Alejandro Cerezo is a Mexican human rights activist who was imprisoned on false charges of terrorism along with two brothers in 2001. He recently toured Europe to explain their case and the general human rights situation in Mexico in the run-up to the presidential elections. He talks about his case, the human rights situation and the prospects of change following the elections in Mexico.
In May this year Mexico’s ambassador to the UN Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico was elected as the first chair of the new UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It was a good day for Mexico, which underwent a transition to democracy in 2000 after seven decades of one-party rule.
That was before the disputed election victory of the National Action Party presidential candidate, Felipe Calderon, and the accusations of fraud brought by Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador that have thrown the country into political crisis.
Alejandro Cerezo, a human rights campaigner who has been touring Europe this summer to highlight the human rights situation in his country, was one of many Mexicans who feared the election could fall victim to fraud.
Cerezo knows something about the limits of Mexican democracy since the election of President Vicente Fox six years ago. On 8th August five years ago, bombs exploded at three branches of the Banamex bank in Mexico City. A few days later on 13 August 2001, three of the Cerezo brothers were arrested at their home - not before they had been tortured by the police for several hours - and taken to jail.
The timing of the arrests was unfortunate. A few weeks later hijacked planes hit New York and Washington and the war on terror began. For decades Mexico has been fighting its own internal war on terror - in reality a repressive campaign against left-wing, indigenous and working-class protest movements. As in other parts of the world, 9/11 was a convenient cover for intensifying repression against democratic and social activists. Alejandro, his brothers Hector and Antonio and co-defendents Pablo Alvarado Flores and Serfio Galicia Max were made examples of. They were, in effect, the first prisoners of conscience of the Fox era and have always proclaimed their innocence.
The Cerezo brothers were politically active students at the UNAM university in Mexico City. Alejandro’s brother Francisco Cerezo explains: “A very important movement of students was just taking place. The profile [of the movement] was big enough for the authorities to want to set an example, to have its publicity coup against people with this profile. As a result of the arrests activists at the university withdrew. The activists said ‘What’s happening? We can all get caught.”
The authorities already knew the brothers’ parents as former leading members of the EPR guerrilla movement of the 1970s. The arrests and conviction of the Cerezos and their co-defendents on terrorism charges sent a clear message to students involved in issues of social justice. No-one was safe.
The judge presiding in the case exonerated the students for bombing the banks because of lack of evidence. However the discovery of ‘subversive’ books in the house containing material on various guerrilla organisations was, according to the judge, proof of ‘ideological links to criminal organisations’. The brothers’ legal team described the judgement and subsequent sentences - 13 years each in a high security prison - as ‘legal terrorism’. The sentences were later reduced to six and a half years each on appeal.
Defending them initially was a prominent Mexican human rights lawyer, Digna Ochoa y Plácido. On 19th October 2001 she was shot dead, following a previous kidnapping and murder attempt against her, less than 2 weeks before the brothers first hearing in court.
Alejandro, who was released from jail in March 2005, explains: “After the killing of our lawyer my other brother Francisco and sister Emiliana, with friends of the brothers in jail, formed a human rights organisation in order to defend us. The Government began to threaten them, making death threats, unmarked police cars followed them, putting them under surveillance and harassment.”
The siblings then asked for support Peace Brigades International, the human rights organisation that sends defenders to accompany at risk people in zones of conflict. The brothers’ lawyers brought their final appeal last year against the convictions, leading to the release of Alejandro.
In the intervening years the Cerezo Committee’s work expanded beyond the brothers’ case to many other political prisoners. Alejandro explains: “We have already documented 500 cases of political prisoners in Mexico, prisoners of conscience and people wrongly arrested. Some were tortured. We try to bring all these documents to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.” Most of the prisoners are from the three states of Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca. It is at the state level that much of the human rights abuses occur, according to Amnesty International. Growing social and labour unrest in the country has been met with intensified state repression, with mass arrests, shootings and rapes among the violations reported in various incidents.
Cerezo gives one example. “There is now a very strong movement of teachers in Oaxaco. 60,000 of them took over the centre of the city until on 14 June the police entered the town and attacked them. They hurt 92 people and made a pregnant woman abort because of tear gas.” In another case that caused uproar in early May, 200 people were arrested at a protest by flower vendors and peasants in San Salvador Atenco, near Mexico City, and three women were raped while in custody.
The Cerezo Committee has asked that Mexico’s presidency of the Human Rights Council be removed in protest at the violations and imprisonments. “The Government of Vicente Fox removed labour rights, cultural rights, land rights, so people began to organise over the last 5 years. Since the beginning Fox was very repressive,” says Alejandro. The elections of 2 July and the subsequent declaration of the government’s candidate as victor with a disputed 0.5% margin of the vote have thrown the future of Mexican democracy into question. Lopez Obrador and his millions of supporters have taken to the streets to protest what they believe is a premeditated fraud to deprive the PRD candidate of the presidency.
Asked about the prospects and risks following the election, Cerezo said: “We think the Right does not want to lose power and that is why they are so aggressive toward the social movements. They want to build some panic and terror in the country in order that the social movements don’t do anything out of fear. “The next five months between 2 July and the beginning of the new administration on 1 December is a dangerous period for the social movements. In those months they will do anything the can to stay in power. They believe they have impunity.” Cerezo is not uncritical of Lopez Obrador, who was mayor during the campaign for the brothers’ release and the murder of their lawyer. He thinks Lopez Obrador could have done more. “Obrador brought in [former New York mayor Rudolf] Giuliani to introduce zero tolerance into Mexico City. He made a law to prohibit football in the streets. Before there were 8,000 prisoners in Mexico City, now there are 38,000, mostly 18 to 26, arrested on minor charges mostly for theft of wallets or food, but the sentences were harsh. There is no programme of social redemption in jail so when they are released they become the assassins of drug dealers.
But he balances this by saying that Obrador did do some good while mayor. “He helped single mothers, the elderly, and created social programmes, health and cultural programmes.” After two months touring Europe, Cerezo has returned home to continue the struggle to free his brothers from prison. Of his own time there he says: “I had to grow up very fast. It made me decide that what I experienced I don’t want other people to experience. So I want to fight so the government respects human rights. I wasn’t a human rights defender. I was just a normal student studying economy in university. Now I think we have so much to do to win respect for human rights.”
And if Obrador eventually becomes president? Cerezo is guardedly optimistic. “If he has the strength and the will, he could change things.”