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Mexico Detours on Rights

August 23, 2003

Vicente Fox made human rights a centerpiece of his presidential campaign three years ago, signaling its importance in Mexico's foreign policy and that abuses would not be tolerated at home. Jorge Castaneda, Fox's then-foreign minister, followed up and made Mariclaire Acosta, a respected, longtime advocate, his vaunted deputy for human rights. The three then undertook steps that were unprecedented for Mexico, including correctly criticizing Cuban dictator Fidel Castro for his wrongs on human rights.

So what is the world to think now that Castaneda is gone and his successor, Luis Ernesto Derbez, last week not only fired Acosta but also abolished her post?

Acosta will continue her good works with a public or private group lucky enough to have her services. But Fox and Derbez need to labor to lift the shadow they have cast over Mexico's reputation as a country that champions human rights. The loss of Acosta is unfortunate for a nation that recently was making history signing international human rights accords, opening itself to scrutiny by human rights groups and denouncing human rights violations in foreign countries.

Acosta's dismissal is especially ill timed considering that two respected monitoring groups have just issued separate scathing reports on human rights woes in Mexico.

Last month, Human Rights Watch detailed the failures of the special prosecutor's office, set up in November 2001 to investigate and prosecute past abuses in Mexico. The watchdog group said the office had accomplished little and might lack the powers and resources to tackle its assignment. Its investigations also have been undermined by an uncooperative military that, among other things, has limited access to declassified documents. Human Rights Watch rightly says Fox must take "immediate and decisive action" to get the office on track.

He and other Mexican officials also have their hands full with what Amnesty International says is the "pervasive failure of the authorities to address" a decade of killings and abductions of women in the state of Chihuahua, particularly in the border city of Juarez. The number of victims since 1993 is still undetermined; the Mexican attorney general's office lists 261 women slain in Juarez, and Amnesty estimates the toll at 370. Though Mexican courts have convicted 79 murderers and linked them to these killings, Amnesty reports that "in the vast majority of these cases justice has not been done."

Indeed, Mexico has unfinished work not just on the Chihuahua killings and with the special prosecutor's office but in the whole area of human rights. It needs to get back to a progressive path.

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