The human rights situation in the Mexican state of Guerrero has been in the international spotlight since the disappearance of 43 students at the Normal School in Ayotzinapa in September 2014. However, Guerrero has long been a flashpoint of dispossession and opposition. Human rights abuses have been widespread there for decades.
To talk about the crisis of human rights in Guerrero, I talked with Vidulfo Rosales, a lawyer with the Center for Human Rights of the Mountain “Tlachinollan,” in Tlapa de Comonfort, Guerrero, and legal representative for the families of the disappeared students from the Ayotzinapa Teaching College.
LC: Why is it that the state of Guerrero seems to be at the epicenter of human rights violations in the country?
VR: You see, it’s a difficult situation. Guerrero, historically, has been suffering a systematic violation of human rights for many years. And also the governments that have come into power haven’t tried to revert the historical violations that took place in the 60s, to the point that today, these violations are being repeated. There has been no settling of accounts with the past. The violators of human rights in the 60s and 70s – recall that that was when there were the worst violations – haven’t been sanctioned or brought to justice.
LC: How do these historical human rights violations from the dirty war affect what is going on today in Guerrero?
VR: First, there is still pain, there are still wounds there that have not healed, that have not closed. And there’s also a very high rate of impunity. This means the historical violations keep being repeated… and every year human rights violations get worse and worse – to the point that this year the 43 students of Ayotzinapa were disappeared. I think that this explains in part the grave human rights violations that are suffered there.
LC: So what are the major forms of violations of human rights against the people of Guerrero?
VR: Now, we’re getting cases of serious violations, such as torture of indigenous women. We’re also working on extrajudicial executions of several leaders – opposition political leaders and students. And we also work with issues of land and territory, in that the mining and extractive companies are affecting the rights of indigenous peoples today. This is the more visible part of our work. It’s the most visible part because there’s another part of the work that Tlachinollan does of accompaniment and advising, but these are the high-impact cases.
LC: Who are the major perpetrators?
VR: Well, mainly, what we see is that it’s the authorities. The authorities on various levels: the Mexican army, the police, the officials in the justice system, the executive branch and members of the legislature. The whole system of government, the whole governmental apparatus in the state of Guerrero is the body that commits the most serious human rights violations.
On the other hand, it’s the private industries that are also coming in to extract the natural resources, but with the collusion and the support of the authorities. The authorities are the ones that allow, by way of laws and concessions, the private companies to come in in the first place.
LC: Let’s talk about those one by one. First, the authorities. A lot of people could be surprised at the fact that it’s the government itself that is causing this crisis of human rights in the state of Guerrero, because the argument is that the military and federal police have been sent in to restore the rule of law in the state.
VR: Well, there’s a tradition in Guerrero that the authorities are the ones who exercise political violence. Historically, they are the ones to carry out the violations. For example, against the indigenous women – Valentina Rosendo Cantú and Ines Fernández Ortega – they were members of the Mexican Army.
The crime against the students of Ayotzinapa, it was the police – both in the attack in 2011, and now in 2014. It’s the police who are the perpetrators. It’s the established powers, like the judicial power and the congress of Guerrero, that have been unable to prosecute or sanction the perpetrators.
So the state apparatus in its entirety becomes an opponent of the victims of human rights violations. When the police carry out human rights violations, the tribunals whose function should be to correct them, are the ones who are completely negligent in carrying out procedures and punishing those responsible.
They generate a climate of impunity and the institutions that should sanction and uphold rule of law become human rights violators themselves.
LC: So basically you’re saying that they’re responsible because of impunity, that because of the lack of justice, they create a climate of impunity, and also, in cases like the rape and sexual torture of Valentina Rosendo and Ines Fernandez, they’re actually the ones who commit these crimes.
VR: Yes… For example, in the case of Valentina and the case of Ayotzinapa, which today are the two most serious cases in Guerrero, they were carried out by members of security forces.
But there is also a pattern of repeated violations, so there’s a clear intention on the part of the government to attack these sectors, to attack the normal school of Ayotzinapa, to attack indigenous communities.
VR: In the case of the indigenous communities, because from the viewpoint of the government, the indigenous region where Ines Fernández and Valentina Rosendo lived was believed to be a hotbed of insurgency, of guerrilla activity. We’re talking about the year 2001.
In the case of Ayotzinapa, it’s a group that has been protesting for years. These students protest; they go out in the streets. But also the school trains critical teachers who are going to later join the statewide [education workers] organization CETEG, join the democratic current the CNTE. And now they’re seriously challenging the structural reforms, seriously challenging the unjust state of affairs.
And they’re also professors who are going out into the communities where they’ll establish relationships, contribute to awareness among the people so that later they can defend themselves from injustice. And obviously this makes the state uncomfortable. And that’s why there’s a systematic attack against these sectors.
LC: From what you’re saying, it sounds like not only are there violations by certain authorities, but there’s an intentional act of repression and intimidation involved in many of these violations. Could you explain that to us?
VR: Yes, well, like I was saying earlier, the violations of human rights are not isolated occurrences. To cite examples, I was talking about Ines and Valentina. There’s a strong community organization there; there’s an organization of the campesino people to defend their territory, to defend their natural resources, in this place. The place is identified as a focal point of insurgency, according to the logic of the government and police.
So for this reason, there have been a series of serious human rights violations that have never been resolved or punished. It got to the point finally in the year 2001, these two women are raped.
In the case of Ayotzinapa, there was a series of violations of their human rights in a systematic way, because they represent a sector that protests, a sector that maintains a critical position, that generates awareness; a seedbed of professors that later will become part of the people and the communities.
So, there’s a logic of repression that started years ago. The most visible, the one that became very public, was the repression of 2011, where two students were killed. That event went completely unpunished. And now, the 26th and 27th of September.
LC: So your organization and you as the legal representative of the families of the disappeared of Ayotzinapa, you think that it was more than just a corrupt act of the local police, that there was actually a political motive behind it?
VR: Yes, we believe that the events of Ayotzinapa form part of a campaign of repression that has been going on for several years. It’s not a coincidence, it wasn’t a spontaneous or fortuitous action on the part of the police that they just got upset at that moment and turned on them…
The clearest example is that today, we’re reviewing the records, we’re examining the evidence that exists, and we can’t find a clear explanation of why as the students were leaving at 6 in the evening, the police already had a report that they were leaving. That is, all the authorities were alerted at that moment – the Mexican Army, the Federal Police, the ministerial police, the state police, which are all the security forces that converge in Iguala.
Strangely, there is a total lack of response on the part of all these groups when the attack begins, which is at 9:30 at night, until 2:00 in the morning. So this is a fact that stands out. It’s a fact to take into consideration, to express, to point out, that there was complete inaction. And how do you explain this lack of response?, we ask ourselves. And we say that it’s an instance of systematic repression in which the federal government is also responsible – the Mexican Army, the Federal Police – and of the authorities who were remiss in trying to prevent it.
LC: Is this part being investigated?
VR: No, unfortunately it’s not being investigated. But it’s the part that we’re trying to emphasize, as representatives of the families of the disappeared.
LC: What has the committee of experts found out?
VR: We have high expectations that the commission of experts will help to demonstrate the shortcomings of the official investigation, and that it will reactivate that investigation. Because today the line is that the investigation is closed over, that the absolute and historic truth has already been established, and that there’s nothing else to be done. So from the perspective of the families, well, first of all there is still no truth.
LC: The government’s explanation doesn’t explore any possible political or repression on the part of the Iguala police, and also doesn’t take into account the other aspects that we’ve been talking about here.
VR: Yes, that’s right, the investigation is not taking this aspect into account. Now as I mentioned, they are already closing the investigation, even though we know that there are many gaps in it. We have to call on the Mexican Army to testify, we have to open these lines of investigation.
LC: No one from the Mexican army has testified?
VR: There have been a few meetings and a few soldiers have gone in to testify. But there is no line of investigation to go deeper and more exhaustively into what was the role of the Army during these hours.
LC: We now know that the army was there, in the clinic, when some of the wounded students were taken there, right?
VR: Yes, there is that evidence, and there’s other previous evidence regarding the context. The local police from Iguala who were arrested spoke about complicity between the Mexican Army and Guerreros Unidos. They talk about complicity between the Mexican Army and the local police.
LC: Guerreros Unidos is the local drug cartel…
VR: Yeah, that’s right. And as I was saying, there is evidence, proof, from statements made by the police themselves who said that there was complicity between the Army there and the Cocula police, the Cocula security forces, who were arrested early on, but were inexplicably released.
So there’s this set of evidence that indicates to us that there should be a line of investigation opened up into the Mexican Army, but it still isn’t happening. So we hope that the Commission, the group of experts of the Interamerican Commission, will open up new lines of investigation, not only into the Mexican Army, but also into the local politicians in the townships around Iguala, who also have some responsibility. There’s evidence of their possible participation.
We think this set of additional leads would help, to explore other lines of investigation, other sets of hypotheses, of truths. Because for us, the government’s line of investigation, its hypothesis regarding the dump in Cocula, is a dead end. So that line of investigation can’t take us any further.
LC: You reject it then?
VR: Yes. It can no longer offer the truth. There’s nothing more to be found there. And today we still don’t know what happened to the students. The hypothesis of the government, that the students were incinerated, has a lot of major contradictions.
Also, soon the group of forensics experts from Argentina is also going to announce an opinion about the facts of the case and the mechanism of the garbage dump in Cocula. We hope this will chip holes in the official version.
LC: I wanted to turn to your story, Vidulfo. How did you end up being a lawyer and a defender of human rights in Tlapa, Guerrero, at the Tlachinollan Center?
VR: I finished my degree in the year 2000, and in 2001 I joined the Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights. I’m from that area, from the high sierra region, and that helped me to work there with the Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights.
LC: Where are you from?
VR: I’m from a town called Totomixtlahuaca that’s in the high part of the Tlapa Mountain, about three hours from the bottom of the mountain.
LC: What drove you do get into human rights?
VR: Well, the poverty that we grew up with, the poverty we experienced in that area, which is the poorest region of the country. The circumstances that we lived in, this sea of injustices that we experienced from the time we were born – and that the people there still have to face – inspired us, as students, to maintain a sort of social consciousness, and then later we channeled this concern into the defense of human rights.
LC: Poverty itself is a violation of human rights, isn’t it?
VR: Yes, that’s right. It is a systematic violation, that makes people vulnerable – they don’t have access to education, to health services, they don’t have the means to travel to the centers of justice to file charges.
Based on this, there are a lot of things… the abandonment of the indigenous peoples, marginalization – all of these are obstacles to full human development.
LC: What kind of things did you see in your community?
Lots of serious violations. For example, I can tell you that when I finished high school, we still didn’t have electricity in my community. Or roads – we had to walk four hours every day. When I went to high school – we’re talking about the 90s, I went to high school in 90 and 91 – I had to walk four hours to get a bus to go to high school.
VR: In the rainy season, with all the water, the limited roads there were would be totally destroyed. So I would have to walk twice as far. These were the circumstances, just for starters. There was also no access to healthcare, and education was basic. We had to be on the road hours to get to high school, not to mention the university…
LC: Compared to the rest of the country, is the crisis of human rights in Guerrero the exception or the rule?
VR: I think it’s a symptom of what is going on all over the country.
I don’t think that the state of Guerrero is an exception, or an island. What happens there happens in many, many states of the republic. All the violence that happens there also happens in Veracruz, in Michoacán, Oaxaca and Chiapas. The ancestral poverty that people live with in Guerrero, people also suffer in other states.
I think that what can differ a little is the outrageously high degree of impunity found in the state of Guerrero.
LC: It’s been twenty years since the Aguas Blancas massacre.
VR: And even before that, say, even in the 70s, in the 60s, we can… the events of Ayotzinapa, things like that had been occurring for a long time. Maybe not with these dimensions, but since the sixties we can trace the establishment of historic dates of tragedies, of massacres, no?
LC: Every time it goes unpunished, it creates more probability that it will happen again
VR: Exactly. It’s like I said when we started talking, it gets repeated. And each time it gets worse. We who are from Guerrero believe that when the transition happened, the supposed political transition when the PRD took power in Guerrero, we thought it would be the beginning of maybe a different era, right? Like happened here in Mexico City.
We thought we were on the verge of a change; there was the expectation of a possible change, or that some things would move around. But nothing changed. On December 12 we saw again with great sadness the bodies of two rural school students bloodied on the highway. And that made us sad and worried again. And we knew things were the same. And now Iguala, and we’re still in the basement of injustice and marginalization.