The plight of human rights workers in Mexico

12 May 2010

by Jonathan Rayner

If you think the UK legal profession is in crisis, then consider the lot of Mexican human rights lawyer, Alba Cruz, who has received death threats and whose mother and family have been caught up in the crossfire – and that’s just for starters.

Cruz has got on the wrong side of the authorities in her native state of Oaxaca (pronounced wahacka). Her crime was to act for political dissidents, trade unionists and members of rural cooperatives trying to defend their land and water rights. She has been threatened with death, abduction and arrest on trumped-up charges. Her family home has been attacked, putting her mother and daughter at risk. And she has seen her friends and colleagues denied legal representation, beaten by the army and tortured in jail.

Earlier this month she came to London, where I interviewed her.

Why is she over here? She wants the UK legal community to help create a support network of lawyers to protect her and her colleagues as they go about their legitimate business.

But how did things get so bad in Oaxaca? After all, it’s where tourists go to enjoy the sandy beaches, sunshine and clear Pacific waters, isn’t it? It’s also next door to Guerrero state and Acapulco.

There are two strands to the tragedy, Cruz replies. The population of Oaxaca, away from the big towns and seaside resorts, is largely indigenous and many live in extreme poverty. In the 1980s, the peasants began to demand social change. A protest march was organised in 1996, but it coincided with an armed attack against a target in the town of Crucecita that killed someone. The attack was attributed to the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) and, in the authorities’ eyes, the protesters – as dissidents - must be linked to that armed rebel force.

The military and police were deployed to counter the EPR threat and, because everyone was assumed to be guilty, mass arbitrary detentions, disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions began.

The second strand of the developing tragedy was the war against the drug barons, which has cost thousands of lives and which we in the UK have read about in our newspapers. This was another motive for the authorities to deploy troops on to the streets, except soldiers are trained for the battleground and not for public security tasks. Rapes and other human rights abuses have ensued. The military offenders have enjoyed immunity while their officers have seemed unable or unwilling to curb their excesses.

And your clients are victims of the violence, detentions and the rest? Alba replies that she is presently representing 104 political dissidents, farmers and trade unionists who claim to have been unlawfully detained or tortured by the Mexican military during civil unrest in 2006. The country’s supreme court has identified the state governor and 11 cabinet members as ultimately responsible for the human rights violations, but they have not been charged.

Cruz has been a victim of intimidation ever since she began acting for these clients. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2007 requested security cameras, police patrols and other forms of protection on her behalf, but the Mexican authorities have done nothing. There have been so many threats that it would be impractical to list them all. There follows three examples. In March this year, a text addressed to Cruz read: ‘You’ll die, I swear, bloody bitch’. And last month someone pumped a gas believed to be chloroform into her family home, affecting both her mother and her daughter. And earlier this year, as she was leaving her office, a man seized her by the arm saying: ‘Calm down, you stupid cow. It would be easy to take you away.’

Cruz says that a delegation of lawyers from the UK and elsewhere in Europe visited Oaxaca state and neighbouring Guerrero in 2009, but more still needs to be done. ‘We appeal to lawyers and law firms to create an international network to support us in the work of defending our clients in safety,’ Cruz says.

Volunteers from international human rights group Peace Brigades International (PBI) have been providing unarmed protection and support to Cruz, and other lawyers, inside Mexico. PBI UK director Susi Bascon says: ‘The Law Society, Solicitors International Human Rights Group, International Bar Association, the College of Law and others have pledged their support. They will be writing to the Mexican authorities to ask them to provide lawyers and their clients with protection and to monitor the progress of cases. We appeal to lawyers and law firms to join the network.’

And so there you have it. Dwindling legal aid, redundancies and belt-tightening all round have made a career in law no bed of roses even in the UK. And, of course, it’s no consolation to see that things are even worse elsewhere. But if you or your firm can do something to help, contact PBI.emmamarshall(at)