The New General Victims’ Law in Mexico: Stories and Silences


May 11, 2013 03:43 EDT

Mexico’s new General Victims’ Law has been widely acclaimed, but some critics quietly wonder: might criminality itself profit from a society that tends to equate “citizen” and “victim”?

The Emerging Society of Victims

“Draw the scaffolding so that the last step of the ladder comes in clearly. The criminal must be just stepping onto it, his face as white as note-paper. The priest is holding a cross to his blue lips, and the criminal kisses it, and knows and sees and understands everything. The cross and the head — there’s your picture; the priest and the executioner, with his two assistants, and a few heads and eyes below. Those might come in as subordinate accessories, a sort of mist. There`s a picture for you.”

—Fydor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

To the chagrin of the demigods of humanitarian law, Dostoevsky is always showing us that the act of justice makes the world more obscure, rather than (in that all-encompassing term so popular in civil society) making justice more “transparent.” Indeed, for Dostoevsky, reconciliation can prove far more dangerous than revenge. In this scene from The Idiot, that danger is captured by the criminals not only kissing the cross (as is mentioned in the passage above), but by kissing (as is said elsewhere) “greedily,” as though his aim was to devour the cross. Reconciliation is profanation when a corrupt criminal, still hungry for power up until his last breath, manages it. And precisely this danger of “eating” corruption under the pretext of reconciliation is the danger now facing Mexico.

A new law, directed particularly towards victims of the “Calderon War” on drugs that by some estimates has cost 130,000 lives since 2006, is a law that also promises to cover all violations of human rights in Mexico and is on the brink of coming into effect. El Ley General de las Victimas, or the General Law of Victims, was passed late last month by the legislature and signed by President Peña Nieto into law, after a similar law had been vetoed by Calderon in 2011. The law promises new tribunals controlled by human rights and civil society activists that would decide monetary retribution for victims (both ones whose cases are related to the drug war and not), as well as offering psychological services, educational services, and guarantees for the investigation of crimes. The new law even purports to deal with the cases of “potential victims” whose lives are under threat.

In short, Mexico may be on the verge of becoming a society of self-described victims. In Columbia, a more limited victims’ law (on which Mexico’s is partly based) has been wrapped up by some in slogans unabashedly and eagerly promising a society of victims: “One needs to view the victims as the builders of peace and as the builders of society,” declares Camillo Sanchez of Columbia’s Centro de Estudios de Justicia (Center for Legal Studies). Mexico seems to be heeding similar calls from its own activists and legal culture. But what of that worrying scene of Dostoevsky, in which reconciliation threatens, below all the grand rhetoric, to give more power and knowledge still to the criminals?

In the context of Argentina’s struggles with victims’ laws seeking to give overdue justice to victims of that nation’s “dirty war” against its citizens in the 1980s, the threat of aiding corruption has been far more sharply pointed out than is the case in Mexico today. The prominent Argentine victims’ organization, Madres de Plaza de Mayo, has famously refused to “eat corruption.” “Would you be able to bring a morsel to your mouth,” one member of the organization asks, “knowing that you bought it with the money they gave you because they killed your child?…The life of our children has no price.” In the end, the Madres famously rejected financial reconciliation offered by the Argentine government.

In Mexico, on the contrary, it has been victims’ organizations themselves — in particular the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity) — which have spearheaded the law and been generally lauded in domestic and international press for their efforts.

The Society Behind the Civil

The cheers still echoing through civil society circles in Mexico would die down if a very strange fact were confronted. Namely, it is clear that in Mexico, the very complicity of families and local police (as well as some federal politicians) with the cartels is the social condition on which the possibility of this victims’ law rests. The notion that “local justice” (murders and disappearances that spurred the law are often crimes committed among formerly complicit or mutually-known parties) can be achieved by federal and state compensation is more than deceptive, it is calculated. If the society for which civil society tries to speak were truly in simple opposition to the cartels, the call would be for an end to impunity, not for a listing and reimbursement of victims; the legislation would be for citizen-monitoring and participation in investigations, rather than in further rounds of empty guarantees for justice (guarantees now to be sweetened with monetary pay-offs). Instead, citizen paramilitary groups in Oaxaca and Michoacán purporting to protect neighborhoods against criminals and protesters against police have been unsurprisingly condemned by the federal government as illegal nuances.

Calderon’s failed war on drugs was something approaching simple opposition to the cartels. That opposition produced the unmeasured violence that the present victims’ law must try to make sense out of — to make compensation in pesos and centavos (cents) as well. The victims’ law thus builds up a new zone of complicity, in which the power of the cartels is affirmed by the government taking responsibility for crimes attributable to anyone and no one (the cartels, the army, governmental policy, US drug law enforcement, families, and society).

Here, is a threatened repetition in Mexico of the very politics that the Madres de Plaza de Mayo has fought against in Argentina. In Argentina, government payoffs of victims arrived along with pardons of politicians already indicted for war crimes, and the emergence of new laws granting political immunity to soldiers who had been involved in crimes against Argentine citizens. The Madres declared: “We don’t judge our detained-disappeared children, nor do we ask for their freedom. We want to be told where they are, what they are accused of, and ask that they be judged according to legal norms with the legitimate right of defense if they have committed any crimes.”

This is another kind of stark opposition to corruption, distinct from the violent opposition of Calderon’s government; yet in Mexico, Calderon’s failure may have cast too large a shadow for civil society to face this difference. There are few similar calls, for instance, coming from leaders of the current Mexican victims’ movements. And even when Mexican critics speak out, the pressure to comply is evident in their muffled rhetoric.

In a New York Times article not directly concerned with the victims’ law, but concerning the related controversial construction of a victims memorial in Mexico City, we find a brief quote from Viridiana Rios, a Mexican researcher at Harvard University and former adviser to the Mexican Interior Ministry “We are fighting a war against an enemy we don’t know,” says Rios, and “we need to answer to the public. There are claims many of the victims are innocent. I would like to know if that is the case.” This is a coy manner of saying, of course, that it is the case — that many victims are not innocent. The delicacy, bordering on euphemism, with which Rios forwards his criticism suggests how dangerous the national situation has become with the new law.

While Calderon’s rhetoric ushered in a tide of bloodshed, the dawning political “society of victims” in Mexico is making language itself the first victim, plunging the crimes into an emerging bureaucracy. The government is scheduled to heavily pay (up to one million pesos per victim, one version of the law promises) for the right to manage public pressure concerning revelations of how deep the cartels and other sectors of Mexican society, such as local families and local police, are imbricated. As the Madres saw quite clearly in their own case, this amounts to bribery. In the Mexican case, it may more precisely become a legally mandated system of reciprocal blackmailing in which criminal investigations do not improve on the oft-cited track record of Mexican justice that  currently sentences culprits in 4 percent of reported murders.

The absurdity of it all hit a high note in a rare critical article in the prominent political magazine El Proceso. The article quotes at length lawyer, Julio Hernández Barros, who was involved in the drafting of the new victims’ law. While a proponent of the law, Barros poses a question for himself that he is more than ill prepared to answer. Playing “devil’s advocate,” as the article puts it, Barros asks if “relatives of El Chapo (the notorious cartel leader) might seek compensation if he is killed by the army?” Barros affirms the possibility, offering a “victim of society” defense: “Many times they are victims of the society in which they happened to be born or live. I could not blame El Ponchis (for instance), who is fourteen, because the first culprit is your family, then your community, and thirdly the State.” The strangeness of this explanation should be obvious.

If Mexicans really thought like Barros, wouldn’t we be seeing families reimbursing the state for their children’s crimes, rather than the reverse? Barros’ logic, and the general structure of blackmail on which the new victims’ law is erected, relies on a common fantasy: It is the fantasy of families, friends, and spouses who “didn’t know” about the illicit actions of their loved ones, even among the gossip of the neighbors about new clothes, or new cars, or new friends and habits. We are not so far, then, from the psychological conundrum made famous by Hitler’s Third Reich, in which the question arises: “how much did you know?” If Mexico becomes a society of victims, in which communities acknowledge crimes only after funerals, or after trials without defendants, the criminals gain.

Dostoevsky’s narrator paints, in his verbal portrait of the criminal facing execution and justice, the aura of the criminal’s power: “[He]knows and sees and understands everything.” He tastes reconciliation in the kissing of the cross with the mouth of a trapped animal, yet feels in the vengeance of the state that looms over him (the guillotine, in this case) the bubbling of his own sovereign rule, the complicity in evil of a society that the criminal is said to fancy an  “accessory,” like a crown.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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