Pope Francis: One More International Observer for Human Rights in Mexico

During the next few days of his visit to Mexico, Pope Francis will represent one more international observer for the worsening human rights situation throughout the country. A week ahead of his trip, a spokesperson said that Pope Francis wouldn't skirt difficult issues and Mexicans are hopeful that he will make strong statements denouncing the corruption, insecurity, violence and gross human rights violations with which they live on a daily basis.

More statements from him and governments, advocates and influential figures, including from the United States, are profoundly necessary in Mexico's current context. International pressure is needed because despite obvious signs of a deteriorating situation, the Mexican government continues to deny the gravity and pervasiveness of human rights violations, calling them "isolated" or "irrelevant to the reality in the country", often attacking the messengers rather than seizing the opportunity to address the criticisms.

In fact, human rights violations are anything but the exception in Mexico. Mexico began the year by earning the recognition of being the most corrupt among OECD countries according to the latest Corruptions Perceptions Index. It remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders and journalists. Anabel Flores Salazar is already the second reporter this year to suffer the fate that at least six did last year; her dead body was found just days ago in Puebla, murdered after having been taken from her house in the neighboring state of Veracruz by armed men.

Even Mexico City, once a refuge for those escaping violence, is no longer safer than the rest of the country. When I visited the capital a few weeks ago, civil society organizations told me about break-ins to their offices in the last few months. The modus operandi was often the same; unknown perpetrators who seemed to strike when defenders were denouncing abuses and getting close to finding the truth about victims' cases. The message being communicated seems clear: stay quiet or you'll suffer the consequences. Because differences between organized crime and law enforcement are increasingly blurred in Mexico, the majority of victims and their families are too scared to report crimes, or they do so knowing that they'll have to search for justice on their own. Ninety-nine percent of all crimes remain in impunity in Mexico.

And it's not just brave human rights defenders and journalists who are receiving attacks across Mexico. A campaign to discredit the work of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, who have already refuted the government's main theory behind the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, has been gaining traction recently in the mainstream Mexican media. Despite calls from Nobel Laureates and international organizations denouncing these attacks, the Mexican government has remained silent.

Throughout the next few days, Pope Francis will have the opportunity to be close to some of Mexico's most vulnerable populations including indigenous communities, children, youth, and prison inmates, among the thousands of others that will flock to see him. Although they won't be meeting with Pope Francis privately, civil society organizations will hold events in the different cities he will be passing through in efforts to amplify human rights concerns already sent to him in a letter signed by groups from across the country.

The states of Chiapas, Michoacán and Chihuahua that Pope Francis will visit represent particularly poignant examples of Mexico's landscape of disappearances and deaths, of forgotten communities fighting for justice and truth on their own. The wall separating the U.S.-Mexico border in Juarez where the Pope will hold a mass next Wednesday, February 17th is a symbol not just of the millions of families separated by ineffective and harmful militarized enforcement policies but also of the thousands of Central American migrants transiting through Mexican territory and of all of the suffering they have endured along their journey to escape violence in their home countries.

In the usual defensiveness against possible human rights criticisms, the Mexican Undersecretary for Population, Migration and Religious Affairs, Humberto Roque Villanueva, already said a day before the Pope's visit that there will be no political gains from the Pope's visit and that there are "no concerns about what the Pope might say about Mexico's problems." He asserted, "The Pope's words will be valued and will have an effect on Mexican society and on the government at its three levels."

The Mexican government would do well to live up to its own words and begin to listen to the concerns of the international community--but more importantly, to the voices of the victims of violence and corruption in Mexico that have been ignored for too long.