Mexico: “What People Were Asking For Wasn’t Special Treatment, but Rather, Respect”

August 10, 2016

GPJ-MexicoMEXICO CITY, MEXICO ─ I heard about the Programa de Atención a Víctimas after I read a true story that seemed absurd.

The story said that the attorney general for the Mexican state of Morelos had buried the body of a 31-year-old man in a mass grave, where unidentified bodies are sent, despite the fact that a family had identified the body. The family of this young person, whose name was Oliver Wenceslao Navarrete Hernández, later discovered dozens of other bodies in the same grave.

When I read this story, the family of Navarrete Hernández and the program, which is dedicated to supporting people who have been targets of crime and their families, operating out of a public university in Morelos state, were demanding the state government exhume these bodies and conduct DNA tests to identify them. Finally, they succeeded, and between the end of May and the beginning of June of this year, 117 bodies and 12 additional pieces of skeletal remains were exhumed.

What caught my attention was the fact that an initiative like this would exist in a university.

I knew that some universities in the country had legal support programs for people who have experienced crime or violence, and I also knew of some universities with projects that help vulnerable populations, such as migrants.

But what I saw this time was something different. It had to do with openly taking the side of the person who’d experienced the crime, even if that implied a confrontation with the authorities. I had never seen a university in my country take such a blunt commitment to stand with people who’d experienced crime.

I began to report the story. Interviews with the program coordinator, Navarrete Hernández’s family and the families of other disappeared people confirmed for me that the work of the university was important and newsworthy.

My reporting for this story coincided with the exhumation of the bodies. Simultaneously, the university and the state attorney general took DNA samples from people with disappeared family members who arrived after having heard the news of the mass exhumation.

What I saw there convinced me that it was necessary to write about this program.

My conviction didn’t come from a concrete event, but instead from subtle details like the kindness with which the university personnel welcomed the family members of the disappeared, and the respect and concern with which they treated them.

I have reported stories about the family members of disappeared people. In the testimonies I’ve heard, there has been one constant: In addition to the pain caused by the disappearance of a loved one, there is the affliction of having to deal with authorities who are indifferent and insensitive to their situation.

What people were asking for wasn’t special treatment, but rather respect. Since 2013, there has been a general law in Mexico mandating, among other things, that public servants treat targets of crime with humanity and respect for their dignity and human rights.

I understood then that the impact of the university program can’t be measured only by the quantity of cases that it has taken on, but also by how it has been a refuge amid pain for some families.

The two days I spent at the cemetery watching the university team working reminded me of how, a few weeks earlier, Navarrete Hernández’s mother described the treatment of the university program’s personnel.

“Humane,” was all she said.


Danielle Mackey, GPJ, translated this blog from Spanish.