Mexico: supreme court rules for Atenco inquiry

From El Universal, Feb. 7:

The Supreme Court voted 7-4 Tuesday to launch an investigation into state and federal police conduct during the arrests last May of some 240 men, women and children in the State of Mexico town of San Salvador Atenco.

The decision represents a victory for human rights groups who have contended that officers intentionally used unnecessary force during the May 4, 2006, early-morning sweep of the town.

The rights groups have alleged those arrested were subjected to serious abuses – including rape and torture – as they were transported for six hours to prison.

It also represents hope for Atenco residents and local activist groups, who insist that those still being held in jail are political prisoners.

“The decision is a first step that brings us closer to the exercise of justice in these regrettable events,” said a spokesperson for the People’s Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT), an organization embracing many communities in the area that has been in the forefront of local clashes with state and federal officials.

An investigation overseen by the Supreme Court could also bring unwanted attention to key political figures. One would be Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto, a rising star in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who is being groomed as a possible presidential candidate. As governor of the State of Mexico, Peña Nieto is ultimately responsible for the state officers’ actions.

Another prominent public official who could be inconvenienced by the probe is Eduardo Medina Mora, President Caldero’n’s attorney general. Medina Mora was the public security secretary at the time of the Atenco events and he has refused to accept recommendations by the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), which found evidence of widespread abuse during the arrests.

As recently as January, Medina Mora was grilled by opposition legislators for his snubbing of the CNDH, and directly criticized by CNDH head Jose Luis Soberanes.

By choosing to look into rights abuse allegations, the Court asserted a position that may go beyond the Atenco issue. Article 97 of the Constitution gives the Court the leeway to form special committees to investigate violations of individual guarantees, which in the article’s language includes voting irregularities serious enough to jeopardize the public’s right to fair elections. Supreme Court minister Mariano Azuela, then the president of the Court, criticized Article 97 last year as “written with feet” and there was some doubt about whether a court majority would avail itself of its investigative power.

On Tuesday, however, Azuela was joined only by ministers Sergio Aguirre Anguiano, Jose de Jesu’s Gudiño Pelayo, and Sergio Valls Hernandez in voting against the investigation.

Supreme Court President Guillermo Ortiz Mayagoitia voted with the majority, but not before scolding FPDT members who were demonstrating outside the court building on Pino Sua’rez avenue on the southeast side of Mexico City’s Zocalo.

“Those presenting themselves as members of the San Salvador Atenco community have made threats against one of the ministers of this high tribunal to get him to change his vote,” Ortiz Mayagoitia said. “This attitude is not just reproachable, but unacceptable.”

Tensions between Atenco and the state and federal authorities are historic, but came to a head in 2001 when the Fox administration attempted to expropriate some 4,500 acres of land for a new international airport, offering 7 pesos per square foot. The resulting ongoing battle, often violent, eventually forced the federal government to shelve the airport plans in 2002.

But tempers flared again on May 3, 2006, when police removed flower sellers from their temporary stalls in nearby Texcoco. In solidarity, Atenco residents blocked the local highway, leading to a battle with riot police that left two dead, including a 14-year-old boy.

The next morning, state and federal police executed a door-to-door sweep of Atenco, during which the alleged brutality took place. Those loaded on vehicles reported the most serious abuses.

See our last posts on Mexico and Atenco.