The people's permanent tribunal in Mexico: taking on structural violence

While more than 300 civil society groups presented evidence of structural violence against labour rights and education, the tragic events in Ayotzinapa were unfolding almost simultaneously. From States of Impunity.

Tatiana Coll
12 May 2015
no more violence mexico_9.jpg

Signs at a march in San Luis Potosí. Marcos Guevara/Flickr. Some rights reserved. 

The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT), founded in 1979 and now operating under the auspices of the Lelio and Lisli Basso Foundation, is the successor to the first such tribunal created by the philosopher Bertrand Russell to judge crimes committed by the US government during the Vietnam war, and the subsequent tribunal organized with the writer Julio Cortázar to adjudicate Argentina’s military dictatorship, state crimes and crimes against humanity. Recently, a chapter of the PPT was convened in Mexico under the title "Free Trade, Violence, Impunity, and the Rights of the People in Mexico", which held 10 different hearings from 2011 to 2014 before a panel of selected national and international judges.

The trial began in May 2012 in Ciudad Juárez, a city emblematic of femicide, with an indictment on behalf of civil society that centered on complaints of the “looting and plundering of Mexico”. More than 300 different organizations and groups representing social movements presented their allegations, the sheer breadth of which clearly demonstrates the total impunity that reigns in the face of systematic and serious rights violations.

One of the salient points of the tribunal’s judgment is that:

Information presented to the PPT concerns a wide range of situations that confirm significant variation in the repressive economic, social and political strategies operating in the country and, in particular, towards indigenous peoples. What is striking to the PPT is the growing perception that there exists a detailed plan, the main objective of which is the violent imposition of a governing rationale in which the rights of persons, both individuals and groups, are ‘dependent variables’ and therefore absolutely expendable and marginal in contrast to the inviolate priorities of national and international economic interests.

Furthermore, the PPT points out that, “it is clear the Mexican state maintains a dissociated policy in which its subscribes to all international treaties and obligations only to later renege on them.”

Fighting structural violence 

The education hearings took place in Mexico City between 3 and 5 October in the Mexican Press Club; ironically no journalists were present. During the three days, many accusations were made by educational stakeholders–teachers, students and parents–who testified that since the 1990s, the country’s educational system has suffered serious and continuous deterioration. Not surprisingly, one of the cases presented was that of the students of the Escuela Normal Rural (teacher training college) in Ayotzinapa, the tragic facts of which were unfolding almost simultaneously. In its final document, the PPT classifies these events as a “Violation of the Right to Life”. It describes how:

The students of the Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, denounced the systematic persecution, harassment and defamation to which they were subjected by different government entities and which, in the last two years, has taken their toll: two murders on the Autopista del sol highway in 2011 and six murders and two serious injuries on September 26 in the city of Iguala, the result of successive attacks, two of which took place in front of the press. Of those killed, three were students and three were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time; one of them was shot while he travelled on a bus with fellow soccer players. Moreover, to date there are 19 injured and 43 missing persons, students detained while alive and loaded into official patrol vehicles by the municipal police only to later disappear. Nobody from any level of state government provided explanations or conclusions, nor ascribed responsibility. Iguala’s mayor and its municipal police chief were even able to flee without any precautionary measures taken to prevent them. One of the murdered students, Julio César Mondragón, was brutally tortured, his face shredded, before being executed.

The judgment and sentence passed on 5 October is explicit:

The State of Mexico and its different levels of government, its institutions, and its legal authorities are guilty of crimes against humanity perpetrated against the student community of the Escuela Normal Rural de Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero. The crimes include homicide, execution, forced disappearance, torture, and illegal arrest to the detriment of the students of said educational centre as well as political persecution that the Mexican State consistently visits upon rural students and teacher training institutions.

As a result, the PPT made a clear recommendation to the Mexican state:

That it end all forms of violence and repression against students and teachers, in particular the policy of abolishing rural teacher training, that it investigate and immediately punish those responsible for the systematic persecution, repression and criminalization practiced by different police and security forces, as well as governmental institutions—municipal and state—to ensure the respect of the victim and their family’s right to truth, justice and reparation. To that end, it should provide an immediate response to the recent events mentioned herein.

The students of Ayotzinapa and the teacher training colleges of Michoacán also denounced a constant campaign by television stations to denigrate and criminalize the students and their schools, in particular Televisa, Milenio and TV Azteca. This has fostered a widespread lynch-mob mentality that enables state and police entities as well as educational ones to practice repression and aggression with impunity, branding the student teachers “vandals with dubious motives” for attempting to defend their curriculum, rural communities, and public education.

The PPT enjoys an international reputation established over the course of many years, and it will deliver its verdict in these forums. But it is up to us to continue denouncing infamous acts, such as when the state turns students who are raising money and passing out flyers into terrorists in order to illegally detain, torture and murder them–or worse still, apparently delivering them to narco hitmen for execution. If that is the prevailing logic, it means the government and criminals have merged and now have common political interests. This is, a state crime that exposes the criminal collusion permeating most government institutions, be it the courts, the justice system, public security, the administration or the legislature. It is up to us to peremptorily demand justice, and that the students’ fate be made known.

A deteriorating education system

Under the heading “Violence Against Labour Rights,” the PPT confirmed, in the first instance, that both the educational reform bill passed in 2013 and the law governing professional educators flagrantly contradict Mexico’s current Federal Labour Act, the panel having determined that the teachers face a potential loss of tenure because it is has been made contingent upon the results of standardized testing administered every four years. This situation has created a workers’ state of emergency specifically for teaching professionals, who risk losing their hard-won employment rights.

Second, accusations and testimony were provided along with supporting documents for 45 teachers fired in the state of Puebla for having refused to conduct the standardized ENLACE test (a national assessment of academic achievement in certain core subjects). The teachers complained that teaching was too focused on test results and that the entire process was vulnerable to corruption. Two teachers were fired in Quintana Roo, one in Yucatán and the other in Chiapas; the latter was also kidnapped and beaten. These complaints point to incidents in which state governments made false accusations, including homicide, in order to imprison teachers in the states of Oaxaca and Mexico.

The heading “Structural Violence Against Equity, Diversity and Disability” covers complaints about rural teacher training in general and, more specifically, the closing down of educational institutions in Cherán, Tiripetío and Arteaga. Here the emphasis is on the fact that of some 40 teachers’ colleges that existed in 1968, only 17 remain operational and face sustained pressure to cut budgets and limit enrolment. The colleges in Michoacán, like those of Chiapas, Hidalgo and the state of Mexico, have been raided by several police forces. In 2013 their students were beaten, harassed, and had their belongings confiscated. 157 of them have cases pending against them for “theft and sedition”.

Complaints were also lodged about changes to the curriculum that dismantled intercultural training initiatives, going so far as to eliminate indigenous language teaching in favour of information and communications technology and English, a blatant disavowal of Mexico’s multicultural reality. The grassroots organization representing teachers in Veracruz focused on the accelerating destruction of indigenous education, a trend that reproduces existing structural biases and inequality, which lowers literacy rates and rates of advancement in multi-grade classrooms. Special-education teachers complained of the decreasing number of special-education schools, implying the ignorance of and disdain for children who suffer from significant disabilities and developmental disorders.

Finally the PPT catalogued evidence of "Structural Violence Against Secondary and Higher Education” collected from students and teachers who detailed the classification and selection mechanisms created by public institutions through the use of standardized multiple-choice exams, which establish a ranking system that feeds certain students into predetermined options while excluding others. The net result is that young people are increasingly directed towards private school education that is more expensive and often of inferior quality. A series of reforms in higher education was also mentioned by which the autonomy of universities is jeopardized because of an external evaluation system that binds and determines funding for academic research and teaching projects.

The panel of judges reviewing education laid the continued deterioration of the educational system squarely at the feet of the Mexican government. The PPT concluded that the government created the constitutional conditions that enabled this process to flourish through carefully crafted legislation, passed and implemented at all levels, the consequences of which are growing inequality, violation of all kinds of rights, and the commercialization and privatization of education. 

Translated by Victoria E. Robertson 


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