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Executive Summary

excerpted from: Racial Discrimination: The Mexican Record , Executive Summary, 1-20, 2-5 (Sept. 2001)(printed by the Human Rights Documentation Center,

Mexico is party to the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Accordingly, these international human rights treaties are part of Mexico's national law and may serve as the basis for a suit in a court of law. However, the indigenous Indian population continues to face systematic discrimination in the public and private sectors, and remains largely outside the country's political and economic mainstream. Extreme poverty disproportionately affects indigenous segments of the population, particularly in the province of Chiapas, where conflict between a national liberation movement and authorities has raged since 1994. Despite significant social initiatives, the government of Mexico has not adequately addressed the root causes of the social inequalities that perpetuate widespread poverty.

No other country in the Americas has as large an indigenous population as Mexico. Currently, there are about 56 ethnic and indigenous groups. However, accurate, comprehensive statistics quantifying the indigenous population are unavailable. The Mexican census classifies populations linguistically; therefore it only considers those who speak an indigenous language as an indigenous person. This language classification scheme is inadequate for quantifying the indigenous population, as many groups no longer speak their own language but have nonetheless preserved their sense of identity, cultural heritage, and indigenous social institutions. According to the 2000 census, which is generally acknowledged to underestimate the indigenous population, 7.3 million people reported speaking an Indian language; other estimates place the range at 7-1 0 million people. Indigenous peoples are highly concentrated in I southeast and central states.

An estimated 80 percent of Mexico's indigenous people live in extreme poverty. The southern state of Chiapas has a very high concentration of indigenous people, and is Mexico's poorest state. The 1995 census showed that over half of the 3.6 million people of Chiapas lived on either no wage, or less than the minimum salary of US$4 a day. Indigenous homes have the lowest levels of running water and electrification. Indigenous populations also endure extremely poor health conditions, with little access to health resources. In 1990, for example, the state of Chiapas reported the largest number of new cases of malaria in the country@ Indian children have an estimated 41 per cent malnutrition rate.

Language barriers preclude meaningful participation of indigenous peoples in the public education system. The General Education Act promotes teaching in the national language (Spanish), which most Indians do not speak. For those people, education is often essentially unavailable. As a result, the illiteracy rate among indigenous peoples in Mexico is six times the national average. Spanish illiteracy particularly disadvantages indigenous peoples in the political process, as ballots and voter information are only available in Spanish. If citizens of Mexico cannot read or understand Spanish, they are not able to cast their votes.

In addition, Indians' inability to speak Spanish means that they face widespread employment discrimination in Spanish-speaking areas. Indians are also over represented in low-income jobs; 40 per cent of migrant farm workers in the country are Indian. Even among menial jobs, employment discrimination persists. For example, one report indicates that Indians are often not allowed to do the easier plant packing work; ostensibly because they are "too short" to reach the vegetables to sort and pick them. Migrant farm workers in the south have been subjected to discriminatory police brutality. These people claim that police specifically target them for abuse. Reports indicate that the police target those with "markers" of being Indian, such as skin colour and height.

Indigenous women suffer many instances of "double discrimination." The illiteracy rate among indigenous women has been reported at nearly 20 per cent higher than the average rate among indigenous peoples, meaning even lower employment prospects and further removal from the political system. There are also reported incidences of rape and sexual assault on the indigenous women in the regions of military presence. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights also notes that justice is not administered fairly after women report abuse, and that the outcome is often heavily in favor of the male defendants.

The government has perpetuated disorder and paramilitary activity by maintaining a draconian military presence in many indigenous areas, where property rights and land ownership laws disadvantaging indigenous peoples have sparked rebellion. The Chiapas rebellion was spearheaded in 1994 by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). Human Rights Watch reported aggressive human rights violations by the Mexican troops sent to the area; more than 150 people died in battle as the troops moved in. Approximately 80,000 Mexican army personnel continue to patrol the area, in an effort to keep the EZLN contained. United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson called the presence of the military in Indian communities "heavy and oppressive."

Sporadic violence has been linked to various pro-government paramilitary groups who perceive the rebels as a threat to powerful landowners. The paramilitary groups have been linked with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the dominant political party prior to President Vicente Fox's election. On 22 December 1997, 45 peasants in Chiapas were massacred. Locals suspect pro-government paramilitaries behind the massacre, and human rights organizations have a strong suspicion of government involvement. After the massacre, thousands of Mexican troops were sent to Chiapas to "prevent further unrest," but the soldiers are said to only have further heightened tensions.

The expulsion of international monitors from the region further frustrates efforts to ensure protection of human rights. Authorities under former President Zedillo expelled and sanctioned many foreigners who were working in Chiapas as observers. In 1999, 144 observers and humanitarian workers were forced to leave the country for having visited Chiapas, and a further 100 were "invited" to "voluntarily" leave by the National Immigration Service.

The Zapatistas and the government eventually reached a ceasefire in 1996, and drafted the San Andres accords. The EZLN invited hundreds of indigenous leaders to discuss the accords, and after deliberation, they agreed to ratify the accords with the support of some 3 million indigenous people. However, the government has yet to ratify the San Andres accords.

Instead, in April 2001, the Mexican Senate passed the controversial Indian Rights Bill, which indigenous rights groups criticize as a dilution of the San Andres accords. The original bill "would have allowed Indians to establish autonomous governments based on traditional customs rather than existing local, state and federal laws, as well as allowing them collective ownership of land and natural resources." The new bill, on the other hand, subjects customs to state approval. The EZLN dismissed the bill as "racist," a disingenuous scheme claiming to champion indigenous rights while actually protecting private landowners. Indigenous leaders have rejected the bill and all peace talks have broken off since its passage.

The government of Mexico has taken some important steps to eradicate various overt forms of racism. Since the election of President Fox in 2000, the government has made an effort to bring the issue of indigenous rights closer to the forefront of the country's agenda. In addition to sending the San Andreas accords to Congress, President Fox also reduced the troop presence in Chiapas, and released dozens of prisoners in the hopes of drawing the Zapatista rebels back into peace talks. President Fox is also attempting to bolster Indian representation in the government. He has reorganized the presidential cabinet to include new government offices dedicated to working in the name of indigenous rights. Fox appointed an Otomi Indian, Xochiti Gaivez Ruiz, as Mexico's first head of cabinet for the newly-created Indian rights department.

These recent steps are commendable, but the government still maintains that racial discrimination does not exist in Mexico. While the government acknowledges that indigenous peoples suffer debilitating and disproportionate social, cultural, and economic hardships, it contends that racial discrimination is not the cause of such poverty, but rather that the poverty itself is the cause of discrimination. The key first step is to recognize that racism perpetuates the economic, social, and political marginalization of indigenous peoples; only then can the government take all appropriate measures to ensure equal and impartial treatment before the law for all people.