Sagas detailing the wholesale destruction of families, communities, cultures and Mother Earth itself were publicly aired in Ciudad Juárez this week, when hundreds of people met to put the Mexican state on trial for social, economic and environmental assaults.
Assembled for the Permanent People’s Tribunal (TPP in its Spanish initials), representatives of indigenous, labor, environmental, human rights, women’s and community organizations heard first-hand testimonies from victims of a host of abuses afflicting Mexico for decades.
Tracing its history to the 1967 Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal that put the U.S. government on trial for the Vietnam intervention, the TPP is a civil society initiative that employs moral persuasion and public opinion to demand justice and effect change. The proceedings additionally serve as a repository for compiling a historical record that could be used in official probes of human rights violations.
“That’s the idea of a popular alternative justice which implies the defense of rights, but from the (social) movements,” said Camilo Perez, a Mexico City attorney, law professor and activist in the Mexican chapter of the TPP.
Since the Vietnam War, the TPP has considered complaints related to El Salvador , Tibet, Armenia, Afghanistan, East Timor and other nations.
In an interview with FNS, Perez contended that civil society should reclaim the human rights mantle from governments like the former Bush administration, which invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of defending rights. “We can’t allow power to appropriate human rights only to betray them,” Perez asserted.
For hearing the case of Mexico, the TPP has assembled eight international judges drawn from academic, human rights and legal backgrounds. Among others, the judges include Nora Cortinas, co-founder of Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza Cinco de Mayo-Founding Line; Mireille Fanon Mendes, the daughter of the famed Caribbean-French psychiatrist, revolutionary theorist and Algerian National Liberation Front member Frantz Fanon; and Alejandro Teitelbaum, an Argentine labor lawyer who fled to France in 1974 after receiving threats and bombs apparently sent to back up the verbal warnings.
The TPP plans on incorporating the testimonies and documentation gathered in Juárez and elsewhere in Mexico as part of a process leading to a final judgment in 2014 on the state’s responsibility for human rights and other violations.
Though non-binding, the judgment would complement previous recommendations on many of the same issues considered by the TPP but issued by United Nations commissions, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Inter-American Court of Human Rights, according to TPP activists.
The issues raised in Juárez encapsulated struggles, conflicts and atrocities that have made headlines south of the border in recent decades.
A long laundry list of grievances, included forced disappearance and displacement; state-sponsored massacres in Chiapas and Guerrero, where multiple killings of opposition activists occurred; violence against women; crimes against migrants; attacks on journalists and freedom of expression; media monopolization; erosion of labor and union rights; the genetic modification of corn; the loss of food sovereignty; environmentally harmful mining projects; controversial mega-projects like the proposed La Parota Dam near Acapulco, and the militarization of the drug war.
As if to illustrate the last point, a convoy of four federal police trucks brimming with masked officers attired in black and armed to the hilt circled in front of the auditorium at one point when the TPP was discussing militarization.
Elizabeth Flores, Juárez director of the Roman Catholic Church’s labor ministry, said the issues tackled by the TPP were “pending ones” that grew worse as time passed.
“This tribunal represents a hope for justice that comes from the people, from the testimonies of the people, without leaving out the importance of the international tribunals of legal courts,” Flores said.
Locally, the TPP was hosted by the Group for the Articulation of Justice in Ciudad Juárez, a new initiative formed by veteran civil society organizations that advocates three main principals: truth and justice, demilitarization and re-founding the city based on non-violence and a new economic model. The participating organizations include the Women’s Roundtable, Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, Cossydhac, Pact for Juárez, Compañeros, Casa Amiga Esther Chavez Cano and the Christian Base Communities, among many others.
Given the centrality of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the close commercial, migratory and security relationships existing among Mexico, the United States and Canada, it’s likely the final TPP judgment will also take Washington and Ottawa to account on a variety of fronts.
In the Juárez gathering, talk was rife of U.S. arms trafficking to Mexico as well as the U.S. government’s training and advisement of Mexican security forces. In a document prepared for the meeting, the Mexican TPP’s migration commission lambasted the “extrajudicial assassinations committed by the U.S. Border Patrol,” the activities of paramilitary groups on the U.S. side of the border, the mistreatment of Mexican agricultural guest workers in Canada and “the adoption of racist and xenophobic laws” in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama.
Justice in Ciudad Juarez activist Willivaldo Delgadillo said a future step in the TPP process could include the formation of a U.S. chapter. “The U.S. is a source of terror for our country, but also a source of hope, because there are many people in the U.S. who are worried about what is going on in Mexico, and also victims of what is going on in Mexico,” Delgadillo told FNS. “We can speak of the millions of immigrants but also of U.S. solidarity, because these are transnational problems that affect both sides of the border, that affect the poor and working people of both sides of the border…”
In riveting personal testimonies, the audience heard the stories of Juan Vasquez Luna, a survivor of the 1997 Acteal massacre in the state of Chiapas, and Mariana Selvas Gomez, one of 11 women who are pursuing a complaint on sexual violence and torture against the Mexican state in the Washington. D.C.-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Vasquez and another member of the Las Abejas Civil Association, Antonio Vasquez, said indigenous Mayans had gathered in the Acteal church shortly before Christmas 1997 to pray for peace and justice in a region under siege from government-organized paramilitary groups that were deployed to counter the Zapatista uprising.
Las Abejas refused to provide recruits and money for the paramilitaries, according to the two men. On Dec. 22, 1997, Juan Vasquez recalled watching as gunmen dressed like local police attacked the Acteal church, slaughtering 45 people including children and pregnant women. Nine members of his own family were murdered, Vasquez said.
“I don’t have my mother or my father, but here I am,” Vazquez told a hushed room.
In another emotional account, Mariana Selvas described how she and other women were detained in an operation launched by thousands of Mexican federal, state and local police against the community of San Salvador Atenco in the state of Mexico in May 2006.
Conducted during the administration of then-governor and current Revolutionary Institutional Party presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, the police raid followed a confrontation between authorities and local people triggered by the detentions of flower sellers. San Salvador Atenco had earlier been the scene of an intense conflict between small farmers and the administration of President Vicente Fox over the federal government’s plans to build a new airport for Mexico City on collectively owned lands. The farmers prevailed, and bad blood persisted between the two sides.
According to Selvas, women detainees were called whores, threatened with disappearance and death, hit repeatedly and subjected to gropings. Some were also sexually abused. After hearing Selvas’ testimony, TPP Judge Mireille Fanon Mendes suggested the case be presented to the United Nations Women’s Commission when it meets in New York next year.
In Acteal and Atenco, popular pressure goaded the Mexican authorities into making arrests of material suspects. However, lower-level police officers or paramilitary group members who were arrested were subsequently released or protected from further prosecution by legal maneuvers. Earlier this year, the Mexican Supreme Court ordered seven men freed for the Acteal massacre after finding legal irregularities in the prosecutorial case spearheaded by the federal attorney general’s office, according to the Mexican press.
Las Abejas member Antonio Vasquez said the freed men have returned home angry and unrepentant. Importantly, no disarmament has occurred, he added.
“If they were innocent, who did the killing?” Vasquez questioned. “They needed to kill their brothers, but it was on orders from above.”
Far from being old news or forgotten events, the issues considered in Ciudad Juárez tribunal are raging topics in Mexico as the country nudges closer to the July 1 elections. On a Juárez campaign swing the same day as the opening of the TPP sessions, National Action Party presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota endorsed the creation of a 150,000-member “militarized” federal police force to replace corrupt local law enforcement agencies, according to media accounts of the visit.
Meanwhile, National Alliance presidential candidate Gabriel Quadri told a radio interviewer that he did not agree with the concept of food sovereignty, as it implied Mexico could become self-sufficient in food production. A former federal environmental official, Quadri contended that attempting to do so would jeopardize the country’s remaining forests.
On May 28, all four presidential candidates participated in a forum sponsored by the Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity in Mexico City (MPJD), where they were subjected to sharp questioning and criticism over government policies related to the so-called narco war, according to the Mexican press. Relatives of murder and kidnapping victims peppered the candidates with questions, and one woman laid into Peña Nieto for the Atenco incident.
Although no consensus emerged from the forum, the fact that four presidential candidates even agreed to attend such an event was quite unprecedented, and underlined the gravity of the overall situation in Mexico.
TPP organizer Camilo Perez said that the Juárez tribunal was long planned and had nothing to do with the timing of the elections. Within an initiative supported by more than 300 organizations nationwide, differing opinions exist on the candidates and whether even to vote, he said. “We’ve been careful to keep it separate from the elections and to not confuse the two,” Perez added.
To reach the border tribunal, delegates from outside Juárez departed Mexico City in a caravan of four buses on May 25. Similar to last year’s MPJD caravan that also arrived in the border city, the travelers stopped in different cities where they held public meetings, demonstrations and marches with violence victims and activists organizing around issues like the Cerro de San Pedro gold mine in San Luis Potosi.
In Ciudad Juárez, the delegates kicked off the tribunal with a spirited demonstration, and then learned about local struggles through vivid photo essays depicting the popular movement against violence and militarization since 2008, as well as the lengthy land conflict between residents of Lomas de Poleo and businessman Pedro Zaragoza on the northwestern edge of Ciudad Juárez. Outside the meeting hall, Lomas de Poleo residents set up a table and sold bottles of their new salsa product.
Resident Martin Gonzalez assessed the TPP as a positive event. “For me, it’s a good thing because the people are coming together, to find out what is happening over there and to find out what is happening over here” Gonzalez said.
According to the Lomas de Poleo resister, more than 40 legal cases related to the land battle are still pending in the agrarian court system in Chihuahua state. Decisions over the rightful ownership of the land located near a planned new border crossing were expected to be handed down this month, Gonzalez said, but for some unknown reason no word has reached the Lomas de Poleo plaintiffs. “The only thing we can do is wait for the judgment,” he said.
In a preliminary verdict delivered at the conclusion of the Juárez event, the TPP’s judges held the Mexican state responsible for numerous violations and recommended that the cases go to the Europe-based International Criminal Court. Many violations constitute “crimes against humanity under the jurisdiction of the court,” TPP Judge Antoni Pigrau Sole was quoted in El Diario de Juárez.
The panel of judges also recommended that Mexico withdraw from NAFTA. “The economy can’t be above the dignity of human life, and the free trade agreement has only benefited a few,” the judges maintained. “While the richest man in the world (Carlos Slim) is Mexican, millions of men, women and children do not count on sufficient resources to have a dignified life.”
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Center for Latin American
and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico