Organized Crime as Human Rights Issue (English version)

A victim of organized crime. Photo by Jon Lowenstein/Noor

Where is the Outrage?

By Joy Olson

It was a horrifying scene— 72 people murdered all at once. One survivor bore witness to the massacre. The dead were migrants, mostly Central Americans; 58 men and 14 women trying to make their way to a better future. It was August of 2010 when their bodies were found in Tamaulipas, Mexico. They were apparently killed by Mexico’s most feared drug trafficking organization, the Zetas, who have diversified into other criminal activities like kidnapping and extortion.

This story made news for a few days. But the massacre shook me and made me start asking a lot of questions. Official reports said that the migrants were kidnapped off of buses. How could 72 people be kidnapped and no one notice? Bus drivers must have known something. The bus company must have noticed. Other travelers? Government authorities? How was this possible? Where is the outrage?

The human rights community and others, myself included, made statements about the massacre, but it did not become a central focus of coordinated human rights work. Most of us continued to work on our previously established agendas.

But why did it not have more impact?

Between 40,000 and 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico as a result of the drug war, drug trafficking, and organized criminal activities since 2006. About 3,000 people were disappeared during Mexico’s dirty war (late 1960s – early 1970s), a dark period in Mexican history. While other people have certainly disappeared since then, it is really the last time that “disappearance” was discussed as a phenomena or practice. Today the number is at least three times higher.

Again, where is the outrage? If numbers are any indicator, we should all be a lot more riled up.

Time progressed. Things haven’t gotten better.

In April of 2011, mass graves were found in Tamaulipas, near where the earlier massacre took place. Close to 200 bodies were found. In May more mass graves were uncovered, this time in the state of Durango, containing nearly 300 bodies. Who were all of these people? Migrants? Criminals? People who got in the criminals’ way?

Then there was the casino fire in Monterrey, Mexico, in which 52 people perished—not the result of faulty wiring, but of criminals tossing gas on a building and setting it ablaze. In September, 35 bodies were left along a city road in Veracruz, Mexico—near a shopping center—in broad daylight! Word got out fast because motorists started tweeting about masked men abandoning bodies.

These are just the really big cases.

Again, where is the human rights community, and what is our role? Or better yet, what should it be?

I think I know at least in part why the violence in Mexico today has not been the focus of the human rights community. It is because this kind of violence doesn’t fit the traditional human rights framework. Mexico is not unique in this respect. The murder rate in Central America was recently described in a UN report as nearing a “crisis point.” Much of this violence is related to organized crime, as well as to gang activity. And while Mexico and Central America are in crisis mode, other countries in Latin America and beyond are suffering from violence associated with organized crime.

The work of human rights groups is based in international human rights law. That law, originating in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is focused on the responsibility of the state. It is states that sign and agree to abide by the treaties coming out of the Universal Declaration. Killings, torture, and disappearances carried out by the state are violations of human rights. On the other hand, killings, torture and disappearances carried out by the Zetas and other criminal organizations are crimes.

Yet there is a right to personal security. And even if the state is not directly violating that right, doesn’t it have an obligation to protect its citizens? The Mexican state is not fulfilling that mandate, whether by commission or omission; it is not successfully arresting and prosecuting criminals. So where does the fundamental right of the citizen to security fit into the mandate of human rights organizations?

The fact that confronting organized crime is extremely dangerous work is another reason people have not jumped into this work. If you are a human rights defender on the ground, tackling organized crime is worse than taking on the most dangerous dictator you can imagine. People in the human rights community, again including me, don’t know what they are up against with organized crime. We don’t know the enemy. We don’t know the rules of the game, so it’s hard to know when you are going to get yourself or others into serious danger. We are not unique in this respect. Hardly anyone else does either.

Then there is the question of how do you combat organized crime?

As human rights defenders we know how to influence the state. You hold people accountable. You demand transparency. You meet with officials and name the abuses. You use reason and appeal to common values and humanity. You protest. You name and shame abusers. You take people to court. You seek to change laws.

Few of the strategies we have used in the past seem directly relevant to today’s challenge of confronting organized crime. So, how do you tackle violations of human rights and human dignity when the violence is perpetrated not by the state but by non-state actors like organized crime? 
Yet an anti-organized crime and a pro-human rights agenda do have something in common: respect for the rule of law. This in turn requires functioning, rights-respecting justice and police systems. If these institutions work properly, criminals are arrested and prosecuted, and state officials committing human rights violations are similarly held accountable.

But, for whatever reason, the human rights community has not fully embraced an anti-violence/organized crime or institutional reform agenda. 
The Mexican state is failing miserably at protecting its citizens and holding criminals accountable. The conviction rate for crime in Mexico is two—yes I said two—percent. And there is rampant corruption and complicity of the state in organized crime. When institutions of justice fail so completely, it should be of central concern to people dedicated to human rights.

Now, there are exceptions to what I’m about to say and this does not apply only to Mexico, but for whatever reason, the human rights community has been stuck in an agenda that was developed in another era when the state was the principal perpetrator of abuse, when non-state actors were armed combatants in wars, and where the international law of war applied. Most human rights organizations in Latin America were founded during that era.

The traditional agenda of human rights organizations still reflects that era. It is an agenda that in Mexico includes ending military court jurisdiction over cases of military abuses against civilians (which has been absurdly difficult). And as for prosecuting emblematic cases of state abuse, often cases there are over a decade old (again because of the justice system taking an absurdly long time).

While these are important issues, violence related to organized crime is the proverbial elephant in the room.

In Mexico this conceptual division between organized crime and human rights violations is one reason that people have not come together to confront the violence, and certainly not under the human rights framework.

This is starting to change.

Earlier this year, the son of Mexican poet Javier Sicilia was murdered by those involved in organized crime. Sicilia went public with his pain and called on the nation to stop the violence. He helped organize the Movement for Peace and Justice, marches across Mexico and silent protests against the violence. This movement has given voice to the victims and forced the President to dialogue with them. They have put the victims—not the criminals—at the center of the debate. Indeed, they are advocating for human rights.

Does the violence facing Mexico originating in organized crime technically fit the legal definition of human rights? Is it a human rights issue because there is corruption and state complicity with organized crime? Or is it a violation of human rights because of the state’s failure to protect the victims?

Does that really matter?

Whether your son or daughter is killed by a drug trafficker or a corrupt police official, your pain is the same. Either way, you want and deserve justice. Confronting traditional human rights violations and criminal activity both require the same thing—functioning police and judicial institutions.

The human rights community is a vital resource for change. Today, the challenges to human rights are coming from different forces than those in the past. If our community doesn’t change its agenda to address issues related to organized crime, an enormous opportunity for impact will be missed. If we do not act, victims will continue suffering in obscurity, the state will be threatened by criminals, and the concept of human rights will no longer be relevant.

Organized crime is a human rights issue and needs to be taken up by the human rights community—my community. 

Joy Olson is the executive director of WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America). Olson is a leading expert on human rights and U.S. policy towards Latin America. She considers this article a self-critique.

Joy Olson es la directora ejecutiva de WOLA—La Oficina en Washington para Asuntos Latinoamericanos. Ella considera este artículo como una auto-crítica.

See also: Crime, Human Rights