Latin America: Massacre exposes cracks in Mexico’s rule of law

The discovery of a mass grave following the disappearance of 43 students has exposed weaknesses at the centre of the Mexican justice system. More effective enforcement of anti-money laundering regulation could loosen the grip of the cartels.

Ruth Green

As images of the terrorist attacks that paralysed France at the start of 2015 reverberated around the world, thousands of miles away, in the south-western Mexican state of Guerrero, families were still waiting for accountability regarding the biggest massacre in the country’s recent history.

On 26 September 2014, more than 100 students from a teacher-training college in Ayotzinapa were taking part in a peaceful protest against alleged discriminatory hiring practices in Iguala, when a number of them clashed with local police and were bundled into police cars. The exact chain of events that ensued is still unclear, but it soon became apparent that 43 of the students had vanished without a trace.

Large-scale protests against corruption and violence erupted across the country after a mass grave was discovered on the outskirts of the city. Some of those police officers involved (who have since been arrested) told investigators they handed students over to the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos.

‘‘There is an urgent need for smarter regulation to fight the deadly triangle of drug-trafficking, arms-dealing and corruption

Leopoldo Pagotto
Zingales & Pagotto; Regional Representative Latin America, IBA Anti-Corruption Committee

Aside from concerns over the nature of the killings, it was the subsequent slow response of authorities that provoked such a strong public outcry. Eugenio Hurtado Segovia is a partner at Ramírez, Gutiérrez-Azpe, Rodríguez-Rivero y Hurtado in Mexico City and Vice-Chair of the IBA Latin America Regional Forum. ‘Although it’s no secret that Mexico is governed by impunity and corruption,’ he says, ‘the Ayotzinapa case shows – more than ever before – the inability of the Mexican authorities to give an immediate and effective response, demonstrating the government’s lack of interest in providing a solution or, at the very least, an explanation of what happened.’

The perceived lack of action by President Enrique Peña Nieto himself after the incident also went down badly with the public. ‘A few days after the issue came to light, the president went on a state visit to China, effectively relegating the most serious case of forced disappearance to occur in the country since the Radilla case to secondary importance,’ says Hurtado.

The sluggish domestic response was accentuated by the reaction abroad. US-based Human Rights Watch declared events in Iguala to be the worst case of abuse to take place in Latin America in recent decades. However, while the US government continues to supply funding and intelligence to help Mexico address drug trafficking and related problems – and even recently imposed sanctions against several key members of Mexico’s infamous Sinaloa Cartel – President Barack Obama has shied away from commenting publicly on the scandals: this topic was conspicuous by its absence during Peña Nieto’s recent visit to Washington.

Iguala’s mayor, José Luis Abarca Velázquez, and his wife were arrested in November; the Attorney-General’s office says the motivation for the killings was that the student protests would have disrupted a rally planned by the mayor’s wife. Although police reaction was initially slow, to date, more than 50 arrest warrants have been issued against others for their alleged links to organised crime.

‘Organised crime has developed from being an activity exclusive to criminal gangs to involving public officials,’ says Hurtado. ‘The police and the army – it’s gone from being a security issue to a problem mired in politics and corruption.’

Although the government has focused on introducing a range of fiscal, economic and legal reforms to boost the economy over the past two years, Hurtado says the newly proposed ten-point plan to improve security and justice simply highlights that the law is lacking in many areas.

‘The fact that reforms and laws emerge, often as a result of scandals where the law has been broken, only shows that the authorities are not doing everything possible to comply with the law, and in cases which receive public attention the response is to implement reforms that don’t address the crux of the issue,’ he says.

The proposed reforms include: abolishing municipal police forces; introducing new human rights legislation; deploying extra federal police in several states, including Guerrero; and assigning unique identity numbers to citizens. However, Congress ended its final session of 2014 without approving any of the reforms and no discernible progress has been made since.

Leopoldo Pagotto, a partner at Zingales & Pagotto in São Paulo and Regional Representative Latin America on the IBA Anti-Corruption Committee, says strong legislation and regulation will be vital. ‘There is an urgent need for smarter regulation to fight the deadly triangle of drug-trafficking, arms-dealing and corruption,’ he says. ‘One possible, powerful tool to fight these problems is to use the anti-money laundering laws more effectively.’

‘The beauty of the anti-money laundering legislation is that it created a real tracking system for illegal money, which can be used to fight terrorism, arms-dealing, drug-trafficking and corruption,’ he adds. ‘If this tool is more effectively used, it can cut the air from the drug cartels and undermine their economic power, weakening them and allowing the institutions to occupy the space left behind.’

Hans Corell, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Institute and Honorary Chair of the World Justice Project, agrees that the Mexican authorities must lead by example.
‘With respect to corruption, Mexico has a special obligation to set the example, since the UN Convention against Corruption was signed in Merida, Mexico, on
9 December 2003,’ he says. ‘In my view, to fight corruption effectively, the example must be set by personalities at the highest level in any society.’

‘‘The Ayotzinapa case shows – more than ever before – the inability of the Mexican authorities to give an immediate and effective response

Eugenio Hurtado Segovia
Ramírez, Gutiérrez-Azpe, Rodríguez-Rivero y Hurtado; Vice-Chair, IBA Latin America Regional Forum

Recent events have also reignited significant questions about rule of law in the country. ‘I would like to point out that the Iguala mass murder is testing the institutions in charge of enforcing the rule of law,’ says Pagotto. ‘Apparently they are working, but, in fact, they suffer from a lack of efficiency. The pressure of public opinion plays a pivotal role in assuring not only that the rule of law will be respected, but also that justice is delivered.’

Corell agrees: ‘What happened in the state of Guerrero demonstrates that the authorities in Mexico must engage in intensive work to establish the rule of law.’ He highlights the need for politicians to understand their responsibility to establish the rule of law, pointing to Rule of Law A Guide for Politicians, a guide published by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in 2012 specifically for this purpose, which is freely available to download in English and Spanish.

Recent research has exposed the sheer extent of impunity in the country. ‘The rule of law in Mexico is very weak, as indicated by the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2014, which places us 79th out of 99 countries surveyed,’ Hurtado says. ‘Various studies – by Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, and so on – reveal that more than 93 per cent of crimes committed in Mexico remain unpunished. Of course, corruption and the links between authorities and criminals play an important role in this respect, as well as the general failure by our justice system to adequately deal with crimes and criminals.’

Although these figures don’t look good for Mexico, Pagotto says the country compares favourably with Brazil, which passed an
anti-corruption law in January 2014, but that greater enforcement is needed to push the country in the right direction.

‘I would say that Brazil and Mexico are on the same page at least from an institutional and legislative point of view. Both countries have strict laws against corruption and the prosecutors enjoy independence to carry out their role. What is necessary is to increase enforcement, especially when it comes to high-level officials.’

Ruth Green is a freelance journalist and can be contacted on