Mexico: Address impunity and uphold the right to defend human rights


Authorities at all levels in Mexico must take action to address impunity for attacks and threats against human rights defenders, with structural impunity contributing to the severe vulnerability of defenders in the country, a group of international human rights experts said today.

(Mexico City) - Authorities at all levels in Mexico must take action to address impunity for attacks and threats against human rights defenders, with structural impunity contributing to the severe vulnerability of defenders in the country, a group of international human rights experts said today.

Concluding a week-long visit, the International Civil Society Mission to Mexico identified gaps and deficiences in both the scope and implementation of laws, policies and measures to protect defenders but also emphasised that such measures can only have limited effect so long as the overall environment for defending rights remains so hostile. 

The International Civil Society Mission, made up of academics and activists from the Americas and Europe, visited four States during their mission - Bajo California, the Federal District, Guerrero, and Oaxaca - meeting with local human rights defenders, as well as authorities at all levels. Defenders who testified to the Mission spoke of a range of attacks and threats to their work at the hands of State actors (at federal, state and municipal levels), actors involved in large-scale business projects, and individuals with ties to organised crime.

Women human rights defenders spoke of the particular vulnerability they can experience in terms of threats and attacks and in regard to a denial of access to justice. They noted that this was all the greater when they were indigenous women and living in rural areas, where poverty is endemic.  

The Mission highlighted the importance of the public recognition of the work of human rights defenders in contributing to their safety and in preventing and responding to stigmatisation and attacks against them. Defenders spoke of the need for public recognition of their work on a periodic basis, as well as on the occasion of specific attacks against individual defenders. 

The Mission received many reports of the criminalisation of the right to defend rights, particularly in the context of peaceful protest. They also highlighted the use of vaguely-worded legal provisions to criminalise defenders, such as in the case of Ms Lucila Bettina Cruz Velázquez, who was charged with acts or omissions gravely affecting the 'national consumption and national wealth' (‘el consumo y la riqueza nacional’). The stigmatiation of defenders provided a context where unfounded charges such as the theft of a vehicle were made against defenders, with such judicial harassment being both time-consuming and expensive to the defenders. 

The Mission acknowledged legislative initiatives and measures taken by the Mexican State for the protection of human rights defenders, including the 2012 enactment of a law establishing a protection mechanism for human rights defenders and journalists. However, the Mission noted that the protection mechanism needs to be strengthened, including through improved assessments of the risks defenders face and holding to pre-established timeframes for implementing assessments and measures. 

‘Defenders spoke of cases where protection measures had been granted but not implemented, with the defender in question subsequently being the victim of yet another attack.’ said Eleanor Openshaw, who participated in the Mission for ISHR. 

Several defenders said they had not approached the mechanism for protection because they doubted its effectiveness, opting instead to work with colleagues on measures of self-protection.  

The Mission concluded that the mechanism has so far failed to properly implement policies or programs to prevent attacks against defenders. A unit mandated by the law, to analyse trends of attack against defenders and define preventative measures that include structural reform, has yet to be actually established or operationalised. 

A major factor underlining the lack of protection defenders experienced was failure by the authorities at different levels to take responsibility for protection or investigations, frequently citing a lack of clarity as to where federal and state responsibilities start and end. 

‘It is evident that a clearer articulation of state responsibilities and coordination between the various authorities at the different levels is needed for protection mechanisms to have any chance of working,’ said Ms Openshaw.

Ultimately however, the protection mechanism is simply a tool to allow defenders to keep working. Defenders safety and security cannot be guaranteed without prompt, thorough, impartial investigation of attacks and threats against defenders and the effective prosecution of those responsible, concluded Mission members.

In its trip to Guerrero, the Mission had the opportunity to visit the Normal Rural ‘Raúl Isidro Burgos’ in Ayotzinapa and meet with family members of the 43 students disappeared on 26 September this year.

‘We were able to express to family members the indignation we feel and many around the world feel for the disappearance of their sons, and to express our solidarity,’ said Ms Openshaw. ‘The disappearance of the students speaks to a situation of violence against those that claim their rights. It is also evidence of a profound culture of impunity in the region, where the rule of law appears to be barely existent. Mission members add our voices to all those that call for the students to be returned alive and for all those responsible for their disappearance to be held accountable.’

In a meeting with Federal authorities, including the Head of the Human Rights Unit of the Ministry of the Interior, mission members shared their preliminary conclusions ahead of their final report and recommendations, due early next year. Mission members expressed concern for the wellbeing of those defenders with whom they had met, calling upon the authorities to ensure the protection of defenders who had cooperated with the mission as part of the State’s obligations to protect against reprisals and uphold the right to defend human rights. 

Organisations convening, accompanying and participating in the Mission were: The Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), Peace Brigades International – Mexico Project (PBI México) and Conexx – Europe, with the support of Amnesty International Mexico, Just Associates (JASS), the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), Front Line Defenders, Protection International (PI), the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center), the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT/ FIDH), and the German Coordinating Committee for Human Rights in Mexico.

The International Civil Society Mission is part of a broader effort to shine light on the situation for human rights defenders in Mexico. The Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH) has launched a campaign ‘Haz que se vean’ (Make them Visible) for this purpose. Follow the campaign at #HazQueSeVean

For more information, please contact Eleanor Openshaw, ISHR,


  • Latin America and Caribbean
  • Human rights defenders
  • National HRDs laws/policies
  • Mexico