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Ana Piquer, human rights activist: ‘The militarization promoted by the government of Mexico has not improved security’

The new director of Amnesty International in the Americas has criticized the use of the military and heavy-handed measures to combat crime in the region: ‘The Armed Forces are not trained to ensure public safety’

Ana Piquer, director of Amnesty International for America
Chilean Ana Piquer, director of Amnesty International for America.Amnistía Internacional
Carlos S. Maldonado

Ana Piquer, a Chilean human rights activist, is the new regional director for Amnesty International in the Americas. She takes over during a turbulent time. Her organization is facing difficult challenges when it comes to defending human rights, as governments are increasingly using militaries and heavy-handed policies to guarantee public safety. Dissident voices are persecuted and violence is hitting activists, journalists, women and political candidates especially hard, particularly in Mexico as the bloody 2024 election cycle unfolds.

Piquer, 49, criticizes the use of the Armed Forces in ensuring public safety, along with the measures implemented by the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele. However, this direction has aroused much enthusiasm among many Latin American politicians. “If Bukele’s is the model to follow, we’re 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 that the continent faces when it comes to the defense of human rights.

Question. You’ve taken over the leadership of Amnesty International in the Americas amidst a very complicated scenario. Do you see a setback for human rights in the region?

Answer. Unfortunately, yes. We’re in a very delicate moment, because certain narratives have been gaining strength — [particularly] in areas such as security — which attempt to justify the violations of human rights. We face governments that increasingly take measures to [silence] voices that they perceive as being dissident and that don’t agree with the measures they’re adopting. [Individuals and groups] have been silenced in different ways. This involves stigmatization, criminalization, persecution and surveillance.

Q. Is there a particular situation that concerns you right now?

A. In almost all countries in the region, we’re on high alert. All civil society organizations face very big challenges. In the case of the United States, with the upcoming electoral context; in El Salvador, with all the measures that President Bukele’s regime has adopted, such as security controls and repressive measures, which have caused so many human rights violations. In the case of Ecuador, we see the progressive militarization of society, while in Venezuela, we’ve been denouncing — for years — the constant repression against any dissident voice, which has worsened in recent months in view of future elections. We also have countries that come from longer histories of repression, such as Nicaragua or Cuba. And then, there’s Argentina, where the election of President Javier Milei has raised several alarms in terms of what the protection of human rights entails.

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

A. Without a doubt. The denial of human rights violations leads us to the risk of not learning from those lessons. It paves the way for a return to a similar story. Argentina is a country that’s had a very interesting process in terms of combating impunity — it’s been able to put high-ranking officers of the Armed Forces on trial for human rights violations. In that sense, the promotion of a negationist discourse is very harmful… it’s an attempt to reverse an entire history spent fighting against impunity.

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

A. This discourse allows certain narratives to permeate, which downplay the seriousness of what happened, deny it, make it disappear. This makes it easier for similar acts to be committed later, or for measures to be adopted that may be contradictory to human rights. Historical memory — the memory of human rights violations — will always be fundamental to provide guarantees of non-repetition. Trying to erase that memory is a recipe for similar events to be repeated. This can, of course, be a very serious setback.

Q. Mexico is a country that’s going through a violent situation. There’s an election underway — more than 30 candidates have been murdered. How does Amnesty International analyze this electoral process?

A. It’s not the first time that this has happened in an electoral context. There are concerns related to what measures are being adopted to provide solutions to situations of violence [and to contain] organized crime. [These measures] must be long-lasting and must center human rights. They cannot involve violating rights to guarantee security, because without human rights, there can be no security.

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

A. Given the insecurity of this process, it’s clear that there haven’t been sufficient measures taken, especially at the local level. The government has heavily pushed militarization as a solution to security problems… but events prove that these militarization processes aren’t offering the response that was expected. This concurs with many Mexican civil society organizations that have questioned militarization as a solution. These groups have warned that [this policy] can lead to more human rights violations, instead of solving the problem of violence. There’s still a very large gap in terms of impunity, protective measures, crime prevention and addressing the root of violence.

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

A. It’s a concern that doesn’t apply only to Mexico. The Armed Forces aren’t trained or designed to ensure the security of citizens: they’re prepared for war and have other types of training. Governments must ensure that the people who are carrying out these functions have the necessary training and are subject to the same standards surrounding the use of force to which the police or any law enforcement official would be subject to. But normally, this doesn’t tend to happen. There’s always a greater risk of human rights violations when it’s the military forces that are taking on public safety roles.

Q. Is Mexico a stunted democracy due to the level of violence that’s been experienced during this electoral process?

A. We don’t make an evaluation of democratic quality — it’s not part of our role. But I can say that, in the context of elections — and in Mexico overall — the challenges in terms of human rights are enormous. People who are raising voices that are critical of the government [and] defending human rights have been under attack. They’ve also been stigmatized. This has contributed to reducing the space for debate and increasing the risks for those who speak up.

Q. Violence also affects Colombia. The peace process generated a lot of hope among the population, but threats against activists continue.

A. For many years, Colombia has been the country in the world with the most murders of [activists]. The administration of President Gustavo Petro — at least in its rhetoric — is moving in the right direction. But across the territory, what we see is that the situation hasn’t 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 that are required aren’t being provided.

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

A. Firstly, [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 have many shortcomings in terms of implementation. Then, there’s an issue that has to do with the role of prosecutors and guaranteeing that attacks on [activists] don’t go unpunished, because impunity is brutal.

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

A. We’ve had a very critical position towards the Office of the Attorney General. Most attacks on activists go uninvestigated, or the processes are fruitless. There’s a significant shortcoming in guaranteeing the resources and capabilities so that investigations can be carried out effectively, that the first procedures on the ground are carried out quickly, that a more consistent effort is made to catch the people responsible. This impunity is part of the reasons why the attacks continue to be repeated.

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

A. El Salvador is currently going through a very serious human rights crisis. Under the premise of addressing the serious security problems that 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. Today, in El Salvador, there are almost 80,000 people detained. There’s prison overcrowding by almost 150% [and] we have serious complaints of torture and ill-treatment inside the prisons. There have already been deaths of those in custody and we’ve collected testimonies from families of people who’ve been unjustly detained, simply because of their appearance, because of where they live, or because they have tattoos. Violating human rights isn’t a solution to the security situation, because what you’re doing is replacing gang violence with state violence.

Q. The population of El Salvador, however, supports the president’s hardline policies. He has a very high approval rating when it comes to his management of the security situation.

A. The population of El Salvador has experienced a situation of very serious violence. To some extent, they see this approach as a way out that — until now — hadn’t been presented to them. The problem is that this is a short-term solution, which, ultimately, is leading to people being imprisoned without fair trials. Many of them are innocent — [there are] tortured people, overcrowded prisons, entire populations in fear 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 the president of Ecuador, Daniel Noboa.

A. This narrative of a successful “Bukele model” has been created. We’ve seen similar images of the treatment of prisoners in Honduras and Ecuador. Voices in different countries affirm that this is the way forward. The problem is that part of this model has to do not only with this supposed firm hand against crime, but also with co-opting the powers of the state, eliminating all checks and balances typical of the rule of law and concentrating power in a government that doesn’t accept criticism. That’s what undermines human rights at their deepest foundation. If that’s the model to follow, we — the entire population — are in serious trouble, because dissident voices are beginning to be silenced, human rights defenders are beginning to be attacked. Things can only get worse if we continue down this path.

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