September 5th, 2002
Cause for Murder
Human Rights in Central America

Sources: Amnesty International, BBC News, Human Rights Watch, New York Times, U.S. State Department Human Rights Country Reports 2001

Mexico’s historical struggle against human rights abuse is not unique to the region. Civil war, land disputes and military rule are just some of the factors that have affected human rights conditions in Mexico’s neighbors to the south in Central America.

To find out more about human rights in Central America and Mexico, click on the countries on the map.

1 Mexico
President Vicente Fox came to office in 2000 on a wave of popular support for reform. Among his campaign pledges was a clean-up of human rights. But has Fox delivered? The results have been mixed.

One of Fox’s first acts in office was to create a new cabinet position, deputy minister for Human Rights and Democracy. The release of police files pertaining to Mexico’s “Dirty War” against dissenters in the 1970s and 1980s has become more of a pro-forma declassification routine, according to newspaper reports. A special prosecutor has been appointed to investigate abuses during the Dirty War, but human rights organizations charge that this falls short of earlier promises of a truth commission.

Although reports of torture at the hands of police continue, pressure from international human rights organizations led Fox in the past eight months to release three political prisoners, a follow-up to earlier releases of jailed environmental activists and indigenous rebels.

Fox has also made some headway in battling disappearances conducted by the police and military. In June 2001 “disappearances” was added as a crime to the federal penal code and a year later the federal district made disappearances as a crime without statue of limitations. Amnesty International, however, reports that disappearances nonetheless continue — from December 2000 to June 2002 four people disappeared following detention by police and the army.

2 Belize
Belize’s human rights worries of late have largely centered around its border dispute with neighboring Guatemala. In 2000, Guatemala began international court proceedings to lay claim to half of Belize, territory that it claims as part of its inheritance from Spain.

The U.S. State Department’s human rights report documents a case in 1999 where Belize police officials along the Guatemalan border arrested and then allegedly tortured Guatemalan citizen, Hector Balcarcel. Thee police burned his genitals with a lighter and habaƒero peppers and forcing him to drink his own urine. An internal police investigation dismissed the allegations of torture as false, but a review by the Belize police department’s internal affairs office ruled in favor of Balcarel’s charges and dismissed police officers, Eli Salazar and Cardinal Smith, for their involvement in the case. Cardinal Smith appealed to the Supreme Court to be reinstated and won because he had not been told the grounds for his dismissal.

3 Guatemala
For 36 years, Guatemala was ravaged by a civil war that claimed some 200,000 lives. Human rights organizations began investigating reports of war atrocities after a peace agreement was signed in 1996. Three years later, the United Nations mission in Guatemala found that security forces were responsible for 93 percent of all the human rights atrocities committed during the civil war, including 626 massacres in Mayan villages.

Even with the war’s end, investigating human rights abuses in Guatemala can carry a high price. In 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered just two days after releasing a report on wartime human rights abuses. Nine witnesses were killed in the trial of three army officers that followed. A Guatemalan court later found the officers guilty of Gerardi’s murder and sentenced them to 30 years in prison – a landmark ruling in a country where official impunity for human rights abuses has been the norm.

But in other high-profile cases, the government’s response has been mixed. In December 2001, President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera issued a public apology and paid $1.6 million to the families of 226 victims of a 1982 army massacre in Las Dor Erres, in northern Guatemala. Prosecution of the massacre’s perpetrators, however, has yet to occur.

4 El Salvador
Along with reconstruction from the 2001 earthquake that left 55 percent of El Salvador’s population below the poverty level, this Central American republic must contend with human rights abuses committed during its 12-year civil war. At the top of the list are the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, executed by the army as suspected rebel supporters. In 1999, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found the government responsible for violating the right to life of the victims and failing to conduct a thorough investigation into their deaths. But the government’s impunity for the crime still holds. El Salvador’s court of appeal has upheld a lower court’s 2001 decision that the statute of limitations has expired.

However, in the high-profile case of the murder of three American nuns and a lay colleague in 1980, the government has shown greater perspicacity. El Salvador’s Attorney General has challenged the parole of two of the convicted murders, and in October 2001 an appeals court reversed a lower court’s decision to grant parole.

5 Honduras
In 1981, Honduras elected its first civilian president in almost a century. After decades of military rule, setting limits on the actions of law enforcement agencies remains one of Honduras’s most pressing challenges.

According to human rights organizations, reports of extrajudicial killings by Honduras’s police, placed under civilian control only in 1997, are common. Casa Alianza, a non-profit group working with street children in Central America, found that 13 percent of the 603 murders of minors in Honduras between 1998 and 2001 involved police officers. The majority of the children killed were gang members, known as “maras”, who are often blamed for Honduras’s high crime rate. Vigilante groups -often with the consent or complicity of police — frequently use lethal force against these gang members. Honduras’s Inter Agency Commission on Extrajudicial Killings, created in August 2000, is currently investigating 300 of the 603 cases.

6 Nicaragua
Nicaragua’s 12-year civil war formally ended in June 1990 with the demobilization of the Contras or Nicaraguan Resistance (RN). However, rule of law has still yet to be extended to rural areas and, despite the government’s disarmament campaigns, many citizens are heavily armed. The Organization of American States has peace commissions in over 200 rural areas that lack government offices that help resolve disputes, monitor human rights abuses and serve as a general go-between for citizens to voice concerns to government officials.

Nicaragua also has a serious problem with torture, which according to the 2001 U.S. State Department human rights report, remains a common practice used by police to obtain confessions. In 2001 the Nicaraguan Inspector General has received 186 complaints of physical abuse by police and prosecuted 87 officers named in these cases.

7 Costa Rica
Unlike most of its war-torn Central American neighbors, Costa Rica has long been a stable democracy. Yet human rights issues such as child prostitution and the sale of children continues to be a serious problem. In a study conducted by the International Labor Organization in 1999, as many as 212 girls were found to be working as prostitutes within just four neighborhoods of the capital city, San Jose. The government has begun to tackle this problem with legislation that prohibits sex with children and imposes prison terms of up to 10 years for perpetrators and making frequent raids on city brothels. In one raid, police arrested five men involved with the Costa Rican Association of Pedophiles for sexually exploiting four children. Is the get-tough policy working? Opinion is divided, but convictions are up – 44 percent of those charged in 2001, as compared with 13 percent in 2000.

8 Panama
Under military rule from 1968 to 1989, Panama’s recent history has been pockmarked by multiple killings and disappearances, the legacy of political repression. In 2001, President Mireya Moscoso established The Panamanian Truth Commission in a step towards ending years of official impunity for wrongdoing. Among the cases under investigation is an unmarked grave on the grounds of a former military base near Panama City, believed to contain the remains of Heliodoro Portugal, a leftist leader. Former members of the National Guard have been linked to Portugal’s killing. In April 2002, the commission, released a report documenting 110 cases of murders and disappearances carried out by the Panamanian security forces. Punishment for these abuses is still pending.

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2022 WNET.ORG Properties LLC. All rights reserved.