Mexico’s president-elect mulling mass amnesty for criminals

MEXICO CITY — Lucia Diaz and other volunteers have found more than 300 bodies in clandestine graves along Mexico’s Gulf coast, and she embodies the trepidation, hope and fear with which Mexicans regard the proposal by President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to grant amnesty to calm gang-fueled violence.

With tens of thousands of dead and missing over more than a decade of drug cartel violence, some people say the wounds are too deep to consider the idea. Diaz and others think some form of amnesty is needed if the country is ever to find peace.

Diaz is still searching for her own son, DJ Guillermo Lagunes Diaz, who was kidnapped in 2013 and hasn’t been heard from since. While it isn’t clear who will be given amnesty — Lopez Obrador’s team has ruled out violent offenders — Diaz is so desperate that she might even support amnesty for killers if they would just reveal where their victims are buried.

“For us as mothers, we would be more inclined to favor the trade — dealing with the criminals so that they can give information and probably that would lead us to our children — than just to have somebody in jail,” Diaz said.

That kind of thing has happened: When Diaz and her Solecito Collective were digging in the fields of Veracruz, they were guided by an anonymous, hand-drawn map of clandestine burial pits, evidently drawn up by a repentant cartel member or killer.

Mexico’s President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez ObradorAP

“I’ve been living in this hell for five years already. I think the answer is going to be, ‘Just tell me where my son is,’” she said.

Lopez Obrador is to take office Dec. 1 and his advisers have said amnesty could initially be limited to non-violent offenders, like teenagers forced or recruited to act as cartel lookouts, or women pressured into acting as “mules,” transporting drugs.

Still, some victims activists distrust the whole idea of amnesty.

“Whole families that have been left adrift because a parent was killed, the kids are orphans with no opportunities, the social fabric has been destroyed,” said Manuel Olivares, whose human rights group works with victims in one of Mexico’s most violent cities, Chilapa in Guerrero state. “I do not think an amnesty would be an act of justice toward the families the people who have suffered kidnappings, who have had someone killed or executed.”

In Chilapa, the bodies turn up hacked up, dismembered, burned, and left in piles on roadsides, or stuffed into clandestine burial pits. Some are victims of gang rivalries, but many are store owners or local residents who have been kidnapped for ransom.

Amnesty “isn’t going to bring peace or reconciliation, because as long as you are not attacking the causes of organized crime — unemployment, low wages, the lack of education or job opportunities for youth or help for farmers — then you are not really doing anything to combat organized crime,” Olivares said.

Some, like Juan Carlos Trujillo, take a wider view, of both victims and criminals caught in what they see as a pointless war against drugs. After a decade of fruitless searching for his four brothers, who disappeared starting in 2008, Trujillo is willing to give amnesty a try.

Women decorate photos of missing people to call attention to their cases on Mother’s Day in Mexico City.AP

“After 10 years of searching, what I have realized is that in this country, justice has disappeared, so we have chosen to get access to the truth,” Trujillo said, even if it means some people may go unpunished. “We have seen that today we have to pacify our country, on the understanding that you can’t fight violence with more violence.”

But he is quick to caution: “From the families’ perspective, amnesty doesn’t mean forgive and forget. It means trying to understand, to comprehend people who have been used by the criminal organizations, which are managed from the president’s office down.”

Javier Sicilia, a poet who became an activist after his son was killed in 2011, thinks the whole question is backwards.

“In this process, amnesty is the last part. First we have to know the truth,” Sicilia told local media. “We are bothered by this insistence on amnesty. When there is no truth, what are we pardoning if we don’t even have the criminals in jail, if we don’t even know what happened … or where they (the victims) are buried.”

“If we don’t know the truth, we are not going to be able to determine who qualifies” for amnesty, Sicilia said.

Edgardo Buscaglia, an international crime expert and research fellow at Columbia University, says amnesty has to be part of what has become a popular new phrase in Mexico: transitional justice. It’s the kind of thing that has been done in other countries after the fall of a dictator or, in the case of South Africa, after the fall of the apartheid regime in the early 1990s.

Transitional justice includes mechanisms like truth commissions, which can investigate crimes that courts have been unable to. In some cases, criminals can be offered pardons or immunity, if they confess.

Relatives of a man who was riddled with bullets arrive at the crime scene in Acapulco.Getty Images

“When people begin to see that they can form part of mechanisms that can punish people, then you can start talking about amnesties,” Buscaglia said. “Amnesty has to be accompanied by a process of transitional social justice. Amnesty is never discussed in a vacuum.”

Fernando Ocegueda has been looking for his then-23-year-old son since he was taken away by men in police uniforms in Tijuana in 2007. In 2009, Ocegueda’s group was one of the first to turn up evidence that drug cartels sometimes dissolved victims in lye and other corrosive chemicals.

Ocegueda says a general amnesty isn’t needed. What Mexico desperately needs is some sort of sentence reduction program for criminals who provide information, he says.

“The important thing … is to reduce sentences for criminals when they give truthful information on the fate of the disappeared,” Ocegueda said.

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