Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have long expressed serious concern about widespread human rights abuses in Mexico, including disappearances, killings, torture by police, arbitrary detentions, death threats and ill-treatment by prison and military authorities.
While the exact number of victims is not known, Amnesty International estimates 370 women have been murdered in the border city of Ciudad Juarez in the state of Chihuahua over the past 11 years. The Mexican Government has estimated the figure to be 326 while the Mexican National Human Rights Commission's estimate is 263. In addition, there are reports of a large number of disappearances of young women in this region.
Ciudad Juarez is a city that experiences serious violence and criminality. Its proximity to the border with the United States and the availability of work in its assembly plants attract a highly transient population, complicating the compilation of accurate data. It has become a major centre for drug trafficking and organised crime. Motives have not been established for many of the murders in Ciudad Juarez, although some share common characteristics. The Mexican authorities estimate that approximately one third of the victims were sexually assaulted prior to their deaths, with the remaining having been victims of intrafamilial or other violence.
Mexican and international NGOs have expressed concern about the necessity to protect the women of Ciudad Juarez and to investigate the murders, stating that the authorities in Chihuahua and at a federal level have failed to recognise the extent of the pattern of violence against women and to implement effective policies for dealing with it. International observers such as representatives of the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have also visited Chihuahua and expressed serious concerns about the investigations to date.
The question of the respective competencies between the federal and the local level has complicated matters. While steps aimed at improving efficiency had been taken by the local authorities, concerned observers had argued for some time that there was a need for the federal authorities to take a greater direct role in the matter. Federal authorities have become more engaged in the past year, having established grounds for federal intervention on the basis that some of the crimes may be federal offences.
The Interior Ministry announced a 40 point plan in June 2003 to improve public security, criminal investigations, social advancement and women's rights in Ciudad Juarez. This approach involves various Government agencies. On 11 August 2003 the Government announced the creation of a joint investigating and prosecuting agency made up of the office of the attorney general and the Chihuahua state prosecutor's office.
The secretary general of Amnesty International, Ms Irene Khan, visited Mexico in August 2003 to present the Amnesty International report on the Ciudad Juarez killings, and she met President Fox. President Fox made a commitment to ensuring that the federal Government played its full role in endeavouring to put a stop to the murders and abductions. On 17 October 2003 he announced the appointment of Ms Guadalupe Morfin Otero as federal commissioner for the cases in Ciudad Juarez. Her role involves co-ordinating the activities of the interagency committee established to facilitate an integrated approach to the full range of the problems which impact negatively on women in the state of Chihuahua. Ms Morfin has a distinguished record as a defender and promoter of human rights.
Ireland and its EU partners hold regular dialogue with Mexico on matters of mutual interest, including human rights. In November 2003, the question of human rights and the specific situation of violence against women in Ciudad Juarez was raised at a meeting in Brussels of the EU-Mexico joint committee. The Mexican representative acknowledged that the rule of law had malfunctioned over a period of time in that frontier area and outlined the measures being adopted by the Mexican federal and state authorities to strengthen the institutions of law and order with a view to putting an end to what he described as this "cancerous phenomenon."
The Mexican National Human Rights Commission has welcomed not only the appointment of Ms Morfin as federal commissioner, but also the decision in January 2004 by the federal attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to deal with those Ciudad Juarez killings which have a federal dimension.
As part of the EU's ongoing human rights dialogue with the Mexican authorities, earlier this month the Irish ambassador in Mexico City arranged for Ms Morfin to meet with EU heads of mission. This dialogue will continue during the remainder of the Irish Presidency and beyond.