Mexico: New President, New Drug Violence Plan

Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, recently enacted a law to compensate victims of drug violence. It also sets up a national registry to record the crimes. Host Michel Martin discusses the new law with Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, if you're agonizing over your outfit for whatever you've planned this weekend, how do you think the first lady feels? And, even more, her designer? We'll talk to fashion critic Robin Givhan about the agony and ecstasy of creating an inaugural gown. That's just ahead.

But, first, on a very different note, we cross the border to Mexico where, over the last few years, tens of thousands of people have been killed in violence that's been linked, for one reason or another, to a crackdown on the drug cartels.

For years, the families of victims have been demanding that Mexican authorities do more, not just to stop the violence, but even to acknowledge the scope of the problem. But many critics, both inside the country and out, said that that was not happening.

But, last week, Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, signed a new law designed to address those concerns. Among other things, it sets up a compensation fund for those who have been kidnapped or injured as a result of organized crime. Relatives of those who have been killed or who have disappeared can also apply. It also sets up a registry to document these crimes.

To find out more about this, we've called on Nik Steinberg. He is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. He focuses on Mexico and he's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

NIK STEINBERG: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: I think it might be surprising to many people to hear that there is no such formal list of people who've been killed or disappeared now, so I wanted to ask, first of all, how do we know how many people have been killed or disappeared and why is it so important to establish this registry?

STEINBERG: You know, for most of the previous government, the government of President Felipe Calderon, even as newspapers and human rights organizations reported an explosion in violence and human rights abuses - killings, disappearances, torture - the attitude of the government was, look, there's a lot of violence, but the victims of this violence - 90, 95 percent of them are criminals, so while it's unfortunate, don't worry about them.

And that was really the attitude of the government for almost their whole entire administration. That was their excuse for not ever really giving a public accounting to the Mexican people of, both the quantity of violence that they were experiencing that everybody knew was happening, and also the people - recognizing the people who had been victims. So the fact that this database, a registry of the crimes, is being created marks, in itself, a big step forward for a new government of a new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, to acknowledge that this was really a problem, that these people were real victims and not criminals.

MARTIN: And what about the compensation fund? Is that significant, also? And how extensive will this be?

STEINBERG: Well, the compensation fund is really part of a holistic law that is supposed to give justice to the victims. Right? So it includes these elements, but also something that's very important for the victims, which is the right to have their cases investigated for the first time. We don't yet know how effective the government will be at addressing these cases, at awarding compensation; because, really, what this law is, is it's a pledge. It's a pledge to do all of these things.

And the next step is the government has to say how it's actually going to do it and what will be the consequences for authorities that are told to do this and don't do it. So, in essence, we have to wait and see if it's going to be effective at doing all these things that are promises. But so far, what's on paper, is pretty solid.

MARTIN: Well, you know - but to that point, though, there have been reports that some of these laws are already on the books and they haven't been enforced. Is that true in your view? And this is being said even by some activists who do believe that this additional law is necessary, but is that true?

STEINBERG: It's absolutely true. You know, one of the chief catalysts of this law is a poet, actually, named Javier Sicilia, who himself was a victim because his son was kidnapped and murdered. And it was actually Sicilia's manifesto. It's really a piece that he published that hit a nerve across Mexico, that shamed both the cartels, but also the government for having victimized thousands of people. And, really, something that Sicilia said when this law has been signed - and I think this is how many of us feel that have been working on documenting the horrific violence in Mexico over recent years - is this is a law that shouldn't be necessary. We wish that it weren't necessary because the right, for example, if you're a victim, to have your case investigated, is all over the books in Mexico, as is the right to have psychological treatment and compensation if you're the victim of violence from state security forces.

So it does, in essence, repeat many laws that are already on the books and the real - that's why I said the real challenge with this is to prevent this law from being what's called in Mexico, letra muerta , which is dead letters.

MARTIN: But, to that point, I actually have a clip from Javier Sicilia who, as you said, lost his son in 2011. We spoke to him around the time he led the silent march to Mexico City, and this is a short clip from him on that march.

JAVIER SICILIA: (Through Translator) The pain of losing my child - it touched a lot of people, a lot of citizens, and they found, in my pain, a way to express themselves. So we're walking to justly declare that things are not being done correctly in this country.

MARTIN: What role do you think - or how significant do you think the role of activists like Javier Sicilia was in getting this passed?

STEINBERG: Absolutely critical. I mean, it's impossible to imagine this law making it - even being produced without thousands of families across Mexico who are the victims of violence and the family members of victims of violence coming forward and demanding that the government actually do something.

There are big numbers that we have coming out of Mexico of, you know, 60,000 people being killed over the last six years in drug-related violence, 25,000 people going missing during the same period. The experience for people who were the victims of violence, either by soldiers and police or by the cartels, was pretty much uniform, which is that you went to authorities to ask for help. You went to the police station, you went to a prosecutor's office and the response, pretty much uniformly across the board was, you know, if something bad happened to your son, your brother, your husband, your child, it's because they were involved in something bad. And, for that reason, we're not going to get involved. Or the forces that you're dealing with are so powerful here, I'm not touching this investigation.

And so there is a reservoir of unaddressed abuses that this new president inherited and that the families actually demanded be addressed and I think that without families coming forward at serious risk to themselves, it's impossible to imagine this law ever having been passed.

MARTIN: Well, now that it's been passed, what needs to happen for it to actually be effective? I mean, what should people who are looking to assess the seriousness of this as a new attitude on the part of this new administration - what markers should they be looking for in the weeks and months ahead to see whether they're really serious about taking a new attitude toward these kinds of human rights abuses?

STEINBERG: The families are ready to test it. Right? So I think the proof of whether this law is effective or not is going to be in terms of investigations. Mexico has a 98 percent impunity rate. Only two percent of those actually ended in effective investigation and a prosecution.

You know, when families now come back to this new government and they give them a second chance and they say, here's the case of my brother, who was tortured. How does the government do at fulfilling all these benchmarks? Do they actually do a solid investigation? And it's not rocket science. You know, things that the government hasn't done up 'til now - you know, Michel, if you went in and reported a crime, they wouldn't even bother to fill out a form, or to interview any of the eye witnesses or to go to the crime scene. And so those are things that, very quickly, we'll be able to measure.

MARTIN: Nik Steinberg is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. He focuses on Mexico and he was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York City.

Nik Steinberg, thanks so much for joining us.

STEINBERG: Thank you, Michel.

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