The highest ranking human rights official in the world slammed Mexico's record on severe abuses at the hands of the authorities and rebuked the government's "intolerance of public criticism" at the end of a three-day visit to the country.
"There is a very broad consensus — nationally, regionally, internationally — on the gravity of the human rights situation in Mexico today," said Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, adding the country faces "a bleak and consistent picture of a society wracked by high levels of insecurity."
To help rectify this, Mexico must shore up local police forces, must "withdraw" its military from public safety duties, and should solve the mystery of what happened to the missing 43 students one year ago, a case he characterized as a symbol of broader troubles.
In a press conference, Al Hussein described a disturbing and contradictory situation in Mexico after meetings with the president, high-ranking officials, and victims of abuses.
On one hand, the country has some of the most robust laws and protocols to defend human rights, free speech, and the rule of law. Yet on the other, a staggering 98 percent of crimes are never solved in the country, Al Hussein said, leaving residents with practically nowhere to turn for justice or reparations.
On his first visit to Latin America, the commissioner met with President Enrique Peña Nieto, Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, Attorney General Arely Gomez, and the secretaries of defense and of the navy, among other officials. He also met with human-rights activists and victims of crimes, he said.
"It is neither myself, my office, the UN, or state officials who can declare enough is being done or has been done," Al Hussein said. "It is only the people who can do this, especially the most disadvantaged, the victims or families of the victims of crime, who have the credibility to pass judgment."
These victims, he went on, shared "dreadful" tales of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, femicide, kidnappings, and an indifference from state institutions to their plight.
Al Hussein in particular said Mexico's government should "urgently" solve the case of the Ayotzinapa students who were attacked in the state of Guerrero, which he called a "microcosm of the chronic problems underlying the relentless wave of human rights violations taking place across Mexico."
Al Hussein said he pressed Mexico's military leaders to "adopt a time frame for the withdrawal of the military from public security," a sensitive issue for Mexico since former President Felipe Calderón sent soldiers to the streets in late 2006 to battle powerful drug cartels.
Peña Nieto had promised his government would send troops back to their barracks upon taking office. But three years into his term, soldiers continue to carry out civilian duties of policing and combating criminals — which human-rights defenders say has led to landmark cases of extrajudicial massacres such as those recently seen in Tlatlaya in June 2014 and in Tanhuato in May of this year.
Earlier this week, a Mexican judge released four soldiers implicated in the massacre of 22 civilians in Tlatlaya, a municipality in Mexico state, further raising doubts about the country's ability to effectively carry out investigations and prosecutions of public servants accused of serious crimes.
On Wednesday, the UN high commissioner also admonished officials for "virulent personal attacks" against a UN colleague — the Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez — who said in a report earlier this year that torture was "generalized" inside Mexico.
Mexico's representative before the UN in Geneva at the time shot back at Mendez's report, saying its findings did not "correspond to reality."
The use of the term "generalized" is highly contentious for Mexico, because it opens up all government officials — from the president on down — to theoretically face future charges in international tribunals for state abuses such as torture or extrajudicial killings.
Al Hussein refrained from using the word in his statements in Mexico City on Wednesday. But when pressed by reporters, he responded: "I think I answered the question."
"If 98 percent of crimes are unsolved, the Mexican citizen does not enjoy the protection of the law. Therefore, one can make the argument that the human rights of the people are under threat," he said.
Regarding the military's role in the human rights crisis in Mexico, Al Hussein said his meetings with military authorities were constructive.
He said he urged them to permit a special panel of experts sent by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to interview members of the 27th Infantry Battalion about the attacks against the Ayotzinapa students in Iguala, Guerrero.
Just a day earlier, Mexican defense secretary Salvador Cienfuegos said he would not allow this to happen, arguing such an arrangement would go against "who I am."
Al Hussein urged Mexican officials to remember the pain of the victims and survivors of the attack as they reopen the Iguala case.
"I wish everyone could meet and hear them," the high commissioner said. "To have a loved one disappear, to not know if they are dead or alive; if they died, how much they suffered, how long it took […] To have this awful mix of loss and impotence, this lack of certainty, gnawing away at you day after day … is a truly dreadful thing."
Melissa del Pozo contributed to this report.
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