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Kevin ClarkeDecember 22, 2023
Relatives of missing students hold posters with their images as they take part in a Sept. 27, 2020, march to mark the sixth anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College in Iguala, Mexico. The students disappeared in Iguala after they clashed with police and masked men. (CNS photo/Henry Romero, Reuters)Relatives of missing students hold posters with their images as they take part in a Sept. 27, 2020, march to mark the sixth anniversary of the disappearance of 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Teacher Training College in Iguala, Mexico. The students disappeared in Iguala after they clashed with police and masked men. (CNS photo/Henry Romero, Reuters)

A rhetorical conflict is heating up—again—between a Jesuit-sponsored human rights center in Mexico City and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

During a morning press conference on Dec. 14, Mr. López Obrador accused the Miguel Agustín Pro Juarez Human Rights Center of a conflict of interest and unethical practices. He complained that Centro Prodh represents parents who are still seeking answers to the disappearance of their children—43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College in the State of Guerrero in 2014—at the same time it condemned the torture of suspects in that case.

Alleged members of the criminal cartel Guerreros Unidos, the suspects have been charged as co-conspirators in the notorious incident. Local police and municipal figures are also alleged to have been involved.

The killing of the Ayotzinapa students at the heart of Mr. López Obrador’s criticism of the center is perhaps the most egregious example of the criminal impunity that has plagued Mexican society.

“The same human rights defenders who are asking for justice for the [disappeared student teachers] carry out the defense of those who have been tortured and ensure that those who have been tortured or not, are freed, all free…when there is evidence that they did participate,” Mr. López Obrador said. “The entire argument [for their release] has to do with human rights,” he said.

The president devoted more than 20 minutes of his press conference to an attack on Centro Prodh and its activism for human rights in Mexico. He charged, without offering any evidence, that Centro Prodh’s work is influenced by political actors from opposition parties. Those allegations were similar to accusations made by the president against Center Prodh in June. The center has also been the target of illicit surveillance by Mexican security through the use of Pegasus spyware on mobile phones and computers.

Centro Prodh released a statement on Dec. 15, responding to the president’s accusations and suggesting that Mr. López Obrador is seeking to deflect attention from its criticism of the national army. Noting that Centro Prodh “regrets the sweeping and unfair condemnations of its work, which represents more than 35 years in the defense of human rights in Mexico,” the center’s leadership denied that it was collaborating with any partisan force in Mexico.

According to the center: “Without a doubt, this presidential criticism is due to the fact that [Centro Prodh] refuses to keep silent about the persistence of impunity, violence and cover-up in the Army.”

Centro Prodh “asserts that what was said at the press conference is false. Its work, together with other respected civil society organizations, has been to defend the interests and rights of families, always centering the victims.” It was that focus that led Centro Prodh to denounce the use of torture against suspects in the case because their testimony under torture was creating a dubious “official narrative” about what actually happened to the Ayotzinapa students, the same narrative the president “paradoxically” supported during his attack on the human rights advocates.

During a morning press conference on Dec. 14, Mr. López Obrador accused the Miguel Agustín Pro Juarez Human Rights Center of a conflict of interest and unethical practices.

The staff of Centro Prodh, according to the statement, regret Mr. Lòpez Obrador’s “falsehoods and condemnations, which are especially serious coming from the Head of the Executive. It will continue its work, denouncing human rights violations, accompanying victims, and formulating proposals until [human] dignity becomes customary.”

Centro Prodh, which was founded in 1988 by members of the Society of Jesus, has been outspoken in seeking justice for all the families of the “disappeared” in Mexico. Human rights investigators believe that more than 113,000 people have been disappeared in Mexico since record-keeping of the problem began in 1962. A national registry was created during the López Obrador administration in 2018.

The total number of the missing has grown by more than 47,000 since Mr. López Obrador became president in 2018, and the president insists that the numbers of the disappeared have been greatly inflated by his political opponents, though some U.N. experts on the phenomenon of forced disappearances believe the true total in Mexico is much higher than the official registry.

Among the missing people are likely thousands of victims of drug cartels and human traffickers. Still-emerging evidence suggests that elements of Mexican state security have often colluded with criminal groups and have been hired out to dispatch perceived enemies or people unfortunate enough to get in the way during those operations.

The Society of Jesus in Mexico released a statement on Dec. 18, reaffirming the Society’s full support of Centro Prodh and noting that the center is authorized to speak on matters of human rights on behalf of the Society of Jesus in Mexico. In the statement, the Mexican Jesuits reiterated their willingness to meet with the president or his successor in 2024 in order to avoid trading accusations at press conferences or through press statements. “Our suffering nation needs unity and dialogue to build peace and justice,” the Jesuits said. “The truth will set us free.”

The president devoted more than 20 minutes of his press conference to an attack on Centro Prodh and its activism for human rights in Mexico. 

Other voices similarly defended the human rights advocates this week. “Center Prodh is one of Mexico's most respected organizations due to its unwavering commitment to defending the human rights of some of the country's most vulnerable populations,” said Stephanie Brewer, the director for Mexico for the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based human rights advocacy group and think tank. Ms. Brewer, who formerly worked for Centro Prodh, was interviewed by America over email.

According to Ms. Brewer, Mr. López Obrador “has long rejected criticism.”

“But the fact that he is now going out of his way to attack Centro Prodh with false statements shows something more…that Centro Prodh continues to document and denounce human rights abuses by Mexico's armed forces, including in relation to the Ayotzinapa enforced disappearance case,” she said.

“López Obrador's tenure has seen an unprecedented increase in the political and economic power of the military, so those who continue to speak up on these issues risk facing these types of responses from the government,” Ms. Brewer said. “These attacks affect not only Centro Prodh but also the Mexican public's access to truth and justice.” It is “the people already facing discrimination, poverty and human rights abuses,” she said, who end up suffering the consequences of the president’s rhetorical flights.

The killing of the Ayotzinapa students at the heart of Mr. López Obrador’s criticism of the center is perhaps the most egregious example of the criminal impunity that has plagued Mexican society and the shocking infiltration of national and state police and security by cartels. Nine years after the nightmare began for the parents of these teacher-trainees, no one has been held accountable for their disappearance and the apparent cover-up that followed it.

The incident began when students commandeered buses in the town of Iguala, in southwest Guerrero, in what had been intended as a first stop before traveling on to Mexico City to participate in the annual commemoration of the Tlatelolco Massacre, when the Mexican army shot down hundreds of protesting students in Tlatelolco Plaza in 1968.

According to a recent New York Times investigation:

Minutes after the students left the bus station, the police chased them down, opened fire and hauled them away. Multiple cartel members have testified that the victims were turned over to [Guerrero Unidos], which killed them and disposed of their bodies.
The army received constant updates about the crime as it happened. Soldiers were on the streets and a local battalion even had an informant embedded with the students….

Reporters for the New York Times say that the leaders of Guerrero Unidos, who had grown increasingly paranoid, mistakenly believed that the young people were members of a rival gang.

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