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Human rights are the medicine Mexico needs to heal itself

January 17, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the deep inequality that has long existed in Mexico . Decades of violence, corruption, impunity, structural discrimination and economic inequality have submerged the nation in a human rights crisis, now compounded by a grave health emergency.

The state has the obligation to protect and guarantee the rights of everyone in Mexico, without discrimination. It must urgently strengthen the precarious and underfunded public health system, and ensure adequate safeguards with respect to social security and employment. But beyond this, the government has an opportunity to make the radical changes needed to transform society and stop trampling on the most marginalised groups of the population.

The pandemic affects all of us, but it does not affect us all in the same ways. The Mexican authorities must listen to those whose voices have historically been silenced or ignored, such as indigenous peoples, women, LGBTIQ+ people, people living in poverty, and migrants and refugees.

They must treat people with compassion and empathy, rather than abandoning, stigmatising, or re-victimising those who need state support. They must also protect the journalists and human rights defenders who risk their lives fighting for a better tomorrow, instead of further endangering them. Human rights are the medicine that Mexico needs to heal itself.

This article was published in Spanish by La Lista, as part of a series of 22 recommendations by different figures on how to heal the nation

When it rains it pours: The devastating impact of hurricanes Eta and Iota in Honduras

December 15, 2020

Juana Tabora knew she had to help her neighbours when the water began to flood the streets, blocking the exits in La Lima, her city in northwestern Honduras.

“We were surrounded by water, people started saying ‘help us, we want to come in’, so we opened the door downstairs so that people could get in,” says Tabora, the owner of a two-storey funeral home that she turned into an improvised shelter. Around 30 families took refuge there after losing their homes to the hurricanes Eta and Iota, which devastated large swathes of Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua in the first weeks of November.

When it rains it pours in Honduras, a country that had already suffered multiple crisis in recent years: state repression, gang violence, economic problems, environmental destruction, mass emigration and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. The two hurricanes left at least 94 dead affecting almost 4 million people across the nation, and analysts say they could cause the level of poverty to rise by 10%, surpassing 70% of the population. While the arrival of two such powerful storms just two weeks apart was an almost unprecedented natural disaster in Honduras, many of the affected believe the authorities have abandoned them to their fate.

‘The worst thing we’ve ever been through’

The impact of the hurricanes was so severe that it made many people forget, at least momentarily, about the pandemic that has changed the world. Tabora had already buried many COVID-19 victims and even had to close her business for a while because of the pandemic, but she immediately put her concerns to one side to shelter those who needed her help.

“I understand that there are people who came with small children, saving their babies, and they didn’t remember their masks because of the anguish,” she says. “When we saw the distress people were in we didn’t even think about these things… [I thought] come on, maybe they could be saved here, even if there’s not much room.”

Many of those affected have suffered post-traumatic stress due to everything they’ve been through since Eta, the first hurricane, approached. “You feel a nervousness, a tension among us,” Tabora reflects. “Worry at knowing what’s coming, as the media says it’s something huge and super dangerous.”

With the water up to his chest, Sergio Donaire, a 35-year-old upholsterer, arrived at the funeral home with his wife and three daughters after fleeing their house, which was practically destroyed. Two weeks later, it’s still raining hard and the family remains in the funeral home, without any support from the state. “There’s no food, nowhere to bathe, no electricity,” Donaire says. “My daughters have fallen ill. They’ve had a cough and the flu. Even I had a fever for two days. We’re all scared… it’s the worst thing we’ve ever been through.”

San Pedro Sula, the nation’s second biggest city, was devastated. The stench of mud and dead animals lingers everywhere. Surreal scenes abound, like in the Chamelecón neighbourhood to the south of the city,

where the river overflowed and flooded the cemetery, forcing open graves and leaving coffins floating in the water.

Two weeks after Eta struck, about 60 families were still living beneath a bridge on a highway to the southeast of San Pedro Sula. Alberto López Ocampo, a farmer from the Asentamientos Humanos neighbourhood, has been sleeping on a mattress there for 15 days, beside the 11 geese, 25 hens and 40 ducks he was able to save from the roof of his house. Another 25 sheep of his drowned when the property flooded.

“I came racing out with my four children when the water started to rise at eight in the evening,” says López, who had to later to separate from his family to look after their livestock. “I arrived at the shelter but they told me to set [the animals] free. How can I set them free when they’re all I have? I have nothing, I lost everything. My house is still flooded, it flooded again when Iota struck. It’s going to need repairing because it’s sinking, it’s full of mud and it has dead animals inside.”

The families sheltered beneath the bridge bathe in the rainwater that falls on the highway and relieve themselves in the sewers. “Some of the churches and other people who are helping out donate toilet paper but there’s no government aid here,” López explains. “They don’t want to help in any way… they could easily give us umbrellas, at least with an umbrella we could get by, but the way things are right now, look, more rain is coming and there’s nothing we can do.”

The state response

Two days before the first hurricane arrived, the Honduran government was still promoting a tourism fair to revive the economy, instead of warning the population to take preventive measures. Since then, it has faced accusations of not doing enough to protect the health and dignity of those affected and to guarantee their access to humanitarian assistance.

The national authorities say they saved 34 people stranded on rooftops using military and civilian helicopters, as well as carrying out two aquatic rescues. The Colombian Air Force has also offered its support, evacuating 97 people in a Black Hawk helicopter. Marlon Matute, of representative of the San Pedro Sula mayor’s office, affirms that the local government has opened 100 municipal shelter across the city and is providing financial support, food and hygiene products to those affected. President Juan Orlando Hernández has visited affected families to deliver humanitarian aid and has declared the construction of dams a national priority. “The Honduran people must know that Operation ‘You Are Not Alone’ will reach every last corner affected by the storms to give us back the dignity that was muddied, but has not been lost,” he wrote on Twitter. On 26 November, he announced that he had sent the Free Vaccine for All Against COVID-19 law to the National Congress, to “ensure that everyone has access, voluntarily and without cost”.

Dinorah Nolasco, director of health in the Cortés region where San Pedro Sula is located, says the area has suffered constant crises in the last two years: “First we had a dengue emergency, then a COVID emergency and now we have this tragedy. It’s a disaster we’re living through, but we’re trying to get back on our feet.”

With clouds of mosquitos, large bodies of water and animal corpses everywhere, plus the lack of sanitation due to the storm damage, Nolasco is on the alert for possible outbreaks of malaria and leptospirosis. But the main concern remains the pandemic that has claimed nearly 3,000 lives and brought more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 to a nation of 9.5 million people.

“All the shelters are conducting daily medical evaluations and testing every patient suspected of having COVID, both with rapid antigen tests and real-time PCR tests,” Nolasco says. “We try to give them advice, we try to isolate them and we try to give them as much psychological counselling as we can, because obviously right now there has not only been material damage and human loss, but the population has also suffered a lot of psychological damage.”

Solidarity within the LGBT community

In a phone interview from Tegucigalpa, the nation’s capital, Erick Martínez Salgado, a defender of the rights of the LGBT community, affirms that the government response to the hurricanes and the pandemic has been weakened by a lack of planning and the historic corruption of state institutions. Martínez laments that the government has not taken differentiated measures that take into account the needs of LGBT people, as well as those of other marginalized populations, such as indigenous peoples and people with disabilities.

The defender explains that the pandemic and the hurricanes have exacerbated the poverty experienced by many members of the LGBT population in Honduras, which has historically suffered high levels of discrimination, exclusion and violence – particularly transgender people who are disproportionately dependent on the informal economy and sex work. He also warns that “in the temporary shelters they are not applying differentiated protocols for transgender women… They should not put them in places where there are only men… this could lead to discriminatory actions or violence against the LGBT community.”

Martinez speaks with pride of the solidarity the LGBT community has shown with trans women in the coastal areas worst affected by the hurricanes. He says the Movimiento de Diversidad en Resistencia group raised a thousand dollars to buy them food, clothing and shoes, while transgender refugees in US cities such as Washington DC and Miami have sent them money to buy supplies. However, Martínez questions why “citizens are replacing the government’s role in providing humanitarian aid.”

A new wave of migration

The destruction in Honduras, combined with the effects of climate change that have made subsistence agriculture difficult in recent years, plus a possible change in the immigration policy of President-elect Joe Biden’s new administration in the United States, could drive a new wave of migration.

Sandro Mejía has been living in San Pedro Sula for 20 years, but now sees no other option than to seek a better life in the United States. He says he almost drowned when the water first began to rise. Now his only roof is a bridge.

“Yesterday was my 58th birthday and I couldn’t even celebrate with a Coca-Cola,” Mejia says. “I have nothing, I’m broke now. First I lost money due to the coronavirus pandemic, and then these two storms hit. You can’t live in this country anymore… I’ve been out of work since the pandemic, when everything shut down. I haven’t worked for almost a year now because there are no jobs in this country. We’ve lost everything… we’re being buried alive here.”

Mejía accuses the government of having abandoned those affected by the hurricanes. “The people have no rights, no health, no work, no nothing,” he adds, as he savours a baleada donated by a passer-by. “The only option I have left is to emigrate to the United States. I couldn’t get in when Donald Trump was in charge…

he didn’t give anybody a chance to work there, but now things are going to change with Joe Biden.”

Sat on a red sofa beneath the bridge, Zaida Ramos, a single mother of two, agrees: “The government hasn’t given us a bite to eat around here, it’s just the people helping the people. Honduras is lost.” She too would like to seek asylum in the United States, which she considers “a land of opportunities”.

Victims of the lack of environmental protection

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of the environmental defender Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016 because of her opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, believes the destruction caused by the hurricanes was exacerbated by recent Honduran government policies. The native Lenca activist, who succeeded her mother as general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, has pointed out that the proliferation of mining and monoculture in recent years has damaged the natural barriers that used to protect the country against extreme weather.

“The weather conditions that we’ve experienced in recent weeks in our country are linked to the mismanagement of natural resources, which are seen as commodities to be excessively consumed for the benefit of certain economic groups,” Zúñiga says in a voice message. “It’s a clear sign of imbalance and an urgent warning to seek a more harmonious and respectful relationship with nature. It’s a prompt to take action against this and listen to what indigenous peoples and the organizations fighting for climate justice have been saying.”

In Honduras, opposing the exploitation of the land, and the violation of the rights of its inhabitants, means risking one’s life. According to Global Witness, 14 environmental defenders were murdered there last year, the highest per capita rate in the world. However, the government has so far refused to sign the Escazú Agreement, a regional treaty on environmental rights and the protection of environmental activists, which has been ratified by 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries since its adoption in 2018. Citing the scientists who have linked climate change to the extreme force of the hurricanes that have hurt Central America so badly in recent months, Zúñiga affirms that “we must hold accountable the large countries and economic powers who have produced these results, as well as the process of so-called ‘modernization’, so that the people who have contributed most to the defence of the earth stop suffering the effects of the pollution caused by those who shirk their responsibility.”

Zúñiga concludes by warning that “as long as the pollution continues, as long as the depredation continues, as long as the rights of those who continue defending the earth are not recognized, our prospects will remain bleak. That’s why we intend to continue raising awareness among the people who live in [larger ad wealthier] countries so that they make more serious and genuine efforts to mitigate the environmental destruction that the whole world is suffering. Solidarity and the embrace between peoples will always be the way to reach the world we dream of.”

I cowrote this feature with the photojournalist Encarni Pindado, who was in Honduras. It was published in the December 2020 edition of Newsweek México

The Mexican government must protect the press instead of endangering it

November 20, 2020
Mexican authorities have achieved some convictions this year in the emblematic cases of Javier Valdez and Miroslava Breach, who were murdered in 2017, but the vast majority of killings go unpunished

Monday 9 November was a sad day for Mexican journalism.

That morning, the reporter Israel Vázquez Rangel was investigating a crime scene in Salamanca, a small industrial city in the central state of Guanajuato, when armed men arrived and shot him at least five times. He died in hospital hours later.

Then, that evening, police in the tourist city of Cancún opened fire to disperse a demonstration against the high level of femicides that plague the nation. Two journalists suffered gunshot wounds and the police beat two others during the repression of the protest.

Mexican journalism has been through too many sad days. In the 11 days before Israel was killed, another two journalists were murdered. On the night of 29 October, Arturo Alba Medina, a TV news presenter in Ciudad Juárez, died after being shot at least 10 times while he was driving home. Five days later, the reporter Jesús Alfonso Piñuelas was shot while riding a motorbike in the northern state of Sonora and died instantly

Besides those three dead journalists, another 135 of their colleagues have been murdered in Mexico since the year 2000, according to the NGO Article 19. The Mexican authorities have achieved some convictions this year in the emblematic cases of Javier Valdez and Miroslava Breach, who were murdered in 2017, but the vast majority of killings go unpunished. This vicious cycle of impunity and violence has turned Mexico into one of the world’s most lethal countries for journalists. 

Of course this problem has existed since long before the current government’s mandate, but that does not absolve it of its obligation to protect journalists and guarantee their rights to life and freedom of expression. Yet, instead of taking urgent and decisive measures to ensure that they can carry out their work in an environment free of violence, the government is putting them in situations of even greater risk.

In order to allocate more resources to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, on 21 October Mexico’s Congress approved the elimination of 109 independent trust funds that distributed public resources to support a wide range of causes, from scientific research to natural disaster responses. The Fund for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists is among the trusts that were shut down.

This fund was financing the protective measures granted to more than 400 journalists and almost 900 human right defenders who are under threat, providing them with access to bodyguards, satellite phones, panic buttons, armored cars and safe houses. Although we at Amnesty International have documented that these measures are imperfect and sometimes insufficient, the government must take great care not to weaken them even more. On the contrary, it should strengthen them through consultation with the defenders and journalists in need of protection.

The Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists now faces an uncertain future. It will depend directly upon the Secretariat of the Interior to finance the protective measures but, as Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, has warned, the funding for these measures “may become vulnerable to political whims and the trading of favors”.

Besides the risk associated with the disappearance of the trusts, several high-ranking Mexican officials have also verbally attacked the press. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has consistently attacked certain media outlets during his daily morning press conferences, stigmatizing journalists and exposing them to threats and harassment. We have also seen the governors of states such as JaliscoPuebla and Baja California doing the same. 

According to a study by Article 19, public officials were responsible for 199 of the 406 acts of aggression against journalists and media outlets registered during the first half of this year, while politics and corruption proved the most dangerous topics to cover. These aggressions vary from harassment and cyber attacks to displacement and killings. From January to June there was a 45% rise in aggressions compared to the same period of 2019, equivalent to an attack against the press every 11 hours. If this continues, there will be more aggressions against the press in 2020 than any year in the last decade.

This disturbing panorama encourages self-censorship and has grave implications for press freedom, the right to information and accountability in Mexico. 

The government must stop treating the press like an enemy. If it genuinely cares about human rights, it will recognize the importance and legitimacy of the work of journalists and take swift, concrete and effectives measures that allow them to carry it out without fear of reprisal.

This op-ed was published by El Faro in English and Spanish