Searching for Answers, and Leadership, in Guerrero

Share / Open Society /  Eric Witte

The man in civilian clothes casually waving an unholstered pistol made me nervous. That he had a police badge hanging from a cord around his neck was not reassuring. Nor was the fact that I was standing in front of the state prosecutor’s office in Guerrero, Mexico.

Our small research team from the Open Society Justice Initiative was in Guerrero’s state capital, Chilpancingo, on a late summer day last year to explore why there has been so little criminal accountability for past killings, disappearances, and torture in Guerrero. Statistics and local civil society activists pointed to widespread, systemic failures at all levels of the criminal justice system. Yet government officials assured us that it was just criminals killing each other; no innocents were being harmed. These officials claimed that there had been no prosecutions for disappearance and torture because these simply were not problems in Guerrero.

Eight days after they said this, in the nearby town of Iguala, students from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college came under fire. Six were killed and 43 disappeared. Suddenly, Mexican society was in an uproar, the world took notice, and politicians were scrambling.

Officials and vigilante search groups scoured Guerrero’s hills, not finding the students, but instead unearthing one clandestine mass grave after another. At great peril, families of countless other disappeared people, emboldened by the outrage and advocacy of the Ayotzinapa families, joined the search for their loved ones and demanded accountability. Dubious claims by federal prosectors notwithstanding, the 43 disappeared students still have not been found.

As the one-year anniversary of the Ayotzinapa disappearances approaches, few state officials would still deny that Guerrero is experiencing a crisis of atrocity and injustice. But as a newly elected state Congress and governor prepare to take office in Guerrero, will they tackle the deep roots of impunity in the state?

In partnership with two local civil society organizations, the Open Society Justice Initiative is publishingBroken Justice in Mexico’s Guerrero State as part of a larger project on justice for atrocities in Mexico. The report assesses what is known about the extent of killings, disappearances, and torture in Guerrero. It analyzes the underlying reasons for the near total lack of accountability for these crimes. And it recommends key steps that the new government should prioritize to end the crisis.

Guerrero is one of Mexico’s poorest, most violent states. Its population has suffered atrocity crimes at least as far back as Mexico’s Dirty War against leftists in the 1960s and ’70s. Violence spiked across Mexico anew following the extensive deployment of federal forces to combat organized crime in 2006; from 2005 to 2015, the homicide rate in Guerrero has been five times the national average. There have been criminal convictions for only one in 15 of these killings. The state Human Rights Commission has documented 90 enforced disappearances, perpetrated by state actors, and received over 100 complaints of torture. There has never been a conviction for either crime.

Why has there been almost no justice for atrocities in Guerrero? As the detective with the unholstered pistol attests, deficient professionalism is one major area of concern. But the underlying problems are political. Previous governments have allowed prosecutors and investigative police to base “investigations” on coerced confessions obtained through torture, and to torture suspects as a form of extrajudicial punishment. This is itself criminal, produces deeply flawed information for other cases, and practically ensures that implicated public officials will not investigate themselves.

Justice systems function when there are proper accountability mechanisms, but in Guerrero, these mechanisms are dysfunctional or under attack. The executive has interfered in the judiciary, and Guerrero’s congress has almost entirely failed to rein in such abuses. The congress allowed the governor to blatantly neutralize the Human Rights Commission, previously the only state entity pushing for justice in atrocity cases. The congress has also failed to fix glaring shortcomings in the legal framework, including a deficient state law on torture.

Civil society organizations have provided the most consistent pressure for reforms, but in response have faced smears, threats, and violence from state officials and criminal organizations.

Entrenched problems call for deep reforms. The state government should:

  • create an independent deputy state prosecutor for human rights abuses and atrocities;
  • establish integrated, multidisciplinary teams to examine hundreds of unsolved disappearances;
  • launch a massive effort, with national and international assistance, to locate, exhume, and investigate mass graves;
  • make forensic and witness protection services independent of political authorities and the state prosecutor’s office;
  • amend the inadequate torture law;
  • create a new oversight committee for the weakened Human Rights Commission that includes civil society and international membership; and
  • restructure state police with a new emphasis on properly investigating crime.

The Ayotzinapa disappearances helped unmask the horrific realities of atrocity and injustice in Guerrero. The crisis pushed the state to the brink of destabilization. But it may also have created an opening. Governor-elect Héctor Astudillo, who will be sworn in on October 27, has pledged to fight impunity and end abuses of power. To end Guerrero’s crisis of atrocity and injustice, he and a newly elected Congress will have to act boldly and quickly.