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Mexico's New Political Regime Sparks Human Rights Activism in Texas

Weeks after Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's inauguration, a group of activists in Texas is organizing a new effort they say will serve as a watchdog to monitor Mexico's treatment of its citizens.

A young Mexican child at a YoSoy132 protest in Mexico City's Plaza de Las Tres Culturas. The sign pleads for voters to think of the child's generation when casting their ballots.

The beginning of a new political era in Mexico has given rise to a new wave of activism in Texas aiming to keep attention on human rights awareness across the border.

A group of activists from Texas and Mexico will descend on the Mexican consulate’s office in Austin on Thursday to denounce the detainment of several dozen protesters who clashed with police in Mexico City during the inauguration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Dec. 1.

Peña Nieto’s presidency marks the return to power for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for more than 70 years before losing to the more conservative National Action Party in 2000.

Alejandra Spector of Mexicanos en el Exilio, or Mexicans in Exile, a nonprofit organization composed of exiles and refugees from Mexico’s drug war who are seeking asylum in Texas, is organizing the protest. Spector said the event would mark the beginning of a new Austin-based group seeking to ensure that human rights abuses in Mexico do not go unnoticed here.

“Many young people were arrested for voicing their discontent in peaceful protest, and are still sitting in prison facing sentences between 5 and 50 years,” Spector said in a statement. “As Texans, we have a special obligation to our Mexican brothers and sisters. We share the largest border with Mexico and many in our communities are Mexican born. In the age of information and technology there is no reason to allow that anyone be silenced.”

Spector’s father, Carlos Spector, is an El Paso-based immigration attorney whose office represents more than 100 Mexicans seeking asylum in Texas. They include Juan Fraire Escobedo, whose mother was gunned down in December 2010 while protesting outside the state government offices in Chihuahua, Mexico, two years after his teenage sister was killed in Ciudad Juárez. Fraire will speak Thursday about his family and its plight.

Alejandra Spector said the new, as-yet-unnamed group, which will include representatives from Mexicans in Exile and others organizations, is not necessarily anti-government or opposed to any particular political party in Mexico.

“It’s more general. It’s more about human rights in Mexico,” she said. “It isn’t specifically anti-PRI. If another party is committing abuses, they will be targets, too. It’s about political action and discussion with regards to Mexico.”

The protest comes the same week Human Rights Watch, a New York-based global watchdog of governments and other organizations, asked Peña Nieto to be more forthcoming about his government’s human rights agenda.

In a letter to the new president, José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch's Americas division, said Peña Nieto had a chance to right the wrongs committed under his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who Human Rights Watch said oversaw the systematic torture and forced disappearances of thousands of Mexicans.

“You have assumed leadership of a country whose recent human rights record is appalling,” Vivanco wrote.

Vivanco said that according the office of the Mexican attorney general, more than 25,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since late 2006, when Calderón launched his war against drug cartels.

“Indeed, if corroborated, the scale of these numbers would place the recent wave of disappearances in Mexico among the worst in the history of Latin America,” Vivanco wrote.

The focus on Peña Nieto’s first month in office is not unexpected. Since his confirmation as a presidential candidate, and the expected return of the PRI, analysts have predicted intense scrutiny of Los Pinos, the presidential palace in Mexico City. The party’s legacy last century was tainted by allegations of cronyism, corruption and deal-making with organized crime, sparking concerns about whether that method of governing would return after the election.

Writing in The Atlantic this week, John M. Ackerman, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a visiting scholar at American University, warned of the perils of allowing scrutiny of the new government to recede.

“Peace and prosperity in North America is best served not by giving Mexico's new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, the benefit of the doubt, but by ramping up independent oversight of his actions and proposals,” Ackerman wrote. “Otherwise, Mexico could follow the path of Egypt, where formally democratic elections have already given way to authoritarian politics under the leadership of Mohamed Morsi.”

To avoid such a fate, Ackerman continued, Mexicans should continue to keep a watchful eye on the new administration.

“The hope for Mexico's future does not lie in Peña Nieto,” he said, “but in the increasingly self-confident and non-violent social movements that will be challenging him at every step.” 

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