With just months left until the end of his term as President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón is expected to heed calls from civil society and human rights groups and propose a law that could compensate tens of thousands who have suffered in the latest iteration of the drug war. Somewhere between 47,000 and 63,000 people have died in the fight against organized crime since 2006, when Calderón took office. And that’s just a sliver of the total number of people impacted by the violence: cases of torture, kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and other violent crime have also seen a rise in the last half-decade.
The proposed legislation is expected to be geared toward victims of crime, for example assault, robbery, kidnapping. For those who meet the requirements (the details of which are not yet clear), it imagines some monetary compensation from a joint government and donor-funded endowment. Names and details of each instance would also be recorded in an official catalog. The program would be run by Províctima, an agency of the national security apparatus already responsible for aiding victims of violent crime.
The combination of monetary assistance and symbolic recognition would, it is hoped, dignify the many who have suffered and help the entire society begin to turn the page. Yet as welcome as the measure has been, many victims and their advocates in the human rights community argue that the law doesn’t go far enough, excludes many of the cases requiring compensation, and could prove difficult to implement.
A so-called "Victim's Law" has long been a demand of human rights advocates as well as a mass protest movement that has resisted some of Calderón’s military tactics in combating organized crime. In December, poet and activist Javier Sicilia, who became the figurehead of non-violent protests after his son was killed in the violence, beseeched the government for a law: “The country cannot wait, the victims cannot wait; the pain and injustice follows them,” he begged.
There is indeed evidence that victim’s compensation can be a powerful tool for reconciliation. Early in his term, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos proposed a similar bill; a move that won him incredible public support from a country ready to heal. Similar mechanisms—involving both compensation and official apology—were used in Chile in the 1990's and early 2000's to assist victims of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
But there are several reasons for concern in Mexico’s case. Controversy is inevitable first and foremost over which victims would be eligible for compensation. In addition to violent crime suffered at the hands of criminals and drug gangs, human rights defenders accuse the Mexican state itself of victimizing countless communities and individuals. Cases of unlawful arrest, holding without charge, torture, denial of due process, and even extrajudicial killing have also been a staple of the drug war—and these “human rights” abuses would not fall under the victim’s law—a fact that looks to many like a sort of victor’s justice.
It’s not just these controversial cases that would prove difficult. One of the weak links in the fight against organized crime in Mexico is the judicial system. A study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) estimates that only 4.5 percent of reported crimes are ever investigated. Even fewer are prosecuted and taken to sentencing. The proposals so far would require a court to decide whether someone is or is not eligible to be an official “victim.” Yet how can one prove as much if no one investigates whether and how the crimes took place?
The judicial system also raises real concerns about the safety of victims who declare themselves before the commission. Retribution is a very real possibility—particularly given the rate of corruption within the police forces. In Colombia and Chile, victim’s compensation came after the conflict had died down. In Mexico, it would come while the fighting is still indisputably ongoing—and by some accounts even intensifying. The number of officially reported deaths in 2011, for example, was up 11 percent from the previous year.
A final contentious bit comes from the record of victims that new legislation would seek to create. During the second half of 2011, the Mexican government came under criticism for failing to release data on crime—most notably the death count. It has since shown a reluctance to release statistics en masse—the kind of information that security experts argue could help foster strategies to combat the violence. Would the information from victim’s compensation be made public?
For all these reasons, several advocates in the academic and human rights community in Mexico are drafting their own proposals—in contrast to Calderón’s—for a Victim’s Law. Three prominent activists writing in El Universal last month argue that, while the current proposals are a step forward, they are far from sufficient: “It is time for us to demand…a strong response from the state that represents a hollistic approach to the problems[.]”
Understanding that politics is the art of the possible, one might argue that any victim’s law is better than none. But the real concern, if the law makes it through in its current form, is that it could limit future efforts to compensate victims of other currently unmentioned crimes. Absent the right judicial structures and regulations, the compensation mechanisms could also fail in implementation, put victims at risk, and perhaps even lose the faith of the public—deterring victims from coming forward in the first place.
This pattern fits into a broader critique of the Calderón administration: that its attention has too often focused on the crimes and not on the victims. In combating organized crime, the Mexican president has dispatched every resource of the military and police—any means to crush the gangs. But what the administration hasn’t done enough of is ask: How can we get the violence down to livable levels and protect citizens? The assumption is that eliminating delinquency and organized crime will, in and of itself, help the victim. But the very process of fighting has created more violence than the public was ready for. This law—even one nominally written for victims—risks getting the priorities wrong again.
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum