The Search for Justice in Atenco

Alessandro Zagato

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4 min read

Eleven women take Mexico to court for torture and sexual abuse

Almost twelve years have passed since the violent repression against the people of Atenco ordered by the former governor of the State of México Enrique Peña Nieto[1] and the president of the Mexican Republic Vicente Fox. However, the struggle to attain justice for those who were brutally attacked and humiliated by the police is still ongoing.

On November 16 and 17, eleven women brought the Mexican government before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). The events that they refer to took place on May 3 and 4, 2006.

During that time, nearly three thousand policemen stormed the small town of San Salvador Atenco (a few miles away from Mexico City) with orders to repress and crush a community and a movement (the Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra) fighting to defend their territory from the construction of a new airport serving Mexico City.

Two young men aged 14 and 20 were murdered; countless residents and activists were injured; numerous houses were searched, destroyed, and looted; and more than 200 people were arrested—twelve of whom were kept in prison for four years. Dozens of women were raped and humiliated by the police officers. The authorities claim that those were just isolated "excesses." Since then, not one of the perpetrators has been prosecuted.

Through the IACHR, 11 of those who suffered sexual abuse are now bringing the Mexican state to court, with demands for truth and justice. In their testimony, the women recalled those terrifying moments, their voices cracking with pain and anger.

Sexual violence and torture occurred in police vans and detention centers. As if to underscore the appalling disparity of power, the victims have had to undergo multiple years of trials facing allegations such as offense to public officials, use of weapons,[2] and blockading roads. Yet the serious human rights violations that the people suffered remain unpunished.

As is typical in international court cases like this,[3] the government's strategy has been to offer remedies involving economic compensation that may "relieve" the victims' pain and thirst for justice. However, at this point the accusers have no intention of accepting such pacifications. Instead, they are demanding a serious investigation into the chain of command, and prosecution of the material and intellectual perpetrators.

They are also requesting that the Mexican state guarantee that similar events will not recur, given that sexual abuse against activists and dissidents is regularly practiced by the police. Moreover, they require the state to acknowledge its responsibility for the abuse committed against more than 240 people who were arbitrarily assaulted and detained.

Considering that a similar astounding absence of justice and clarity is shaping the aftermath of tragic events such as Ayotzinapa, San Fernando, Atenco, and Acteal—just to name a few of the cases where the state's direct involvement is abundantly documented—the prevalent question is what type of logic the Mexican authorities are following.

As paradoxical as it may sound, a logic of selective administration of justice (usually referred to as "impunity")[4] is currently playing a decisive role in the cohesion of a state devastated by violence, criminality and corruption. This apparent (but at the same time very empirical) chaos is the symptom of a transition towards an even more entrenched neoliberal model. It facilitates a new cycle of capitalist expansion alongside the governmental implementation of very specific policies and reforms.[5] A constant and obscene level of violence facilitates the realization of infrastructural mega-projects (like the airport of Atenco) and corporate intervention into territories where popular cohesion and resistance are historically strong.

Generalized impunity sends a clear message both to those who are willing to commit abuse—military, political and economic lobbies—and to those who are resisting and fighting against aggression. Impunity generates an effectively free space of operation for corporate interests, serving at the same time to feed the apparent sense of irrationality of the state's war machine.

The singularity and power of the legal action undertaken by the 11 victims of Atenco is reinforced by the fact that the IACHR's verdict, which will be announced in the spring, will be binding. Countries which, like Mexico, recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court are legally bound to respect its judgments.

Even a partial victory for this brave group of women could constitute an unprecedented blow to the Mexican government's legitimacy, and it would set an important precedent. It could also force the state to implement concrete measures to reduce the levels of impunity and to impose stricter control mechanisms on its armed forces.

  1. Now President. ↩︎

  2. Frente members usually carry machetes for self-defense and as an identification symbol. ↩︎

  3. The Mexican state is currently facing several international legal processes for cases of human rights violations. In all of them, it is maintaining a similar posture. ↩︎

  4. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein denounced Mexico's 98 percent impunity rate. Telesur. 2015. "UN: Over 150,000 People Murdered in Mexico Since December 2006." Telesurtv, 8 October. ↩︎

  5. For example, with the energy reform approved by the Senate of the Republic on December 11, 2013 (and the aggregate laws of hydrocarbons, electric industry, geothermic energy, and mining, among other) the articles 25, 27 and 28 of the Mexican constitution are modified and the energy sector opens up to the initiative of private international enterprises. With the reform, the extraction and exploitation of hydrocarbons, mining, and the public provision of energy are considered as activities of a primary strategic and social interest, and a matter of public security. Thus, the legislation prioritizes projects of such nature over any other activity involving the use of the surface or the subsoil of any concerned piece of land or territory. This facilitates processes of dispossession of communal or private land benefitting corporate profit making. ↩︎