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Attacks on rights defenders underscore need for federal protection system, says Human Rights Watch

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Washington, DC, February 23, 2011 - Federal and state authorities should conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into a series of attacks on human rights defenders and their families in the state of Chihuahua, Human Rights Watch said today. The attacks point out the need for a federal system to protect human rights defenders and the importance of incorporating nongovernmental organizations in designing the program, Human Rights Watch said.

In the most recent attacks, on February 15 and 16, 2011, the homes of human rights defenders María Luisa García Andrade and Sara Salazar, both of whom worked with the organization Return our Daughters (Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa), were set on fire in separate incidents.

"Human rights defenders in Chihuahua take on huge risks for themselves and their families by documenting grave abuses," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "How many more must be threatened, abducted, or killed before the government takes the steps necessary to keep them safe?"

The house burnings are the latest in a wave of recent attacks and threats against human rights defenders. Two of Salazar's children, Elias and Magdalena Reyes Salazar, as well as Elias's wife, Luisa Ornelas, were abducted on February 7, and their whereabouts remain unknown. On the day that García's house was set on fire, she was accompanying members of the Salazar family as they staged a hunger strike to demand justice in the killings and kidnappings suffered by their family. Salazar's daughter, Josefina Reyes Salazar, also a human rights defender, was killed in January 2010. García's sister, Lilia Alejandra, was raped and murdered in February 2001.

On January 6, a rights defender and poet, Susan Chavez, was brutally murdered in Ciudad Juarez. On December 16, 2010, another human rights defender, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, was shot to death in front of the state house in Chihuahua City, where she was holding daily protests to demand justice in the case of her daughter, Rubí Marisol Frayre, who was killed in September 2008. Investigations by authorities into these attacks on human rights defenders have consistently failed to lead to the identification and prosecution of those responsible.

García, Salazar, and other staff of the organization Return our Daughters, together with members of the Women's Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Mujer), another human rights organization in Chihuahua, were granted protection measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in June 2008. Return our Daughters was founded in 2001 by the friends and families of women who had been killed or disappeared in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, and aims to "pressure the different levels of government to assume responsibility for this grave and painful problem." The mission of the Women's Human Rights Center, founded in 2005, is to promote women's right to live without violence and advance justice for the women of Chihuahua.

Despite the measures granted by the Commission, members of both groups told Human Rights Watch that federal and state authorities had failed to take adequate steps to provide protection. For example, the Women's Human Rights Center said that repeated requests to reinforce their office windows with bars and install security cameras had not been granted by authorities, and so they paid for the security measures on their own. They said that an emergency telephone number provided by the state government has been out of order since July 2010, when the new governor, César Horacio Duarte Jáquez, began his term.

Other human rights defenders in Chihuahua told Human Rights Watch that, although they have made numerous reports to authorities of receiving threats, the government has not provided increased protection. In late 2009, for example, someone broke into García's home and left a note saying that if she did not abandon her human rights work, she would be executed. While state police accompany Garcia as bodyguards, as a result of these and other death threats, she has repeatedly asked authorities to extend protection to her two children and to install security cameras outside her home.

Lawyers at her organization told Human Rights Watch that they had submitted more than a dozen requests to the Special Prosecutor for Crimes of Violence against Women and Human Trafficking (Fiscalia Especial para los Delitos de Violencia contra las Mujeres y Trata de Personas) and the state prosecutors' office, but that the requests were never acted on until the most recent attack, when her home was set on fire.

In the wake of the December killing of Escobedo Ortiz, the Inter-American Commission again urged Mexico to "take any necessary legal, administrative, or other measures to ensure that events such as this murder do not happen again, in fulfillment of its obligations to prevent and guarantee the basic rights recognized by the American Convention on Human Rights. This includes the need to implement a comprehensive and coordinated policy, backed by adequate resources, to guarantee that cases of violence against women are properly prevented, investigated, and punished, and its victims redressed."

Several human rights defenders in Chihuahua told Human Rights Watch that the killings and other attacks on human rights defenders have generated considerable fear among their peers, and led some members of their organizations to take a lower profile in public activities such as protests demanding an end to impunity in women's murders.

"We realize that we have to be careful – that our work generates risks," a defender from the organization Justice for Our Daughters (Justicia para nuestras hijas), told Human Rights Watch. The group is made up of the family members of women who have been killed or disappeared in Chihuahua.

In the wake of the attack on her home, García decided to flee Chihuahua with her family. Announcing her departure, García wrote, "The terror and the fear that invaded my heart upon seeing death from up close for the first time not only makes me worry for my own life, but I'm also terrified by the idea that something could happen to my children."

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented the failure of authorities to protect human rights defenders at risk, such as in a May 2010 letter to Mexico's home minister highlighting the plight of human rights defenders who had to flee Tijuana because of inadequate safety measures. Like many of the human rights defenders in Chihuahua, they too had been granted protection measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights but had received little protection. In light of this systematic problem, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the federal government to develop an effective protection mechanism for human rights defenders, urging President Felipe Calderon in a September 2010 letter to make developing such a protection system a priority.

"For a human rights mechanism to be effective, it needs to include preventive, protective, and investigative functions, have a federal mandate, and sufficient resources and independence," Vivanco said. "And if the government wants to design a system that works, human rights organizations need to be fully incorporated into designing, implementing, and monitoring it."

A group of Mexican human rights organizations drafted a model for a mechanism that meets these requirements and presented it to authorities in October. While the Calderon administration maintains that it is working on a plan for the system, it has yet to produce one, nor has it adequately incorporated civil society organizations into the consultation and design process, Human Rights Watch said.

"The attacks on human rights defenders in Chihuahua underscore the urgent need for the Calderon government to work with civil society in creating a system that will protect human rights defenders and their families," Vivanco said.

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