The Disappearance of Rosendo Radilla Pacheco: An Open Letter to Mexican President Calderón

Rosendo Radilla Pacheco

Last December, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered the Mexican government to undertake a full investigation into the disappearance of Rosendo Radilla Pacheco from Atoyac de Álvarez on August 26, 1974. To date, the present government has not done so.


Dear President Calderón,

Last December, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered the Mexican government to undertake a full investigation into the disappearance of Rosendo Radilla Pacheco from Atoyac de Álvarez on August 26, 1974.

For the campaign for truth and justice, spearheaded by Mr Radilla’s daughter, Tita (human rights defender and vice-president of the Mexican Association of Relatives of the Detained, Disappeared and Victims of Human Rights Violations (AFADEM)), the Court’s decision to hold the Mexican state accountable for past crimes was an extremely positive, albeit overdue, development. Indeed, for those concerned with the state of human rights in Mexico and throughout the world, the Court’s ruling was a symbolic and concrete breakthrough in the struggle against impunity for the military and politicians.

In retrospect, it seems such optimism was misguided. The Court ordered the Mexican government to carry out a full and comprehensive investigation into Mr Radilla’s disappearance under a civil tribunal. To date, the present government has not done so. It also ordered the military to reform its Code of Military Justice, particularly article 57, which virtually guarantees impunity for military personnel responsible for human rights violations. This would bring the Mexican military justice system in line with international standards. Similarly, it ordered the elimination of military tribunals in cases of human rights violations and that Mexico comply with the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons. The Court ordered that the state erect an official memorial to Rosendo Radilla in the centre of Atoyac de Álvarez. It ordered that reparations be paid to Mr Radilla’s family and to the civic organisations which incurred costs bringing the case before the Court.

In short, this was an opportunity for your government to attempt a process of reconciliation for the crimes of its predecessors and initiate a climate of openness and honesty. On every count, however, the Mexican government has not complied.

The Court insisted that the disappearance of Rosendo Radilla was not an isolated incident nor an oversight or mistake on the part of the military forces who detained him in 1974. On the contrary, Mr Radilla’s disappearance was part of a systematic campaign throughout the 1960s and 1970s to eliminate peasant movements and guerrilla organisations demanding improvements in living conditions and greater democratic participation in the political sphere. In the state of Guerrero alone, the authorities disappeared around 650 people, while nationally some 1200 people have yet to reappear. Decades later, the question, ‘Where are they?’, will not disappear.  As you must be aware, and as the Court correctly noted, thoroughly investigating the disappearance of one individual implies examining the context in which such events took place. To fail to do so is to further insult and degrade those abused, killed or disappeared during the dirty war.

Tita Radilla visited the United Kingdom last year in order to raise awareness about the plight of human rights defenders and social and political activists – past and present – in Mexico. To this end her trip was enormously successful. She visited human rights organisations of international standing, such as Peace Brigades International and Amnesty International, gave talks on university campuses, met with British MPs, Law Lords, the minister for Latin America, lawyers, judges and journalists. Most importantly, each talk was attended by members of the public with an interest in Mexico and human rights generally.

During her visit, many of us tried to imagine the unbearable pain and grief that having a family member forcibly disappeared – with no explanation, no investigation or official accountability – must represent. For the pain inflicted on the relatives of the disappeared, also noted by the Court’s report, is an ongoing crime, yet one upon which the present administration has failed to act. In light of the above, in the interests of truth and justice and indeed those of your own government, I urge you to comply with the rulings made by the IACHR and to comply with article 13 of the Mexican Constitution.

The recent news that the government is proposing reforms to military jurisdiction would be welcome were it to substantially change the current climate of impunity and injustice. However, the proposed measures do virtually nothing to dismantle the structures which ensure impunity for abuses against civilians committed by the military. The proposals are unlikely to discontinue application of article 57 of the Code of Military Justice, which has guaranteed immunity to prosecution to human rights violators in the military.

The proposals allow for the crimes of forced disappearance, torture and rape committed by the military to be transferred to a civil court. All other human rights violations, according to the proposed guidelines, will continue to be investigated by military tribunals. Extradjudicial execution, arbitrary detention, ill-treatment of detainees, genocide, crimes against humanity, tampering with evidence and hindering investigations would therefore be investigated and judged by the very same institution which had committed the alleged violation.

While the proposed legislation appears to signal a progressive improvement for cases of forced disappearance, torture and rape, in reality there is little reason to believe that this will change the status quo. On the contrary, a military prosecutor will determine the outcome of whether or not the nature of the alleged crime warrants it being transferred to the civil justice system. As Amnesty International has noted, in the three cases in which the IACHR sentenced Mexico, those of Rosendo Radilla Pacheco, Fernández Ortega and Rosendo Cantú, ‘the military prosecutor failed to find evidence with which to proceed against those implicated precisely in cases involving enforced disappearance, torture and rape’. Similarly, ‘in other cases documented by Amnesty International involving members of the armed forces implicated in crimes such as extrajudicial execution, torture and enforced disappearance, the military prosecutor refused to recognise the evidence of such crimes.’[1]

In the Senate, you presented the proposals as proof of your government’s dedication to securing human rights, but this legislation will clearly maintain the lamentable status quo. Why allow the crimes of forced disappearance, rape and torture, which characterised the period of grim political repression now known as the dirty war, to be investigated by a military prosecutor? Are we to believe that a military organisation capable of committing such crimes should be responsible for undertaking investigations thereof? It was not a suitable model in the past, and, if we believe the reports of mainstream human rights organisations, it is certainly not suitable for the present.

If respect for the law is the mantra of the present administration, does failing to obey the ruling of the IACHR not undermine the government’s own declared goals? Is it not revealing that, 36 years after the disappearance of Rosendo Radilla, his daughter must be accompanied by international human rights defenders to ensure her personal safety? As Ms Radilla told me of the current climate – in which human rights organisations report a marked increase in human rights violations against civilians in Mexico since you took office in 2006 – respect for human rights today is as bad, if not worse, than during the dirty war. All the more reason, it would seem, to examine the crimes of the past in order to curtail those of the present and avert those of the future.


Dr Peter Watt

Peter Watt teaches and researches Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield.

[1] Amnesty International Public Statement, 19 October 2010.