Fighting The Sad Scourge of Our Times
John Ralston Saul, Russell Banks, and Elena Poniatowska from PEN American Center, Marian Botsford Fraser from PEN Canada, and many others from PEN International and centers in Europe and Asia are traveling to Mexico City this week in support of the Mexican press and their freedom of expression. We’ll be publishing dispatches from the event here throughout the week.
On Friday, PEN’s international delegation met with Mexico’s Special Prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General, President of the Senate, four other senators, and the U.S. Ambassador. We also met with Mexican write/academic and former Minister of Foreign Affairs (in Fox government), Jorge Castaneda. The Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, Gustavo Salas, is clearly a man with conviction and determination; he described the violence in Mexico, in particular that against journalists, as “the sad scourge of our times.” His number of freedom of expression–related deaths is even higher than our estimate; we need to confirm the details in his number, which is in the high 80s. He was clear that his office makes no distinction between “professional” journalists and bloggers: “We don’t care about status or affiliation.” But although there have been 55 persons in cases that have come under the jurisdiction of his office, there has not been a single conviction. Federal judges returned an astounding 45 of those to states for prosecution: no convictions. Only five cases, involving 10 people, remain in federal courts: no sentences. When asked why, he had no answer … they escaped justice; arrest warrants are out …
For authorities, the problems are legislative and constitutional. There are jurisdictional “ambiguities.” Legislation currently being considered by the Senate would, apparently, address these ambiguities. But what will persuade the judges in the federal courts to try to convict? It happens that many on our delegation are from Canada and the United States, and if there is one thing our countries have wrestled with historically, it is the “problem” of federalism. Eric Lax cited to the Senators the historic moment in 1965 when the federal government stepped up to the civil rights crisis. Larry Siems noted that it is the fundamental task of a federal government to protect the natural rights of its citizens. The senators assured us, but not with conviction, that the necessary legislation would be dealt with between February and April.
Castaneda has conviction, passion, ideas, but no power. He is often identified as a potential President of Mexico, but he is not permitted by law to run for Congress as an independent, and he cannot create a new party. He would like to be able to introduce some radical, challenging ideas into the political debate, as he is convinced that in the upcoming elections the drug cartel violence will not be an issue. He is otherwise an optimist about Mexico; apart from education, he says, Mexico has made enormous advances since the ’90s. There have been three successive “competent” governments; Mexico has become a middle class, or at least a “lower middle class” society. It is a fallacy to consider Mexico a violent country, or was, until Calderon’s badly misconceived war on the drug cartels.
The Americans, however, have made the drug cartel violence, the protection of journalists, and the problem of Mexico’s legal system priorities. They’ve put one of their most senior diplomats into Mexico, Anthony Wayne, fresh from Afghanistan. They are about to pour millions of dollars into the latter two issues.
But still, the people of Mexico await that one, single conviction.
Watch this space for updates, and follow #PENProtesta on Twitter.