Systematic forced disappearance is a crime against humanity and is not subject to statutes of limitations

Susi Bascon

During the last three years, Peace Brigades International (PBI) has been providing an international presence in Mexico for human rights defenders whose lives and political space have been under threat as a result of their struggle for human rights. At the request of local NGOs, PBI set up two teams of international volunteers: one in Mexico City and one in the state of Guerrero.

They provide a presence for threatened lawyers, families and relatives of the disappeared; community workers; and human rights defenders. This international presence has been backed by a network of international support that is activated in emergency situations. Non violence, non partisanship and non intervention are central to the philosophy of the organization.

On 27 November 2001, the National Human Rights Commission of México (CNDH) issued a recommendation that included an investigation of human rights violations carried out in the past. The recommendation concluded that, out of 532 case files, 275 were victims of forced disappearance at the hands of state security officials.

Following that recommendation, in January 2002, Mexican president Vicente Fox announced the setting up of a special attorney's office to deal with the human rights violations that were committed directly or indirectly by state civil servants against people belonging to social and political movements of the past. Specifically, this office, the Special Attorney Office (FEMOSPP), is in charge of investigating and establishing penal responsibility of civil servants involved in human rights violations carried out in the “dirty war” of the 1970s.

However, the office faces serious obstacles to fulfilling its brief, since it is not allowed to take penal action in cases where a body and/or those responsible for the offense is not found. This leaves the cases at the discretion of the judicial system with the consequent possibility that, on a purely legal basis, the guilty will be given impunity.

In the year 2000, two army officers, Francisco Quirós Hermosillo and Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro, were arrested and charged with narcotics trafficking. Simultaneously, they were also accused of the assassination of people presumed to be members of the armed group lead by Lucio Cabañas in the state of Guerrero. Currently, the General Attorney Military Office (PGJM) is investigating the generals.

Since February 2003, members of the General Attorney Military Office have been showing up unexpectedly at the homes of the families of the disappeared in the state of Guerrero to convince them to testify about disappearances carried out by the two generals against social and political activists. Hermosillo and Chaparro are accused of assassinating 143 people, who were disappeared and known to be drowned in the sea, according to the declarations made by their families in 2000.

The presence of army members from the PGJM has brought fear and uncertainty to the families of the disappeared. Because the families claim that the military was responsible for the disappearances of their loved ones in the first place, they cannot trust the military with the current investigations of these disappearances. In addition, they also fear for their own safety.

The fact is that having the PGJM deal with the penal responsibility of the two generals for crimes committed on civilians in the 1970s goes against international law and Mexico´s own constitution.

The fact that the PGJM and the FEMOSPP are dealing with the same issue is in itself a violation of human rights since contradictions between the findings and decisions of the two institutions could lead to impunity for the accused generals.

AFADEM, an organisation made up of families of the detained and disappeared, is campaigning to stop military justice officials from judging the responsibility for the crimes presumably committed by the two army officers. They argue that military courts lack independence and impartiality and insist that the matter should be taken to civilian courts.

Tita Radilla, vice-president of AFADEM, requested international support from PBI in May 2003, fearing for her life due to her work in defence of human rights. Since the organisation was founded in 1978, the relatives of the disappeared have ceaselessly protested to governmental institutions about the disappearences. “There is not much response from the Mexican government so far, but we have hope in international justice,” Tita Radilla says.

Fox´s government has raised expectations for human rights defenders. The new administration meant that there is a possibility of rooting out institutional violations of human rights by state security forces. Since the year 2000 the Mexican Senate has ratified a number of international treaties for the protection of human rights. But at the same time, it has approved reservations or interpretative declarations that defy the validity of such treaties. This was the case with the 1968 convention on the imprescriptibility of war crimes and against humanity and the 1994 Interamerican Convention on the forced disappearance of persons. The government argues that signed international treaties cannot be applied retroactively and will only apply to those crimes committed from the signing of the convention onwards. However, AFADEM and other NGOs working for the disappeared claim that Mexico must comply with the laws that say that systematic forced disappearances are crimes against humanity, and therefore they are not subject to any statute of limitations.

Susi Bascon works for Peace Brigades International, Mexico Project

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