Impunity Breeds Distrust – Religious Leaders as Human Rights Defenders in Mexico

Who do you trust to look after your community? According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, 71% of Mexican citizens would rather put their trust in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) than the government, which has the confidence of a mere 24% of the population.

These stark statistics beg the question: what could be driving such levels of distrust in the Mexican government?

Currently, Mexico is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a Catholic priest. Other religious leaders are also increasingly targeted; between November 2013 and April 2018, 30 religious leaders were killed. In April 2018 alone, three religious leaders were killed. Moreover, Mexico is the second most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist.

Religious leaders often take on the role of human rights defenders (HRDs), engaging with various human rights initiatives in order to bring the issues of their respective communities to the attention of those who can provide legal, practical or advocacy assistance. As such, these religious leaders often fulfil the role of community leaders as well as HRDs. It’s dangerous work. In 2017, 32 HRDs were killed according to a report by Front Line Defenders.

Violence and Impunity in Mexico

Human rights defenders in Mexico are subject to threats, physical violence, kidnapping and enforced disappearances, as well as murder. This is often as a result of organised crime and gang violence. Many of these groups view church leaders, both Catholic and Protestant, and their influence, as a threat to their power – particularly if they speak out against trafficking and other illegal activity, or discourage young people from joining criminal groups.

Whilst these groups are the main perpetrators of violations against HRDs, the government is complicit. The Mexican government continues to take inadequate action to ensure that perpetrators of crimes against HRDs are brought to justice, while the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) remains poorly understood and insufficiently upheld. Government narrative is often confusing and contradictory. Cases risk being dismissed in some incidences where violations are thought to be the result of religious leaders being linked to organised crime. This, along with a lack of full and thorough investigations, has allowed a culture of impunity to develop in states such as Guerrero, Tamaulipas, Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Mexico, Veracruz, and Chihuahua.

The government will have to regain the trust of the Mexican population ahead of July’s elections

Local, municipal and state governments in Mexico have a responsibility to address human rights violations and to provide protections for HRDs, including religious leaders. However, impunity and the lack of protection given to HRDs, including religious leaders, has caused citizens to increasingly distrust the government; often these governments appear unable or unwilling to protect citizens and to address violations.

If a high percentage of Mexicans have trust in NGOs and other civil society activists, and if presidential candidates want to regain the trust of the Mexican population ahead of July’s elections, surely it is high time the government addresses impunity and defends the defenders, in whom the people place their trust.

By CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer