Mexico is criminalizing land, territory and environmental defenders

The disproportionate use of criminal law is one of the main threats facing the right to protest peacefully in defense of land, territory and environment in Mexico, Amnesty International said today upon publishing a new report. Mexico: Land and Freedom? Criminalizing defenders of land, territory and environment documents the disproportionate use of the justice system to deter, punish and prevent defenders from protesting in demand of their rights.

“The disproportionate use of the criminal justice system against protesters forms part of a broader strategy of disincentivizing and dismantling advocacy for land, territorial and environmental rights. It is alarming to see that Mexico ranks among the countries with the highest number of murders of environmental defenders and yet, far from the State addressing and preventing this violence, other serious human rights violations are also being committed such as stigmatization, harassment, attacks, assaults, forced displacement and disappearances,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

This report focuses on four cases: (i) Colonia Maya in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, where a diverse group of people came together to protest against the construction of residential housing in a protected area where it would cause environmental damage; (ii) Zacatepec, where Miguel and Alejandro, Nahua communicators and defenders, opposed the construction of a drain in Ciudad Industrial Huejotzingo, Puebla, that would flow into the Metlapanapa River, polluting it; iii) Chilón, Chiapas, where César and José Luis, Tseltal defenders, were criminalized for opposing the construction of a National Guard barracks in their territory; iv) Sitilpech, Yucatán, where residents such as Jesús Ariel, Arturo and Juan Diego are opposing the activities of a mega pig farm in their territory because of the pollution, water contamination and health problems it is causing.

The disproportionate use of the criminal justice system against protesters forms part of a broader strategy of disincentivizing and dismantling advocacy for land, territorial and environmental rights.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

The right to protest is a fundamental recourse that land, territory and environmental defenders have used to demand their rights, particularly when other institutional mechanisms have failed or have not been accessible to them. Various state authorities have used criminal proceedings against them, ignoring principles of legality, necessity and proportionality. They have also failed to consider the context of the protests, their root causes, and the people’s right to defend their land, territory and the environment.

Criminal prosecution and stigmatization

Our report highlights the use of vague or ambiguous offences that ignore the principle of legality, such as “rioting”, “obstruction of public works” and variations on the offence of “attacks on roadways”. It was also noted that events occurring during protests have been conveniently adapted to fit other crimes through broad interpretations of criminal offences and statements that misrepresent the facts. The accusations are largely fabricated on the basis of statements made by public servants and company workers directly related to the events being denounced by the communities. There is no hard evidence in any of the criminal files that would enable any crime to be established.

Amnesty International observed some alarming similarities in these cases. The complaints filed are overwhelmingly directed at people who are considered leaders, or those who are most visible in the protest movements, and they are being prosecuted for vague offences, without hard evidence and solely on the basis of their peaceful actions. The proceedings often drag on for various reasons, and there is a constant worry that cases could be revived or new crimes fabricated.

“Criminal proceedings against defenders are intended as a deterrent to others advocating for the same causes as it leads them to fear that their legitimate demands may end in stigmatization, repression or threats to their lives and safety. While we’ve observed the hope and dignity of some who are being unjustly criminalized when they enjoy the support of their communities, we’ve also seen others who have decided to abandon the struggle to demand their rights,” said Edith Olivares Ferreto, executive director of Amnesty International Mexico.

Differential impacts of state pressure

These processes are often accompanied by a stigmatization of defenders and serious problems for their security and physical and mental health. This situation also affects their legal representatives and people who support them on an ongoing basis. The use of the criminal justice system against those who dissent or speak out in relation to local government projects and corporate interests takes place without consequence and with complete impunity. Other violations that occur in the context of protests have also not been investigated, such as violations of the right to liberty and security of defenders, as well as the excessive use of force.

The unjust criminalization of defenders who protest peacefully has both individual and collective impacts. Some of the most common effects on an individual level are physical, psychological and economic, such as illness, physical pain as a result of blows received, fear, anxiety, sleeping difficulties, stress, impotence, feelings of injustice at what has happened to them, and effects on their work defending their rights. Collective impacts include the intimidation or repression of demands for rights to land, territory and the environment among people advocating for the same causes.

The unjust criminalization of human rights defenders draws attention away from the root causes and challenges facing land, territory and environmental defenders. The right to protest must be handled in such a way that recognizes that punishing those involved in social conflicts generally only exacerbates the problem rather than resolving the substance of the issue. Defenders’ demands must be properly heard and analysed and their right to protest guaranteed.

While we’ve observed the hope and dignity of some who are being unjustly criminalized when they enjoy the support of their communities, we’ve also seen others who have decided to abandon the struggle to demand their rights.

Edith Olivares Ferreto, executive director of Amnesty International Mexico

Amnesty International’s report offers a number of general recommendations for addressing the disproportionate use of the criminal justice system against protesters, in addition to other recommendations specific to the cases documented in the report. Among the former, the authorities must recognize the valuable work done by land, territory and environmental defenders; refrain from stigmatizing them; guarantee their participation in issues affecting their communities; strengthen the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists; and refrain from using militarized security forces, such as the National Guard, to monitor protests.

Among its specific recommendations, Amnesty International calls on the state to immediately cease the criminalization of protest and to properly investigate the human rights violations in the cases documented in the report in order to ensure that the defenders receive full reparations.

The report accompanies the launch of the campaign #ProtestarNoEsUnCrimen, which seeks to raise awareness of the problem of the unjust criminalization of human rights defenders and its impact on the defence of land, territory and the environment.

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