NAFTA Linked to Massive Human Rights Violations in Mexico

violencia_maiz_1-640x290In a series of preliminary opinions, an international tribunal of conscience has condemned massive violations of human rights in Mexico.

Now wrapping up a four-year process of evidence gathering,  members of  the Mexican chapter of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal (PPT) have found grave threats to  the environment, food sovereignty, indigenous autonomy, and  democratic rights of self-expression and organization of the Mexican people.

A common denominator is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), according to PPT representatives and collaborators.

“Groups and movements participating in the tribunal have documented ways in which NAFTA has been pernicious to Mexico’s social, economic and cultural life,” says Dr. Zulma Mendez, member of the Group for the Articulation of Justice in Ciudad Juarez and a participant in the gender violence and femicide section of the PPT.

According to Mendez,“The unequal relations of power that are present in NAFTA and which help to make it attractive to U.S. interests have been addressed:  Transnational corporations that divest communities of a viable future through practices that turn communities into mass production spaces, workers into a pair of arms, and life as disposable…”

Mendez noted that this process has often been violent, prompting the Mexican Tribunal hearings under the title  “Free Trade, Dirty War, Impunity and the Rights of Peoples.”

The Peoples” Tribunal

Headquartered in Rome, Italy, the PPT is a successor of the famous Bertrand Russell Tribunal that exposed U.S. war crimes in Vietnam during the 1960s.

The PPT has since spoken out on human rights violations in El Salvador, East Timor,Afghanistan and other nations across the globe, but convincing the organization to scrutinize Mexico wasn’t easy, says Dr. Camilo Perez Bustillo, visiting professor at New Mexico State University and a member of a PPT-Mexico commission examining migration and forced displacement.

Perez says Mexico’s long-standing international reputation as a global defender of migrant rights and a refuge for asylum seekers made it difficult to convince the Tribunal leaders to examine human rights violations taking place within the country.

“In a way, the PPT process was designed to move through that contradiction,” Perez adds. “Mexico is looked at differently than it was before.”

After being presented with careful documentation, the Tribunal agreed to open the case against the Mexican state and hearings have proceeded under seven issue areas: the dirty war, femicide and violence against women, violations of labor rights, migration rights and forced displacement, food sovereignty and GM corn, environment and the right to information and freedom of expression.

Now a meticulous evidence-gathering process undertaken by the PPT, coupled with increasing human rights abuses connected to the so-called drug war and other causes, is contributing to a growing recognition of and concern regarding human rights violations, he says.

The jury members who hear evidence of accusations of rights abuses from Mexican civil society groups at the many PPT hearings and pre-hearings, hail from academia, the legal profession and civil society, both inside the country and abroad.

They include, among others, PhillipeTexier (France), director of the U.N.’s El Salvador Mission in 1991-92 and later a committee member of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights; Miguel Concha (Mexico) renowned human rights defender and president of the Fray Francisco Vitoria O.P. Human Rights Center; Silvia Rodriguez (Costa Rica), professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the National University of Costa Rica; Esperanza Martinez (Ecuador), biologist and co-founder of Oilwatch; and Emilie Smith (Canada), Anglican minister and co-president of the Oscar Romero International Christian Network in Solidarity with the Peoples of Latin America.

As the PPT’s investigation in Mexico reaches a conclusion, a landmark work that dissects human rights abuses in the context of corporate globalization is emerging.

Recent 20-year NAFTA anniversary reports, including the ones released in March by the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club and other U.S. environmental organizations, have also taken the trade and investment pact to task for its detrimental effects on workers and the environment, but the PPT’s report might be the most exhaustive examination of the free trade regime on a NAFTA member nation.

In their initial opinions, PPT members describe how unfettered capitalism is invading and infecting virtually every nook and cranny of public life, with its repercussions on a broad range of human rights.

Based on voluminous reports from multiple sources and first-hand testimonies, the PPT examines the effects of mines, dams, highway and commercial construction, water thefts and pollution, corporatized agricultural and food systems, and other attacks on the rights of peoples to a safe and healthy environment, basic needs and culture.

With Mexico known as the cradle of corn and corn culture, the PPT devotes considerable discussion to the centrality of the staple crop and its cultural and social significance. This area focuses on threats to small-scale corn production from corporate farming and genetically modified corn, which is contaminating native varieties.

“The tragedy of Mexican corn is paradigmatic of the global collapse of culture in the wake of ‘free trade’, and in Mexico this has had a very marked and painful place…”

Tribunal hearings analyze how NAFTA and Mexican government farm programs rooted in the liberalization of the agricultural economy not only impact rural communities economically, but how the broader- if less understood-transformation of Mexico’s food production and consumption system affects the nation’s pocketbooks and personal health.

Hearings presented eveidence that while NAFTA corn imports soared to $2.5 billion by 2011, the prices paid to Mexican producers fell 64 percent between 1985 and 1999.  A similar trend was cited for beans. Yet, during the first 8 years of NAFTA from 1994 to 2002, the nbso online casino reviews cost to consumers of the basic basket of goods increased 257 percent, according to the PPT.

In parallel fashion, the share of the Mexican population that was either obese or overweight rose 12 percent from 2000 to 2006, as unhealthy and often imported food replaced traditional cuisine. Overall, 55.7 percent of the population suffered food insecurity in 2011, according to testimony presented to the PPT.

In their preliminary recommendations, PPT jurors call for a moratorium on the further spread of genetically-modified corn in Mexico and the reversal of laws that promote the transgenic crop. Internationally, the PPT appeals on the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization to take up the defense of corn and oppose patents on plants and animals.

Although the Tribunal”s work has been considered “politicized” by some, the jurors are chosen among nationally and internationally recognized experts on the issues, and the rulings are based on violations in specific human rights agreements Mexico has signed and national law.

As for environmental transgressions, the PPT does not limit responsibility to the Mexican State per se, but also holds transnational corporations and the governments of the United States and Canada accountable for assaults on communities and ecosystems. Familiar names cited in testimony before the  PPT include Halliburton, Monsanto, Wal-Mart of Mexico, Home Depot, and the convenience store chain Oxxo, among numerous others. The PPT hearings also brought evidence regarding the murders of environmental activists, including anti-mining activists Mariano Abarca in Chiapas (2009), Bernardo Mendez Vasquez in Oaxaca (2012) and Ismael Solorio in Chihuahua (2012).

The PPT notes that Canadian companies dominate 75 percent of the mining industry and that 16 percent of Mexico’s national territory has been contracted out to mining companies.

In a comprehensive overview for the PPT, veteran pro-democracy activists Dr. Felix Hernandez and Dr. Raul Alvarez of the ’68 Committee compiled 5,000 cases of repression dating back to the army’s 1946 massacre of protesters in Leon, Guanajuato, to the present day.

In hearings related to the dirty war, the so-called drug war, which intensified as the NAFTA economy grew, figures in prominently. According to PPT testimony, the northern border state of Chihuahua, Ground Zero for narco-tainted violence, has been one of the most dangerous places for human rights defenders in recent years.

The tribunal reports the killing of 17 activists in Ciudad Juarez and other parts of Chihuahua state from 2009 to 2012 alone, including anti-femicide activist Marisela Escobedo, Raramuri land rights attorney Ernesto Rabano and six members of the Reyes Salazar family near Ciudad Juarez, which the PPT characterized as constituting a “particularly dramatic”  attempt to exterminate an entire family.

Evidence provided before jurors revealed a consistent  modus operandi of government repression, including tactics of infiltrating demonstrations with paid provocateurs, splashing ink on protester’s clothing  to identify them, trailing activists, threatening dissidents, and mistreating, isolating and even torturing detainees.

In this scenario, corporate media like the Televisa network, which concealed images of the 1968 student massacre back in the day, prop up the status quo by sensationalizing protests and not giving voice to the grievances of people in the streets.

Pre-Hearing on Repression

Rooted in international law, the PPT has identified war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Mexico in recent years, based on the definitions of the Geneva Convention, International Criminal Court and the Rome Statute.

PPT jurors and grassroots organizations presenting testimony rs urge Mexican legal institutions to institute reforms, punish human rights violators, create a special human rights prosecutor, restrain from the use of force against social movements, guarantee genuine press freedom, and comply with U.N. recommendations. The preliminary rulings appeal to the U.N. to visit Mexico and investigate torture, and recommend the International Criminal Court open an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity since 2006, when drug-connected violence escalated.

In the months ahead, the PPT plans a public hearing in Mexico City on the status of youth, while it wraps up work on migration and other issues. Another public hearing on U.S.-Mexico border militarization could also be in the works.

According to Camilo Perez, the migration commission is considering the movement of peoples from the standpoint of forced displacement, whether economic or violence-driven.  While he compares Mexico’s experience with Colombia’s, the legal scholar cautions against viewing the drug war as the primary factor behind forced displacement.

“Before, behind and beyond the drug war, there was a war on human rights in Mexico, a war against the poor, the indigenous movements, criminalization,” he says. not clear.

The urgency of the migrant crisis taken up by the PPT was again crudely illustrated in March, when seven migrants from the Central American Free Trade Agreement zone were thrown off the train known as “The Beast” in southern Mexico for not paying $100 “transit fees” to criminals. Two of the migrants were killed as a result of the brutal attack.

Perez stresses that, the migration hearings have explicitly linked the humanitarian crisis in the treatment of migrants to NAFTA and U.S. border security policies, which for example, created the circumstances that allowed immigrant smuggling networks and criminal assaults on migrants to flourish, and laid the groundwork for human rights atrocities like the 2010 San Fernando Massacre of 72 Central and South American migrants in northern Mexico.

Washington and Central American governments will also be held accountable by the PPT for violations of migrants’ human rights, and the tribunal’s final verdict will definitely include a “cross-border perspective,” Perez says.

Since the PPT is a civil society initiative with no official standing, the question arises whether the organization’s deliberations and upcoming verdict will make any difference on the ground. Both Perez and Mendez are optimistic.

The PPT’s legacy, Perez affirms, is one of spotlighting human rights violations and influencing international public opinion and institutions. PPT collaborators like Dr. Jorge Bustamante, founder of Mexico’s El Colegio de la Frontera Norte and a former U.N special rapporteur  on the human rights of migrants, have widely-recognized professional reputations and enjoy access to influential quarters.

“Perhaps most importantly,”Perez says, “the PPT is not an end but a beginning for local organizations to come together and move forward on issues laid out in the expert opinions and final verdict.”

Education professor and U.S.-Mexico border activist Zulma Mendez likewise regards the PPT as a beacon for future strategic work.

“In the case of the Mexican chapter, the tribunal has provided groups with the opportunity to come together to render testimony and (document) human rights abuses,” Mendez writes in an e-mail.

“This collective memory, produced by people and organizations, provides an important record that will guide future actions including the possibility of building a case against the Mexican State in international courts.”

Mendez says a key accomplishment so far has been a reexamination of NAFTA and opening discussion on how Mexico can legally withdraw from the trinational business accord.  Putting the issue back on the national agenda “would be a victory,” Mendez says, since NAFTA is “treated as a given, something that can’t be touched and dismantled.”

The PPT’S final verdict on Mexico is expected to be delivered in November 2014.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who has covered Mexico, the U.S. Southwest and Latin America for many years and a regular contributor to the CIP Americas Program

For More on the Mexico Chapter of the People”s Permanent Tribunal from the Americas Program:

“Tribunal Denounces Privatization, Pollution and Plundering of Mexico’s Water”, Alfredo Acedo, Sept. 27, 2013.

For more information on the PPT’s case against the Mexican State (Spanish):



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