On April 8, 2020, in the midst of Mexico’s COVID19 lockdown, Adán Vez Lira, an environmental activist, was murdered. Adán and his community opposed the development of mining projects in the municipality of Actopan, as they worried these would pollute the lagoons and swamps nearby. These diverse ecosystems are home to over 300 species and are regarded as sacred by the local community.
Adán, 54, had spent over 30 years on his environmental defence efforts and had led multiple projects to promote eco-friendly tourism in the municipality. His killing is a cold reminder that the ongoing health crisis has not diminished the risks faced by human rights defenders.
Adan’s case is one in dozens of human rights defenders who have been murdered in recent years in the country. Latin America is particularly dangerous for the defence of human rights. Mexico is no exception. Human rights defenders, including those protecting the environment, advocating for migrant and refugee communities, and involved in the search for missing persons, face numerous risks. In 2019, local NGOs recorded the killing of at least 21 defenders. Dozens more were subject to intimidation, legal harassment, arbitrary detention, defamation campaigns, digital attacks and physical aggression.
Mexican authorities have not only failed to protect human rights defenders but have systematically criminalized and targeted defenders.
Mexican authorities have not only failed to protect human rights defenders but have systematically criminalized and targeted defenders. Some of these attacks were directly committed by state authorities, while others in collusion with organized crime.
In at least 6 out of the 21 cases of murdered defenders, municipal authorities were the intellectual or material perpetrators of the crime. That same year, state officials were responsible for 40% of the attacks registered against environmental defenders, as reported by the Mexican Center for Environmental Law.
COVID-19 brings in new challenges for defenders
While the defence of human rights already took place in precarious conditions in Mexico, the COVID pandemic has introduced new challenges for defenders. Codigo DH –an NGO that accompanies land defenders in the state of Oaxaca– was forced to cancel capacity-building workshops, visits to communities, and advocacy events. Aware of the limited capacity of the health system in Mexico, particularly in marginalized states like Oaxaca, the organization decided to halt its activities as a means to protect the communities it works with.
One of those events was the launching of a report on the lack of access to water in the indigenous community of Ayutla. The urgency of this report takes on a new level in the context of the pandemic, considering the importance of sanitation to contain the spread of the disease. Meanwhile, in northern Mexico, Casa del Migrante Saltillo, a shelter proving legal and humanitarian support to undocumented migrants, suspended the intake of new individuals due to the fear of an outbreak.
The pandemic has also limited access to vital equipment for defenders. For the families of the missing, the global shortage of face masks and gloves has had a particularly grim impact. For years now, many of these families have been involved in civil society-led body exhumations in some of the thousands of mass graves across the country. For obvious sanitary reasons, this type of forensic activity requires the use of protection equipment, including face masks and gloves. It is now unclear how and when will the families resume these activities, considering the shortages and the lockdowns.
The pandemic could therefore contribute to the overall climate of impunity in the country, in which already 90% of reported crimes go unsolved.
Besides the impact to their own activities, the pandemic has also complicated the relationship of defenders with Mexican authorities. Even though access to justice is an ongoing challenge in Mexico, defenders fear that the closing of some state and federal agencies as part of the lockdown will delay judicial proceedings and undermine other judicial and protection measures.
The pandemic could therefore contribute to the overall climate of impunity in the country, in which already 90% of reported crimes go unsolved. As documented by WOLA and PBI, it is precisely such a climate that enables the systematic attacks against defenders.
As COVID 19 overwhelms the news cycle, the coverage on the situation of human rights defenders, which was already weak, has been completely overshadowed. For defenders, raising awareness of the risks they face through press coverage is key, as it can help enhance the accountability of state institutions by exerting pressure. To that end, a loss in visibility not only undermines the success of their campaigns but can exacerbate violence against them. The fewer eyes are watching, the more vulnerable defenders become.
Lastly, another major concern among local defenders is the future of funding. Many local human rights organizations worry that they will lose access to financial resources as a result of the pandemic. In particular, many fear that Western countries will need to withhold funding for foreign human rights initiatives to support their own domestic measures in the aftermath of the health crisis. Some also fear that donors will shift away from funding human rights defence projects in favour of humanitarian initiatives.
Defenders at the forefront of the COVID19 response
Human rights defenders are taking action to fill in the gaps in the state’s response to the crisis. This is not the first time that defenders have led the response to an emergency situation and organized their communities to take upon state duties. Many community networks that emerged in the aftermath of Mexico’ 2017 earthquake have been reactivated to deal with the current sanitary crisis.
This is the case of Mujeres Indígenas en Defensa de la Vida, a women-led land defense collective in Union Hidalgo, Oaxaca. In the aftermath of the earthquake, they opened a community kitchen for people who have lost their homes. These days, they are running workshops to teach communities across rural Oaxaca how to produce their own hand sanitizer.
In San Mateo del Mar, the local organization Monapaküy –which also emerged in the aftermath of the 2017 earthquake– recorded audio messages in Huave, the local indigenous language. These audios explained prevention measures and provided guidance to people with COVID 19 symptoms.
In a country with over 60,000 missing persons, the State has a heightened duty to properly identify corps, as these might belong to a missing person.
In the neighbouring state of Guerrero, the human rights centre Tlachinollan helped spread audio messages in Nahua, T’un saavi and Me’phaa, the indigenous languages of the region. Through these audios, the centre ensured that the messaging of health recommendations was not overly technical and thus remained accessible to people who cannot read.
Another inspiring response has been that of the organized families of missing persons. On April 6, a group of nine family-led organizations issued a press release, calling on state authorities to not suspend the search for missing persons during the lockdown period. The delivery of justice, they stressed, is an essential activity.
The press release goes on to list a number of recommendations on activities that state officials can undertake from home while pursuing the search for missing. Among others, these include the standardization of databases on missing persons across different Mexican states and the development of new technologies, like the use of drones, to locate mass graves remotely.
In the absence of an efficient state response, the families of the missing have acquired profound expertise on searching methodologies. In light of this expertise, families have also urged state authorities not to cremate unidentified bodies who had suspectedly died of COVID 19.
In a country with over 60,000 missing persons, the State has a heightened duty to properly identify corps, as these might belong to a missing person. Upon this request by the families, the Vice-Secretary of the Ministry of Health announced that the cremation of unidentified bodies would not be mandated by federal authorities.
Even though Casa del Migrante Saltillo is no longer hosting new individuals, it is still distributing food to migrants passing by. The shelter is also offering psychosocial support to the 30 migrants who are quarantined at the facilities. Moreover, in conjunction with UNHCR, 30 shelters across Mexico have installed new water tanks and distributed soap bars to ensure migrants can prevent the spread of the virus.
Migrant and asylum defenders have made calls to action in regard to detention facilities in the context of the pandemic. In a press release issued on April 14, 150 civil society organizations stressed that following health recommendations would be impossible inside packed migration detention centres in Mexico. “This is not only about the health of migrants, but everyone in Mexico”, the press release reads. “The coronavirus knows no borders”.
Defenders across Mexico -–and Latin America – are leading a ground-level response to the health emergency. In support of these community efforts, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called member states to guarantee that human rights defenders can still undertake their defence activities in the context of the pandemic.
Still, the defence of human rights might continue to worsen in the context of government-issued states of emergency. To that end, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasized that declarations of state of emergency should not be used “to silence the work of human rights defenders”. Even though defenders are complementing public efforts to respond to the sanitary crisis, the Mexican State has failed to comply with its protection duties.
Despite the pandemic, 200 people attended the funeral of Adam Vez Lira. This reminds us that human rights defenders in Mexico are simultaneously faced with two emergencies: health and human rights.