus legal expenses. In addition, the government must publicly acknowledge its responsibility, in order to restore Radilla’s good name, and publish a biography of his life written by his daughter Andrea, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who died in November.

Furthermore, Mexico must pass a law on forced disappearance that is in line with international standards, and the military justice system must be reformed, the ruling says.

The Court also ordered the state to investigate the forced disappearance of leftists and other dissidents during the “dirty war” waged by governments of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the 1970s and 1980s.

After failing to obtain justice in Mexico, the CMDPDH and the Mexican Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared (AFADEM) brought the Radilla case before the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in November 2001, which like the Court forms part of the Organisation of American States (OAS).

The Commission referred the case to the Court in March 2008, and the hearing was held in July.

In its Nov. 23 verdict, the Court ruled that the investigation of Radilla’s detention by soldiers and disappearance was not thorough, was not assumed as a duty of the state, and failed to identify, prosecute and eventually punish the perpetrators or determine the victim’s fate.

In a statement, the Interior Ministry said it would comply with the ruling, and that it would soon introduce a bill in Congress to make forced disappearance a crime.

The sentence says the disappearance of Radilla, who was mayor of Atoyac in 1955 and 1956, was not an isolated event, but formed part of a systematic policy of forced disappearance that targeted political opponents and members of guerrilla groups, which were particularly active in Guerrero.

The Party of the Poor, which later became an insurgent group, emerged near Atoyac in 1968. The organisation’s leader, rural schoolteacher Lucio Cabañas, died in 1974 in a shoot-out with solders.

The Court resolution revived the debate on government repression, impunity and the victims of forced disappearance, who according to the state National Human Rights Commission numbered 532, although rights groups put the number at over 1,000. In Atoyac alone, 473 people were “disappeared,” human rights organisations report.

The final report by the Special Prosecutor’s Office on Social and Political Movements of the Past documented 12 massacres, 120 extrajudicial executions, 800 forced disappearances and 2,000 cases of torture, committed mainly in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

The Special Prosecutor’s Office was created in 2001 by then President Vicente Fox of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN). But it was disbanded in November 2006, just before his successor Felipe Calderón, from the same party, took office.

“These are not crimes of the past, they are ongoing crimes, because no one has been punished,” Julio Mata, executive secretary of AFADEM, said Wednesday at a press conference on the Inter-American Court sentence. “A few of the criminals who ordered these crimes have been punished, but others are alive. There is something called the chain of command, and everyone – including presidents and ministers – have covered up the investigations.”

The Radilla family has spent years searching for justice. In 1990, Radilla’s grown children turned to the newly created National Human Rights Commission to demand a search for their father. In 1992 and 1999 they filed reports of forced disappearance with the Guerrero prosecutor’s office, which were dismissed due to lack of evidence.

In 2000 and 2001 they brought legal action on charges of forced disappearance, genocide and illegal deprivation of liberty.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that the crime of forced disappearance is subject to no statute of limitations until the victim appears, dead or alive.

The CMDPDH also represents the families of another 60 victims of forced disappearance.

In 2006, excavations on the grounds of a former army base in Atoyac ordered by the Court to locate Radilla’s remains found instead those of Lino Rosas and Esteban Mesinos, who had ties to Cabañas’ guerrilla movement.

The Inter-American Court sentence touched on a sensitive issue for Mexico’s armed forces, at a time when they are a central pillar of the war on drug cartels waged by the Calderón administration: the application of the military justice code created in 1933 to prosecute civil offences committed by soldiers in the performance of their duties.

Since the government deployed thousands of soldiers to combat drug trafficking and organised crime upon taking office in December 2006, the army has been accused by local and international human rights groups of serious rights abuses, whose perpetrators are protected, they say, by the military justice system.

Since December 2006, the military courts have sentenced only three people and prosecuted another 53, although no concrete information is available, because no one has been given access to the files in these cases, not even the victims’ relatives.

Gutiérrez, the head of the CMDPDH, said the Inter-American Court ruling brings hopes of a solution to “a structural problem of impunity, because the Court ordered the state to modify the military justice code, establishing that human rights crimes do not fall under the jurisdiction of the military courts (but under the civilian courts), which implies the removal of obstacles to pursue human rights violations.”

This is the second Inter-American Court ruling handed down against the Mexican state within just a few weeks. On Dec. 10, the Court ordered the government to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to the families of three young women who were murdered in November 2001 in the infamous wave of killings in Ciudad Juárez.

The Court ruled that the Mexican state had violated international human rights treaties by failing to properly investigate the murders of the women, who were just three of hundreds of women slain over the last decade and a half in the border city.

“This shows that the Mexican justice system is not functioning properly, and that structural questions have not been resolved by the state or by the organs of the administration of justice,” said Gutiérrez.

“We are hopeful that the state will abide by this ruling; they say the Mexico of today is different, we want to see that,” said Radilla.

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