smoke and mirrors

The jacaranda trees with their wide canopies filled with purple flowers clearly announced the fact that spring had arrived in the Colonia San Rafael the week before last.

The jacaranda trees with their wide canopies filled with purple flowers clearly announced the fact that spring had arrived in the Colonia San Rafael the week before last. This neighbourhood lies an easy hour’s walk from the historical centre of vast metropolis of Mexico City. Not knowing how far away it was, though, my son Liam and I took the fast, often very crowded underground metro out from the Zocalo, the huge plaza in front of the National Palace and Cathedral to the metro station nearest to San Rafael. Amazingly the Montreal-style metro still costs just 3 pesos or 24 cents.

We had a briefing lined up at Prodh, the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Centre ( in Colonia San Rafael. The Company of Jesus, better known to most as the Jesuits, founded the centre in 1988. Prodh seeks to promote and defend human rights through the pursuit of democratic justice and the defence of the economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of the marginal in Mexican society. They also see education and the promotion of a culture of human rights together with international advocacy as critically important.

Development and Peace, the international aid and solidarity arm of the Catholic Church here in Canada, has long supported the work at Prodh. Having first visited the centre in 1999 with a delegation from D&P, I figured it was about time I checked in on them again. On my last visit the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) still held sway in Mexico. It had been in power for 70 years.

Originally the party that consolidated the hard fought for gains of the bloody Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1919, PRI evolved into a party of the powerful over its decades in charge. It became bent on maintaining the prerogatives and privilege of an entrenched ruling elite and the interests they represented rather than the rights of the campesinos and workers that had died to bring them to power.

Through smoke and mirrors the party fostered a revolutionary image while repressing social activists, students, political leaders from opposition parties or communities and their organizations trying to defend their rights. Loudly trumpeted human rights were casually violated. The government and its institutions, like the army, ruled with impunity. Prodh joined a growing movement two decades ago trying to end this state of affairs.

Though the PRI lost power in the historic election of 2000 that gave Vincente Fox from the opposition PAN, the National Action Party, the presidential sash, national institutions have been slow to change. Prodh’s International Areas staffer, Jose Rene Paz, told us that the penal system along with an entrenched culture of institutional impunity still present fundamental obstacles to the achievement of basic human rights in Mexico.

Jose Paz shared with us the story of a case that Prodh lawyers recently fought. Daniel Tellez, a 21 year old cyclist, had been struck and hurled more than 30 metres by an army vehicle driving erratically at excessive speed. Tellez was permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The army refused to take responsibility. Prodh lawyers, in a length process, forced the army to award nominal damages to the cyclist and also extracted a pledge of medical care and rehabilitation services from a military facility for him.

This case underlined for Prodh the absence of any real civilian control over the military. Jose Paz shared a host of other similar cases with us that Prodh has pursued. Some victims of gross human rights abuses had been tortured, others imprisoned for years without the benefit of due process. Prodh and other Mexican human rights advocates have much work to do.

Pilar Arrese Alcala, a Prodh staffer responsible for education, expressed a real interest in the evolution of our First Nations judicial systems. Fortunately I could share with her the recent news of the Teslin First Nation as well as the processes put in place by the Ta’an Kwach’an and the Kwanlin Dun. Our visit wrapped up with a tour of their building with Francesca Allodi-Ross, a recent McGill graduate working there.

During this election period we have our own smoke and mirrors to contend with. The defence of human rights must be more than rhetoric here as well. The protection and the promotion of them must be seen as a real priority by our candidates and this should be a criteria for deciding whomever we plan to give our vote to.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact