No Protection for Activists in Mexico

Daniela Pastrana Dec 15, 2011

Gabriel Echeverría de Jesús, 20, and Jorge Alexis Herrera, 21, paid a high price for taking part in student protests in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero: they were killed when police tried to break up their roadblock.

After the Monday Dec. 12 police crackdown on the students, who were calling for funding for increased enrolment and better conditions at a rural teachers college, the bodies of the two students were left lying on the highway that runs from Chilpancingo to Acapulco in Guerrero, one of the three poorest states in Mexico.

The young men were studying to be rural school teachers at the Ayotzinapa college, which is famous in the country because Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vázquez, guerrilla leaders in the 1970s, studied there.

Echeverría was earning a degree in phys-ed and Herrera was studying to be a primary school teacher. A third student was seriously wounded.

Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) dismissed the state's attorney general, police chief, public security secretary and deputy public security secretary Tuesday, and the federal attorney general's office announced that it was launching a probe into the students' deaths.

"Things got out of control," deputy public security secretary Ramón Miguel Arreola admitted to the press before he was sacked. He was referring to evidence that local and federal police opened fire on the protesters.

Mexico's 16 public rural teachers colleges are a holdover from the socialist education initiative of former president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940), although some were founded earlier. The first requisite for being accepted at the college is to be poor. In the last few decades, the schools have survived repeated budget cuts and harassment from the authorities, who see them as hotbeds of radical activism.

Human Rights Activists Under Fire

The deaths of the student protesters occurred in the midst of a spate of murders of human rights defenders.

On Sunday Dec. 11, the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, headed by Mexican writer Javier Sicilia, held a demonstration in Mexico City to protest the murder and forced disappearance of seven of its members, including six in the space of just two weeks.

"Human rights defenders have been left without protection," sociologist Carlos Cruz, founder and director of Cauce Ciudadano, an organisation that works with young people in the capital and other Mexican cities with high levels of violence, told IPS.

A total of 11 activists have been murdered since December 2010 – an unprecedented number in Mexico.

The sights seem to have been set on the peace movement that emerged after Sicilia's 24-year-old son Juan Francisco was murdered, which is demanding an overhaul of the militarised security policies of the government of conservative President Felipe Calderón.

On Nov. 28, Nepomuceno Moreno, a man who was looking for his missing son and had become one of the pillars of the victims' movement, was killed in the capital of the northwestern state of Sonora, shot by gunmen who intercepted his car in broad daylight just six blocks from the governor's office.

A month earlier, Moreno had denounced threats and harassment by local authorities and asked President Calderón for protection.

His death reminded Mexicans of the murder of Marisela Escobedo, gunned down on Dec. 16, 2010 outside the governor's office in the northern city of Chihuahua while demanding justice for the killing of her daughter.

Four days after Moreno was killed, on Dec. 2, Norma Andrade, founder of Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (May Our Daughters Return Home), an organisation searching for missing young women in the northern border city of Ciudad Juárez, was shot and seriously wounded.

That same day, the body of actress Julia Marichal, who had gone missing on Nov. 12, was found. The murder is apparently not related to her peace activism, although it has not been clarified.

On Dec. 6, Eva Alarcón and Marcial Bautista, indigenous activists from Guerrero, were travelling to the capital in a bus that witnesses say was pulled over twice: at a military checkpoint where soldiers asked if Bautista was among the passengers, and he didn't answer; and later by hooded, armed men who forced the two environmentalists off the bus.

They have not been seen again.

Both Alarcón and Bautista had officially requested protection after receiving death threats.

Presence of Reporters and Activists Offered No Security

The day they disappeared, four armed men held up a caravan carrying Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity activists who were on their way to act as observers to a meeting of the Nahua indigenous community in Santa María Ostula, in the southwest state of Michoacán on the Pacific coast.

The gunmen forced the activists – including six journalists – in the caravan to lay face down in a clearing in the jungle and pulled aside 73-year-old Nahua community leader Trinidad de la Cruz, who was beaten and tortured within their earshot.

The assailants then seized their cell-phones and forced them to get back in the vehicles and drive away, down a road where there was no place to stop for three hours.

"They told us a black pickup would be meeting us halfway, to make sure we didn't head in another direction, and that if we dared turned around, we would be blown to bits," one of the people in the caravan said.

In June 2009, the indigenous community of Santa María Ostula had retaken more than 1,000 hectares of their communal property that had been occupied 40 years ago by ranchers.

On the land they built a new village, Xayakalan, which is the gateway to the Nahua region and to a coastal area coveted by real estate, mining and tourism companies interested in putting in roads and developing the area.

The disputed land also surrounds the Lázaro Cárdenas port, a strategic point on drug trafficking routes.

The cost of the struggle for land has been high for the indigenous community: 28 people have been killed and four have been "disappeared" in the last two years.

The 40 families living in the village are hemmed in by paramilitary groups that do not allow in any authorities, whether civilian, police or military – a case similar to that of San Juan Copala in the southern state of Oaxaca, where another humanitarian caravan was attacked in April 2010.

The situation is so serious that in December 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights told the Mexican state to take measures to protect the people of Santa María Ostula.

At the Nahua community meeting that the members of the peace movement were to attend as observers, the villagers discussed a "peace plan" proposed by the authorities to settle the land dispute.

On Nov. 28 – the day Moreno was killed in Sonora – naval officials, the federal police and the state government promised to protect the peace movement caravan.

De la Cruz, a respected community leader, had sought refuge in a neighbouring state after he was beaten and threatened on Nov. 14.

On Dec. 6, when the caravan in which he was travelling was forced to pull into a clearing in the jungle, he was on his way back to Santa María Ostula to report the names of the people who had attacked him, with the protection of the peace movement activists and reporters.

But he was killed six kilometres before reaching the town, as the caravan drove out of Xayakalan. His body was found the next day, with several bullet wounds and signs of torture.

The authorities have not clarified why the federal police who had orders to accompany the activists abandoned the caravan when it reached the village.

Activists say the outlook is grim. "The bubble of safety that the presence of the press gave us has burst. Now we have to rethink how we do things," one of the witnesses who heard de la Cruz being tortured told IPS.

This article was originally published by IPS News.

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