Ana Piquer, human rights activist: ‘The militarization promoted by the Mexican government has not improved security’ | International

Ana Piquer, a Chilean human rights activist, is Amnesty International’s new regional director in the Americas. She takes over in a turbulent time. Her organization faces difficult challenges in defending human rights as governments increasingly deploy military and heavy-handed policies to ensure public safety. Dissident voices are being persecuted and violence is hitting activists, journalists, women and political candidates particularly hard, especially in Mexico as the bloody 2024 election cycle unfolds.

Piquer, 49, criticizes the commitment of the armed forces in ensuring public safety, along with the measures taken by El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele. However, this direction has aroused much enthusiasm among many Latin American politicians. “If Bukele is the model to follow, we are all in serious trouble,” she warns.

In her interview with EL PAÍS, the Chilean activist – who took over the regional directorship in April – analyzes the challenges the continent faces when it comes to defending human rights.

Ask. You have taken over the leadership of Amnesty International in America in the midst of a very complicated scenario. Do you see a setback for human rights in the region?

Answer. Unfortunately, yes. We are in a very delicate moment, as certain narratives are gaining momentum – (especially) in areas such as security – that try to justify human rights violations. We are dealing with governments that are increasingly taking measures to silence voices they consider dissident and who disagree with the measures they take. (Individuals and groups) have been silenced in various ways. This involves stigmatization, criminalization, prosecution and supervision.

Q. Is there a particular situation that you are concerned about at the moment?

A. We are on high alert in almost all countries in the region. All social organizations are confronted with very major challenges. In the case of the United States, with the upcoming electoral context; in El Salvador, with all the measures taken by President Bukele’s regime, such as security checks and repressive measures, that have caused so many human rights violations. In the case of Ecuador we see the progressive militarization of society, while in Venezuela we have been denouncing – for years – the continued repression against any dissident voice, which has worsened in recent months in view of future elections. We also have countries with a longer history of repression, such as Nicaragua or Cuba. And then there is Argentina, where the election of President Javier Milei has raised several alarms about what human rights protection entails.

Q. Milei came to power with a political discourse that denied gross human rights violations by the country’s most recent military dictatorship (1976-1983). Are you concerned about the president’s position on this issue?

A. No doubt. The denial of human rights violations puts us at risk of not learning from those lessons. It paves the way for a return to a similar story. Argentina is a country that has gone through a very interesting process in the fight against impunity: it has managed to put senior officers of the armed forces on trial for human rights violations. In this sense, promoting a negationist discourse is very harmful. It is an attempt to reverse an entire history spent fighting impunity.

Q. When we talk about human rights, are the progress Argentina has made now at risk?

A. This discourse allows certain narratives to permeate, which downplay, deny and make disappear the seriousness of what happened. This makes it easier to commit similar acts later, or to take actions that may violate human rights. Historical memory – the memory of human rights violations – will always be fundamental in providing guarantees against recurrence. Trying to erase that memory is a recipe for repeating similar events. This can of course be a very serious setback.

Q. Mexico is a country experiencing a violent situation. There are elections going on; more than thirty candidates have been murdered. How does Amnesty International analyze this election process?

A. It is not the first time that this has happened in an electoral context. There are concerns about the measures being taken to provide solutions to violent situations (and to curb organized crime). (These measures) must be long-term and focus on human rights. It cannot be about violating rights to guarantee security, because without human rights there can be no security.

Q. Has the Mexican state failed to guarantee the safety of those who aspire to elected office?

A. Given the insecurity of this process, it is clear that insufficient measures have been taken, especially at the local level. The government has strongly focused on militarization as a solution to security problems… but events prove that these militarization processes do not provide the expected answer. This is consistent with many Mexican civil society groups questioning militarization as a solution. These groups have warned that (these policies) could lead to more human rights violations, instead of solving the problem of violence. There is still a very wide gap in terms of impunity, protective measures, crime prevention and tackling the root of violence.

Q. What are the risks of giving so much power to the military in a country like Mexico?

A. It is a concern that does not only apply to Mexico. The armed forces are not trained or designed to ensure the safety of civilians: they are prepared for war and have other types of training. Governments must ensure that those carrying out these tasks have received appropriate training and are subject to the same standards of use of force that police or law enforcement officials would be subject to. But normally this doesn’t happen. There is always a greater risk of human rights violations when it is the armed forces that take on a public security role.

Q. Is Mexico an immature democracy because of the level of violence experienced during this electoral process?

A. We do not assess democratic quality; that is not part of our role. But I can say that in the context of the elections – and in Mexico in general – the human rights challenges are enormous. People who raise their voices critical of the government(s) defending human rights are attacked. They are also stigmatized. This has helped narrow the space for debate and increase the risks for those casting their votes.

Q. Violence also affects Colombia. The peace process raised much hope among the population, but threats against activists persist.

A. Colombia has been the country in the world with the most murders of (activists) for years. The government of President Gustavo Petro is – at least in its rhetoric – moving in the right direction. But across the territory we see that the situation has not improved – in some cases it has even worsened. Unfortunately, when it comes to defenders of the land, the environment and indigenous communities, the protective measures needed are not being taken.

Q. What measures should President Petro’s government take to improve the conditions of those defending human rights in Colombia?

A. First, (the policy must) improve people’s protection mechanisms. These mechanisms exist in Colombia and we know of cases of (human rights) defenders whose lives have been saved, but they still show many shortcomings in their implementation. Then there is the issue of the role of prosecutors and ensuring that attacks on (activists) do not go unpunished, because impunity is cruel.

Q. Is the Colombian justice system not fulfilling its role in preventing these crimes from going unpunished?

A. We were very critical of the Public Prosecution Service. Most attacks on activists go uninvestigated, or the trials are fruitless. There is a significant gap in ensuring the resources and capabilities are in place so that investigations can be conducted effectively, that initial on-site procedures are carried out quickly and that efforts to catch those responsible are made more consistently. This impunity is one of the reasons why the attacks continue to occur.

Q. You mentioned the controversial policies that President Nayib Bukele has implemented in El Salvador. How do you assess the current situation in that country?

A. El Salvador is currently experiencing a very serious human rights crisis. Under the premise of addressing the serious security problems the country had – and which needed to be addressed – human rights are being ignored. The population cannot be forced to choose between security and rights. There are currently almost 80,000 people incarcerated in El Salvador. There is a prison overcrowding of almost 150% (and) we have serious complaints of torture and ill-treatment in the prisons. There have already been deaths among those in custody, and we have collected testimonies from families of people who have been wrongfully detained simply because of their appearance, because of where they live, or because they have tattoos. Violating human rights is not a solution to the security situation, because what you are doing is replacing gang violence with state violence.

Q. However, the people of El Salvador support the president’s harsh policies. He is highly rated when it comes to his management of the security situation.

A. The people of El Salvador have experienced a situation of very serious violence. To some extent they see this approach as a way out that had not been presented to them – until now. The problem is that this is a short-term solution that ultimately leads to people being jailed without due process. Many of them are innocent – ​​(there are) tortured people, overcrowded prisons, entire populations afraid of being arrested just for living where they live.

Q. That model seems attractive to other Latin American politicians. Similar measures have been taken by Ecuador’s President Daniel Noboa.

A. This story of a successful ‘Bukele model’ has been created. We have seen similar images of the treatment of prisoners in Honduras and Ecuador. Voices in several countries confirm that this is the way forward. The problem is that part of this model is not only about this supposed heavy hand on crime, but also about co-opting the power of the state, eliminating all the checks and balances that characterize the rule of law and concentration of power in a government. that does not accept criticism. That is what undermines human rights at their very core. If that is the model to follow, we – the entire population – are in serious trouble, as dissident voices are silenced and human rights defenders are attacked. Things can only get worse if we continue on this path.

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