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Human rights reform crumbles in Mexico

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 24, 2003

When Mexican President Vicente Fox was elected three years ago his arrival in office aroused great hopes of badly needed democratic reforms. They all but died last week.

In the latest blow to political change, the Fox administration closed the government human rights office it had so proudly created only two days after he took office. The decision included the firing of the undersecretary for human rights, Marieclaire Acosta, a courageous and internationally respected activist.

The manner in which the decision was made is a further troubling sign. "It was a complete shock to everyone," said Laurie Freeman, a Mexico specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America, a leading watchdog group in the United States. The announcement could not have been worse timed as it coincided with a global meeting in Mexico of more than 500 representatives of Amnesty International, and followed two reports critical of the human rights situation in Mexico.

The closing also comes in the midst of a United Nations-backed initiative, led by Acosta, to explore improvements to human rights issues in Mexico, including judicial reform, and the rights of women and Mexico's indigenous peoples.

Acosta was the motivating government force behind the project. Without her, human rights activists fear it will likely lose its impact.

"It's a huge step back for the Fox administration," Freeman said.

Acosta has publicly blamed the newly appointed foreign minister, Ernesto Derbez, for her ouster. An economist and former trade minister, Derbez has shown little interest in human rights issues, unlike his dynamic predecessor, Jorge Castaneda. Acosta said he had opposed her efforts to force the Mexican military to examine past abuses. During Mexico's "dirty war" in the 1960s, the Mexican military is accused in the disappearance of opponents of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. One notorious incident that remains unresolved is the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in which hundreds died or were wounded when troops opened fire on student demonstrators in a downtown Mexico City square.

"I see this as a sign that the more progressive elements of the Fox government have been pushed aside," she told the New York Times. "The failure of the human rights agenda is part of the failure of this government to live up to its promises for real reforms."

Under Acosta's leadership the reform process had barely begun. Important progress had been made, especially in strengthening Mexico's relations with international human rights forums. During her watch, the United Nations was permitted to open a human rights office in Mexico, something no previous government had dared allow.

But official secrecy remains a problem in covering up past crimes by the state. Police in Mexico also continue to torture detainees on almost a routine basis, as well as extract coerced or questionable confessions.

Derbez denies that the government is abandoning the human rights issue. Instead, he put the removal of Acosta down to a bureaucratic restructuring.

Analysts will be watching closely to see if that really is the case. Acosta says she plans to be one of them.

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