Mexico Struggles to Protect Human Rights Advocates from Harassment, Death

Mexico is among the most dangerous places in the world for human rights advocates. Government efforts to protect outspoken activists are hampered by funding and staffing shortages.

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Mexico Struggles to Protect Human Rights Advocates from Harassment, Death

Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Norma Mesino Mesino, a human rights advocate, believes that her sister, Rocío Mesino Mesino, was killed because of her work defending the rights of rural communities in southern Mexico.

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MEXICO CITY, MEXICO— Defending human rights is a risky business in Mexico. Advocates for human rights are operating in the most dangerous environments in the world where they are likely to be kidnapped, threatened and even murdered, experts say.

Mexico is among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists and human rights advocates, according to a 2015 report by Peace Brigades International and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a U.S-based research and advocacy group.

The Mexican government in 2012 established the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. Since then, 464 people have used the program for protection, says María Celia Suárez Pacheco, director of evaluation and risk for the Unit for the Defense of Human Rights, the government office in charge of coordinating the mechanism. Of those, 194 were women.

The program is designed to provide various types of protection, including bodyguards, surveillance cameras, special locks, panic buttons, satellite phones or vehicles for at-risk people.

But the program has suffered from serious financial and staff shortages since it began, the 2015 PBI/WOLA report states. There’s a backlog of cases, according to the report, and there are delays in risk assessments. Some people have waited more than a year after contacting the program to receive a response.

Patricia Colchero Aragonés, who is in charge of monitoring prevention and analysis for the unit, says the unit doesn’t have an analysis of the conditions faced by the people who have been given protective measures. She says they plan to conduct the analysis this year.

While the program struggles to improve, human rights defenders put their lives at risk every day. Here are the stories of three women who choose to take that risk.


Norma Mesino Mesino

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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Women wear shirts at an October event in Mexico City with slogans that demand justice for the death of Rocío Mesino Mesino.

When Norma Mesino Mesino’s talks about her sister Rocío Mesino Mesino, her voice breaks and her eyes begin to water.

Rocío Mesino Mesino was killed on Oct. 19, 2013 while supervising the reconstruction of a bridge in Mexcaltepec, a town in the southwestern state of Guerrero. The bridge had been damaged from a storm a month earlier.

Rocío Mesino Mesino was one of the leaders of the Peasant Organization of the Southern Sierra (OCSS). The organization educates rural communities in the Guerrero highlands about their legal rights and helps them collect and report human rights abuses.

Another sibling, Miguel Ángel Mesino Mesino, was also a member of OCSS. He was killed on Sept. 18, 2005. Witnesses to the murder reported he was shot in the back by three men, she says.

Norma Mesino Mesino, 43, is herself a member of OCSS.

She says she thinks the murders of her brother and sister were related to their advocacy work. They spoke out on issues including responsible development and human rights, Mesino Mesino says, and that might have gotten in the way of local caciques – political bosses or indigenous chiefs. But, she doesn’t know for sure, she says, because neither of the crimes have been resolved.

“We knew that we were in danger for being defenders of human rights,” Mesino Mesino says. “In some way, you are conscious that you run risks because you are affecting [people’s] interests.”

Caciques are powerfully connected to the state and political parties, and now the growth of the drug cartels in the region has increased the danger, according to a 2015 report prepared by U.S. based Open Society Justice Initiative, in collaboration with two Mexican human rights centers, one of which is based in Guerrero state.

Guerrero is thought to be the source of between 50 percent and 70 percent of all heroin produced in the country, according to a 2015 report published by the Mexico Institute at the Washington D.C.-based Wilson Center. However, the report concedes there are no reliable figures on this.

After her sister’s murder, Mesino Mesino took over the leadership of OCSS.

“I don’t have any other way of doing justice to my siblings other than this, because we are a family of defenders,” she says.

On Oct. 13, Mesino Mesino led a caravan of women to Mexico City, the nation’s capital, to demand justice for the murder of Rocío Mesino Mesino. The participants joined public protests and held a forum that highlighted assaults on human rights defenders.

Mesino Mesino says her sister didn’t fully acknowledge the risks she was facing. Mesino Mesino takes more safety precautions: No nighttime travel, no travel to areas where there is no cellphone reception and extra care in how she reports human rights abuses.

But, Mesino Mesino says, she’s still harassed and threatened.

A 2012 national law established protections for people who are in danger for defending human rights. In Oct. 2014, Mesino Mesino applied for protections outlined by that law, but she was rejected because there were no clearly defined threats that put her at risk, she says.

We knew that we were in danger for being defenders of human rights.

Mexico’s patriarchal society tries to conceal female leaders and their work, says Atziri Ávila, coordinator of the National Network of Human Rights Defenders in Mexico.

“It’s not that there are few women defending human rights, on the contrary,” Ávila says. “There is a gender issue, that is not the responsibility of men themselves, but rather is part of the patriarchal system in which we have lived.”

The work of female defenders is less visible than that of their male counterparts, which puts female defenders at greater risk, Ávila says.

Mesino Mesino says she’s been able to heal from the trauma of her siblings’ deaths by making sure her family’s story is known, and by making herself more visible.

Soon after her application for protection was rejected, Mesino Mesino she took her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which aims to protect human rights on the American continents.

On Feb. 25, the commission requested the Mexican government provide protection for Mesino Mesino and 10 members of her family. Their lives and personal integrity were at risk, the commission found.

Mesino Mesino says she still feels threatened, but she plans to continue her work.

“Sometimes the fear turns into courage,” she says. “We can translate that fear into the struggle, into participation.”


Nadín Reyes Maldonado

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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Although Nadín Reyes Maldonado, 33, has not suffered a direct assault, she says she feels constantly watched and followed, which she considers a form of intimidation for her work with families whose loved ones have disappeared.

Nadín Reyes Maldonado says she’s felt constantly watched and followed for the past eight years. She’s never been attacked, but that fact doesn’t reassure her.

Instead, she’s nervous. Anything can happen at any moment, she says.

She says she is often followed by men who, although they do not have a uniform, have a close-shaven hairstyle, just like police or military personnel, she says.

“It is the message, and also one of the intentions,” she says. “If they do not attack you directly, they are getting through to you the idea that, ‘We are here, and if it is not now, at any moment we can do something to you.’”

Reyes Maldonado’s father, Edmundo Reyes Amaya, disappeared in May 2007. He was detained along with another man, Gabriel Alberto Cruz Sánchez, in an operation which involved police and military. No one has seen them since then.

She didn’t know it then she says, but her father and Cruz Sánchez were members of the Ejército Popular Revolucionario, which translates to Popular Revolutionary Army, a guerrilla organization that rejects the Mexican government.

Their families learned of the men’s political activism when the guerrilla organization alerted them to their disappearance.

For Reyes Maldonado’s family, the news of her father’s revolutionary affiliations was a surprise, she says. But since then, Reyes Maldonado, 33, has worked to defend human rights in her community.

If they do not attack you directly, they are getting through to you the idea that, ‘We are here, and if it is not now, at any moment we can do something to you.

While she demanded publicly that her father be presented alive, Reyes Maldonado says she learned of more cases of people who fought for social and civil rights in their communities, but suddenly disappeared. She joined forces with Margarita Cruz Sánchez, the sister of Gabriel Alberto Cruz Sánchez, to create the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees Until We Find Them!, to document and report cases of forced disappearances, and to promote awareness about the issue.

The organization has documented 150 cases that have taken place since 2006, Reyes Maldonado says.

Disappearances have increased in Mexico, along with the intensity of violent crimes and human rights violations, according to a 2013 report by Amnesty International.

To date, more than 27,500 disappearances have been reported, according to Mexico’s National Registry of Data on Lost or Missing Persons.

The defenders who haven’t fallen victim to kidnappers or murder still face difficult circumstances. Women in particular struggle with intense pressure to stop their work. Intimidation and psychological harassment were the main forms of aggression towards female human rights defenders between 2012 and 2014, according to a record of attacks on women defenders by the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders.

This record, which documents cases in Mexico and Central America, aims to address the lack of an official record of attacks on women defenders in the region, says Ávila, the National Network of Human Rights Defenders coordinator.

Reyes Maldonado, who has requested protection from the national network, now follows her own cautionary measures, but her constant alertness is exhausting and stressful, she says.

She says she considers feelings of fatigue and stress as signs from her body that she needs to pay attention.

“It is important to have these protection and health measures, to take care of ourselves, because if we are not healthy, we also cannot continue (our) work,” she says.


Claudia Erika Zenteno Zaldívar

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Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico

Claudia Erika Zenteno Zaldívar, 50, says she has been threatened, harassed and beaten because of her work defending a natural area from illegal construction for the past almost 20 years.

Claudia Erika Zenteno Zaldívar has been harassed, intimidated and even beaten by people who want to stop her from reporting illegal construction in protected areas.

But the worst moments in her nearly 20 years of activism came when her son was kidnapped.

That was in November 2010. The 20-year-old man was held for nine days. The message from his captors, to Zenteno Zaldívar, was clear: Stop reporting the illegal construction projects.

Even that didn’t stop Zenteno Zaldívar, 50, from continuing her activism in the Xochimilco delegation in Mexico’s Federal District.

Since 1997, Zenteno Zaldívar has reported illegal housing construction in the lagoon of the Ciénega Chica, and the floating gardens, or “chinampas” of Xochimilco. All are found in the Environmentally Protected Area of the Xochimilco and San Gregorio Atlapulco public lands, as protected in a decree by the government in 1992.

Zenteno Zaldívar has reported the construction to different public offices, but she hasn’t been able to stop it, she says.

What keeps me going? The conviction that this changes and that the zone won’t continue being devastated.

Zenteno Zaldívar says she faces harassment for her work. Dead animals have been tossed in front of her home. She receives prank and threatening phone calls. She and her family were beaten when she was trying to photograph a truck that had construction materials inside. Her car has been damaged.

Then, there was her son’s kidnapping.

“What keeps me going? The conviction that this changes and that the zone won’t continue being devastated,” she says. “I don’t want to be an accomplice to others. I don’t want to say, ‘I could have done more and I didn’t.’”

In Mexico there are no official registries for attacks against human rights advocates, says Ávila, of the National Network of Human Rights Advocates. Ávila says the lack of a reliable and official registry is an obstacle in making the work of people like Zenteno Zaldívar visible and understood.

Despite no official record, some agencies have done their best to track incidents.

The Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders published a report that registered 616 attacks against female advocates in Mexico between 2012 and 2014.

Among the most common attacks against female advocates, the initiative registered cases of intimidation, psychological harassment, threats, slander, smear campaigns, excessive use of force, illegal detentions and criminalization, according to the report.

Zenteno Zaldívar is one of the advocates that has received protection from the national government’s 2012 mechanism, she says. She benefits from some of the highest levels of security measures, but she prefers to not share the details out of safety concerns.

Zenteno Zaldívar says that, despite the benefits, these measures have limited her freedom of expression and mobility, and she considers them a form of control on her.

“When the state does its job, everything else shouldn’t be a problem,” she says.


Natalia Aldana and Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.