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Building Peace, While Defending People's Rights

from the Jan. 11, 2023 Bulletin

social movements guns & violence

Mariano Machain coordinates international advocacy for the Mexican nonprofit group Serapaz, a shorthand for Servicios y Asesoría para la Paz/Service and Advice for Peace. Originally from Argentina — and unbearably proud of his soccer team’s latest achievement! — Machain has a background in both international relations and Latin American politics.


How did you become dedicated to bringing about peace in the world and working with Serapaz?


I was born in Argentina, and we suffered a brutal military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. From my time in high school, I wanted to know how to understand injustice in Argentina — and everywhere else. 

Serapaz defines itself as a peace-building organization. We work on three levels. We help individual victims organize and defend their rights and help them manage the risks they incur by doing so. At the national level, we advocate for policy change, but Mexican authorities are usually reluctant to take bold action. That’s when we seek international solidarity as additional “persuasion power.”  


We also use a variety of tools. Within communities, we discuss methods for conflict resolution to stop abuses before they happen. As guides and protectors, we accompany people as they explore avenues for justice. We work to pass and enact policies, as developed by those who have been affected by violence, to prevent further abuses.


One example: We accompanied El Movimiento por Nuestros Desaparecidos en México to Washington, D.C. in October 2022 when they received a human rights award from the Institute for Policy Studies. We all met with US government officials and asked that the dialogue on human rights between the US and México be resumed — it halted during the Trump years — since the US also indirectly bears responsibility for the violence.


Serapaz has focused on indigenous rights for many years. Has there been an expansion of indigenous rights and protections under Morena?


Bishop Don Samuel Ruiz García founded Serapaz in 1996, after he was asked to serve as a mediator between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government. We continue to work with indigenous peoples and not just in Chiapas.


Unfortunately, with Morena, we have not seen substantial changes. It may be that because we had greater expectations, we also feel greater disappointment. Some of Morena’s new programs have had unintended consequences. Programs aimed at protecting the environment, for example, have actually led to more deforestation.

We placed our biggest hopes in a 2019 constitutional reform proposal guaranteeing the self-determination of indigenous peoples as well as Afro-Mexican communities.


This proposal was developed through an inclusive process. But, for the past four years, the proposal has remained just paper in a drawer.

“Here the people direct and the government obeys.”
Photo: Connor Radnovich

Forced disappearances have caused a profound human rights crisis. Has there been progress to stop this scourge?


The failed military strategy for fighting crime has seen 106,000 registered as disappeared over the past 16 years. An average of 22 people still disappear every day, almost one person an hour. “Forced disappearances” involve state actors. But in México differentiating between “forced disappearances” and private acts of abduction can be really difficult, given the pervasive collusion between authorities and criminals, coupled with their widespread impunity.

Local collectives of victims’ families have sprung up spontaneously all over México. In 2015, the year the Movement for Our Disappeared in México first came together, we had some 20 of these collectives. Now we have 84, including some collectives in Central America.


The activism of these collectives led to a 2017 national law that codified forced disappearances as a crime.

Foto: Serapaz

That new law mandates a special network of institutions, everything from commissions to search for victims and national registries of the disappeared to specialized prosecutors and Citizens Councils. But the law has been minimally implemented, and the pace has been far too slow. Only 36 perpetrators have ever been convicted. We met with US officials in October and asked them to call on the Mexican government to fully implement this law.


One positive: México has accepted the competence of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances to investigate individual cases and invited the Committee to visit the country. The Committee has made a report with 86 recommendations, another tool that families of the disappeared can use.


How effective has the Commission set up to investigate the disappearance of 43 students at Ayotzinapa been?


Serapaz has a seat on the Commission, as do five parents and four NGOs, together with various Mexican officials. We felt hopeful when Omar Gomez was appointed as the special prosecutor in 2019. He had been part of a team of international investigators during the previous administration, and they did such good work finding government involvement that they were kicked out of the country and their own lives endangered!

But the government has made serious mistakes in the last few months. In this most critical phase, the time when arrests get made, Gomez resigned and was replaced. The attorney general intervened and blocked the arrest warrants of 21 high-profile officials. And AMLO has been strongly allied to the military. We have a crisis of impunity, and this latest example has eroded trust. That trust must be rebuilt for the Commission to continue its work.


What hopes and fears for peace do you feel? 


Even in the present circumstances, amid the lack of progress, we see a lot of social energy and a strong movement. People are not giving up! They continue to demand fairness and justice. They’re on track to achieve results.

Ayotzinapa special prosecutor Omar Gomez resigned over differences with the government last September. Foto: Especial, EMEEQUIS.