Human Rights in the Americas. Review of 2019 - Mexico [AMR 01/1353/2020]


A new National Guard was created. Although it was formally a civilian law enforcement body, it was primarily composed of military personnel and headed by an army general. A new law on the use of force did not adequately regulate the use of lethal force and firearms by law enforcement officials, as well as threatening the right to freedom of assembly. Mandatory pre-trial detention was expanded to new criminal offences. Human rights defenders and journalists were harassed, attacked and killed. Women and girls continued to face gender-based violence, including killings. Mexico promised to adopt a human rights-based approach to migration, but, under threat of commercial tariffs by the USA, reversed course, with severe consequences for migrants and asylum-seekers. Impunity persisted for human rights violations and crimes under international law.


The new administration adopted an austerity plan that was strictly applied, affecting various federal government programmes. Initial reports by health workers and civil society have noted how this has risked compromising access to health care for people, in particular, those living with HIV and cancer.

In June, the President declined to attend the presentation of the National Human Rights Commission's annual report, the first President to do so since the Commission was created 28 years ago. Later the same month, the federal government officially rejected the Commission’s recommendation in response to a reduction in childcare available for working parents.

Several times during the year, the President publicly belittled the work of civil society organizations. He also banned federal public funding of such organizations affecting, among others, migrant shelters, shelters for women experiencing gender-based violence and human rights organizations.

In March, the Mexican Social Security Institute launched a pilot project, ordered in 2018 by the Supreme Court, to guarantee access to social security for domestic workers. In April, Congress passed a reform to the federal labour law to the same effect. By the end of the year, Mexico had not ratified the Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (ILO Convention No. 189).

During the year, the government held public apology ceremonies for emblematic cases of human rights violations, such as the extrajudicial execution of two students in 2010 and for a case of enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial execution of different members of a family in 1977.


The new federal administration maintained the militarized approach to policing that had failed under previous governments. In March, a constitutional amendment instituted a civilian National Guard. Although the National Guard was under the civilian Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection, it consisted mostly of members of the armed forces, who received insufficient training to act as law enforcement officials. In addition, the government appointed an army general as its senior commander.

The law on the National Guard entered into force in May and granted the new body broad powers regarding law enforcement, use of force, the investigation of crimes, including the interception of private communications, and migration control.

The government disestablished the Federal Police at the end of 2019 and the Army was tasked with assessing members of the Federal Police to determine whether they were fit to serve in the National Guard or should be transferred to other federal bodies, such as the National Migration Institute.

In May, Congress passed a national law on the use of force that fell short of international human rights law and standards. The law did not accurately incorporate the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, prevention and protection of life and would allow for the use of lethal force in circumstances not provided for in international law. The National Human Rights Commission challenged the law before the Supreme Court; the Court's decision was pending at the end of the year.


Arbitrary arrests and detentions remained widespread and often led to further human rights violations, such as torture and other ill-treatment. Law enforcement officials continued to disregard the rights of the detainees, including by failing to inform them of the reason for their detention. The constitutional provision allowing detention without charge (arraigo) was not repealed.

In April, a constitutional amendment extended the list of offences for which mandatory pre-trial detention applies. This legislation prevented judges from evaluating whether pre-trial detention was necessary in each case and avoided periodic review of the detention, thus violating the principle of the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings.

In May, Congress passed a law requiring the creation of a national unified register to record every detention by law enforcement officials. However, federal and state governments had not fully implemented the law at the end of the year.


Enforced disappearances by state agents and disappearances committed by non-state actors continued to be a concern; those responsible enjoyed almost total impunity. Federal authorities declared that by 31 December at least 61,637 people were missing.

During the year, the government focused on a strategy to address the lack of capacity to carry out forensic examinations of unidentified bodies. In March, the President announced the reinstatement of the National People Search System. The government reported that from December 2018 until December 2019, 873 clandestine graves containing 1.124 bodies had been found. On 30 August, the government announced that Mexico would recognize the competence of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances to consider individual cases. By the end the year, this recognition had not yet been implemented.

The government set up a special commission into the case of 43 Ayotzinapa college students forcibly disappeared in 2014 and the Attorney General's Office created a special unit to investigate the case. The President ordered the resumption of international assistance on the case. Federal judges ordered the release from pre-trial detention of several people accused in this case after finding that much of the evidence against them was inadmissible; some of the evidence presented was obtained through torture and other ill-treatment.

Mexico made no substantive progress in complying with the 2018 judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Alvarado Espinoza that found Mexico responsible for the enforced disappearance of three people by the Mexican army.

In August, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that Mexico was responsible for the 2010 enforced disappearance of Christian Téllez Padilla, in Veracruz state. It was the first time a UN body issued a binding resolution on disappearances in Mexico.


Torture and other ill-treatment continued to be a major concern. Investigation into reports of torture were generally flawed and those responsible were rarely brought to justice.

Starting in April, the government and NGOs drafted the National Programme for the Prevention and Punishment of Torture and Ill-treatment; the document had not been published by the end of the year.

In May, the UN Committee against Torture published its findings on Mexico and expressed concern at the very high incidence of torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence, by members of the security forces and investigating officers.


Gender-based violence against women and girls continued to be widespread. The authorities failed to investigate these crimes and perpetrators were rarely brought to justice. The authorities opened 1,006 investigations into gender-based killings (feminicides).

Sufficient and up-to-date data on gender-based killings and violence was not available. However, official data for 2018 was published indicating that 3,752 women were considered to have been the victims of homicide, pending further investigations. The most recent official statistics on gender-based violence, those for 2016, estimated that 66.1% of women and girls aged 15 or above had experienced gender-based violence at least once in their lives and that 43.5% of women had experienced gender-based intimate-partner violence.

The authorities kept 20 protocols known as “Alerts of gender-based violence against women” operational in 18 states. Established by the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free from Violence, the Alert mechanisms rely on coordinated efforts to confront and eradicate violence against women and girls. By the end of the year, there was no indication that the Alert mechanisms had reduced gender-based violence.

In August, several cases of sexual violence against women and girls sparked outrage and demonstrations in Mexico City and other cities. The Mexico City government initially dismissed the protests as acts of provocation and stated that it would initiate criminal investigations against demonstrators for damage to buildings. Subsequently, apparently in reaction to public outrage, the government changed its position and stated that it would respect the right to freedom of assembly and investigate cases of violence against women and girls.

In September, the Congress of the State of Oaxaca, approved a bill that decriminalized abortion during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. In October, the bill was published in the Official Gazette.


Same-sex couples were able to marry in Mexico City and 18 states. Couples in states where laws or administrative practice did not allow for same-sex marriage had to file a constitutional complaint (amparo) before federal tribunals to have their cases reviewed and their rights recognized. Same-sex marriage was approved by changes in the laws of Baja California Sur, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí and Oaxaca and by Supreme Court orders in the states of Aguascalientes, Nuevo León and Sinaloa.

In April and again in July, the Yucatán Congress rejected, through an unlawful secret ballot, a legal reform to allow same-sex marriage. In October, the Congress of Puebla also rejected a legal reform. From May, same-sex couples were able to marry in Mexico's consulates and diplomatic premises, following an order of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Human rights defenders continued to be threatened, harassed, and attacked because of their work; at least 23 were killed according to Frontline Defenders, 14 were Territory, Land and Environmental Rights Defenders (TLERDs). The authorities made no significant progress in the investigations into these killings. Two people were detained awaiting trial for the 2018 murder of Julián Carrillo, an Indigenous human rights defender in Chihuahua state.

On 20 February, in Morelos state, Samir Flores Soberanes was shot dead after receiving death threats in connection with his human rights work. He was a member of the grassroots organization the Peoples’ Front for the Defence of the Land and Water.

On 3 August, unidentified armed men forcibly abducted Aarón Méndez and Alfredo Castillo, both members of the migrants’ shelter Casa AMAR, in Tamaulipas state; their fate and whereabouts remained unknown at the end of the year.

After a sustained campaign by civil society, the Attorney General’s Office and the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) dropped the charges against human rights defenders from the Tosepan Cooperative Union, the Independent Rural and Urban Popular Movement for Workers and Farmers, and the Committee on Holistic Land Use Planning of Cuetzalan, which had been brought over their involvement in public demonstrations against a CFE project that sought to build an electricity substation in Cuetzalan, Puebla state.

The National Protection Mechanism for human rights defenders and journalists provided protective measures to 1,086 people: 721 human rights defenders and 365 journalists. The Mexican government accepted the recommendations of an analysis presented by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the Mechanism and made a public commitment to implement them.

Mexico had not yet ratified the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice on Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (the Escazú Agreement), which provides for protection for environmental defenders.


The authorities started the year, as part of a human rights-based approach to migration, by providing thousands of humanitarian visas to people who arrived in “caravans” from Central America. However, by June, the policy had been reversed and 6,000 National Guard officers were deployed to the Mexico-Guatemala border. This followed threats from the USA to impose commercial tariffs on Mexico unless increased migration controls were put in place. The use of the National Guard to control migration was challenged in the Supreme Court by the National Human Rights Commission and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which highlighted the risk of discriminatory actions by the security forces.

Migration detention centres registered record levels of overcrowding and at least three people died in the custody of the National Migration Institute in circumstances related to their detention, among them a ten-year-old girl. Across 2019, at least 51.999 children had been held in immigration centres, in violation of Mexican law and international standards.

There were several mass arbitrary arrests and detentions, including the apprehension of approximately 400 people in June on a highway near Tapachula, Chiapas state. COMAR, the federal refugee agency, received 70,302 asylum claims, up from 29,630 in 2018. The largest number of asylum-seekers were from Honduras, followed by El Salvador, Cuba and Venezuela. The authorities were underequipped to process claims and waiting times increased. Mexico received nearly 60,000 asylum-seekers returned by the USA under the “Migration Protection Protocols” or “Remain in Mexico” plan. Mexico provided them with simple paper permits to stay in the country yet returned many to their countries of origin in possible violation of the principle of non-refoulement. Up to December, migration authorities detained 186.750 irregular migrants and deported 123.239. The vast majority (98%) of those deported were from Central America and nearly half were from Honduras.


Journalists continued to be threatened, harassed, attacked and even killed. At least 10 journalists were killed. The authorities made no significant progress in investigating these crimes. No substantial plan to protect journalists was announced by the federal government during the year. Journalists expressed concern about the president's disparaging of journalists and media outlets that criticized his policies, which could cause a chilling effect.

The national law on the use of force provided protection during demonstrations only if law enforcement officials considered the protests to have a legitimate purpose. The law did not indicate that, during public assemblies, the use of force should be restricted to situations where it was necessary to contain violent individuals or to disperse participants if the violence is widespread and no alternative is available. The law did not provide for an obligation to try to de-escalate tensions and to seek alternatives to avoid the use of force.

In July, the Congress of the state of Tabasco passed a reform to the state criminal code that criminalized public demonstrations. It provided for lengthy prison terms for actions opposing any public or private project or works and for obstructing roads or other means of communication. Various state officials, including the President, publicly applauded the law.

In October, the Supreme Court of Mexico City condemned journalist Sergio Aguayo to payment of 10 million Mexican pesos (USD 520,000) in damages for the publication in 2016 of an opinion piece concerning the former governor of Coahuila, Humberto Moreira Valdés. The ruling constitutes a form of punishment and intimidation, improperly affecting freedom of expression in public debate.