On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report in which it denounced human rights violations at the hands of security forces in Mexico, as well as impunity for drug-related violence. In the Mexico chapter of its 200-page World Report 2011, the human rights organization says it found “strong evidence to suggest that members of Mexican security forces have participated in over 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances, and 24 extrajudicial executions.” Moreover, noted José Miguel Vivanco, HRW director of the Americas, while there has been a surge in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderón took office, there has not been a comparable increase in criminal investigations. Only 997 of the 45,000 deaths related to drug violence have been formally investigated, and of those, a mere 22 have resulted in convictions. Vivanco also noted that, since the crimes are often attributed to disputes between drug cartels, the deaths of the victims are sometimes dismissed.
In the latest edition of Americas Quarterly, released yesterday, Alejandro Poiré, director of Mexico’s Center for Intelligence and National Security, and José Merino, professor of political science at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, debate the possibility of success in Mexico’s war on drugs. Poiré believes the war can be won, asserting, “Mexico has chalked up major victories—and will continue to do so, thanks to its multi-track approach that focuses not just on eliminating drug trafficking, but on building stronger law enforcement institutions and reinforcing our social fabric.” Merino, on the other hand, argues, “If winning means eliminating all drug production, trade and consumption, then the only honest answer is ‘no.’ The strategic lines drawn by the Mexican government rely on ‘containment and weakening’ criminal organizations, not ‘elimination,’” he says.
José Miguel Vivanco delivered the report in person to judicial authorities, military officials and President Calderón—noting that this last meeting was surprisingly constructive. The HRW report recommends a reform of the military justice code such that human rights violations committed by members of the armed forces be tried in civil rather than military courts. It also demands that the code prohibit admitting into court testimony obtained through torture.
During the last two weeks of June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) celebrated the 22nd (1989) version of the HRW International Film Festival in Walter Reade Theater in New York. I only saw two of the screenings, but even today I’m still haunted by what I saw.
When sitting alone in my apartment I think of the 25-year-old Canadian Muslim who’s been locked up in isolation for the last nine years in a window-less cold room at Guantánamo Bay. Or I remember the words of Carlos Horacio Urán Rodríguez’ daughter when she addressed the audience after La Toma: “I was 2 years old and I remember” how her father was mysteriously found shot after the siege of the Colombian Supreme Court in 1985. He left the Court alive and contradicting any logic was found shot dead the next day in that same building.
This is a testament to the power of film—a particularly important and powerful medium for human rights.
More than 7,500 people attended this year’s 19 films, which covered human rights in 12 countries including Guatemala, Colombia, the U.S., Kenya, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Bulgaria. The good news is that the festival premiered 17 films in New York—five of them for the first time in the United States. The bad news? Most of them were hardly screened in their country of origin.
The Festival’s goal was to exploit the power of media in all its forms to create awareness, promote debate, inspire, and inform. What better way to do that than through film which can bring to life past (or even worse, current) events—many of which the public often considers foreign or remote. (It’s an unconscious—if not unforgivable mistake we all make: if we don’t see it, it’s not happening). Movies can vividly transport audiences by recreating sensations and personalizing trauma that—more than anything—can shake the public out of their complacency or disbelieve. It was what allowed me to know about and empathize with Omar Khadr’s life in Guantánamo Bay and the suffering of Colombian families who after 25 years of the Supreme Court’s siege by M-19 guerrillas still don't know the truth about the disappearance of their loved ones.
Luc Côté and Patricio Henríquez’s shocking You Don’t Like The Truth-4 Days Inside Guantanamo is now my ‘everyday bread.’ Imagine you are buried alive. It’s dark. You’re running out of oxygen (are you really imagining this?) and even though you scream for help no one is there to assist you. You’re alone. No exit. This is the feeling I imagine Omar Khadr has felt for the past nine years he has been imprisoned without trial under the harshest conditions.
Allegedly, when he was 15 years old and the U.S. Army ambushed the camp in Afghanistan where his father had left him, he threw a grenade and killed U.S. soldier Christopher Speers. After being shot in the chest, losing an eye, and suffering painful leg injuries, Omar was taken to the Bagram Airfield camp in Afghanistan, well known for the infamous and humiliating tortures that occurred there.