Democracy, Advocacy & the Missing 43: A Conversation with Mexican Human Rights Activist Miguel Pulido

Monday, November 2nd, 2015



Miguel Pulido is a Mexican lawyer and activist who focuses on politics, government accountability and transparency, and human rights. He served as executive director of Fundar, one of Mexico’s largest and leading human rights NGOs, was a professor at the Universidad Iberoamericana, and a visiting scholar at Yale University. Miguel writes for Aristegui Noticias and currently works with Antifaz, a project that aims to critically tackle public issues, political elite, and power dynamics. He is currently based in New York City as a consultant and also collaborates with professionals from diverse disciplines and countries to redefine democracy in Latin America.

On September 26, 2014, 43 students from the rural Ayotzinapa Teachers’ College in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico were kidnapped, disappeared, and likely murdered. The last year has seen ongoing national protests and international attention, as the Mexican Federal Police, the local police department, and the former mayor have all been implicated in the tragic event. The students have not been found, though the search resulted in the discovery of mass graves holding 38 other unidentified bodies. The handling of this case has severely damaged President Enrique Peña Nieto’s image, and the government’s investigation has engendered serious mistrust concerning its credibility, as inconsistencies reveal deeply embedded corruption.

Mr. Pulido is involved as a supporting lawyer and activist for the families, as well as a close friend of the lead attorneys working directly on this case. Our conversation took place over Skype on September 29th, three days after Mr. Pulido attended a march in Mexico City to protest the governments’ management of the case on the one-year anniversary of the students’ disappearance. Approximately 45,000–50,000 people attended, which are almost historical numbers for a march for victims of human rights violations.

On October 20th, 2015, the Mexican government agreed to reopen the search for the 43 missing students. This interview has been edited and condensed, and parts have been translated from Spanish.

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You published a very moving article on the march this past Saturday. Were you there just as an observer, or are you working with [the families] in any way?

Two organizations are giving legal advice to the families, one in Guerrero and the other in Mexico City. The two lawyers who are providing legal strategy are friends of mine, so I’m helping them in an informal way with the communication process and documentation.

This case has international support, and international support you need. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights created a group, “Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes,” to document how international assistance in this case is transforming the capacity of the victims to claim justice from the state. From a national perspective the case was almost closed with the Mexican government, because they claimed what is called “historical truth” – the government states that the students were killed and burned by the Guerreros Unidos group, which is a cartel in Guerrero. But it is almost impossible that that happened.

[The international group] found that there is no consistency around the different testimonies, so the idea is to advance to a new investigation, to have a new theory of the case, and [to implicate] the army as responsible. It’s the classical political tension between civilians and the army, so it isn’t going to be easy.

At what point was the case “nationally closed”?

Actually the case was in the stage when the general prosecutor was saying that this is the case, this is the evidence that they have, and they don’t have a resolution from a court. The problem is that once the prosecutor says that this is the truth and this is the evidence, you cannot change the case. You cannot say that now the case is about drugs, when in the beginning it was about political disagreements.

It’s a technical problem. If the general prosecutor changes the accusation, it’s possible that the 100 people they have detained now will have to be released. Not because they didn’t participate, but because they were accused in a different way, and in the legal system in Mexico, no one can be accused twice for the same crime. But this is a very tricky issue because they are accused for what they did, but not for adequate cause.

So the families are asking the government to build new lines of investigation. They are saying that the president is the killer, because that’s the way they see things. What they see when they meet the president is that the president is not giving them good reasons, and furthermore he is trying to convince them to accept the reality that their kids are dead.

If you look at all the movements for the appearances of vanished people for political reasons, particularly in Latin America, you’ll find that the demand “we want them alive” is not negotiable. Because they take them alive. This is structural in the human rights movement. Since the dictatorships in Argentina and Chile, it’s been exactly the same. For 45 years the people in Chile have been calling for the appearance of missing people, alive – they do not accept that they were killed. So this is part of the problem. The president is saying, “Come on just accept that they were killed.” And the families are saying, “Well do you have something to hide? And that’s why you are so insistent about our acceptance of the historical truth?”

Do you think the families actually think they’re alive?

What is important in this moment is that the government is probably just trying to save their ass. The problem is the participation of the federal police and the army, and not just in this one case. What happened here is a lot of things that have been happening for a long time and no one paid attention. It’s not just one case, it’s a lot of them.

Why is this one different?

For one thing, they’re students. Another thing is the capacity of the victims to maintain the mobilization, the political discussion. These victims are organized… Also, the cruelty of the case, and the graphic evidence….

The students disappeared on [September] 26th and 27th. [On October 2, 2014], a local organization found graves in Guerrero and that was the tipping point.

When these groups found graves with 38 bodies, the people started to get more involved in the case. [Then there was] the leak of a video with the students in the back part of a police truck… And the other thing that changed everything is that some of the international media started to cover the case.

So you have 7, almost 8 days when nothing happened. It was just going to be another case, very dramatic with a lot of violence, with the students saying some stuff and the government denying these things, but it was really not more than that.

But then, the graves, the video, and the participation of the international media changed a lot of things, and it becomes a national issue. And it is touching the hearts of a lot of people. What is happening is that in the last 6 years the country has changed a lot. We used to be a normal country, with the classic problems of the third world—some corruption and poverty, etcetera. But talking about [this kind of crime], it was not in the national normality of Mexicans.

So now this is very difficult to accept, that just in the last 6 years we have more deaths than in the last 25. This is why the people are so connected with the victims and the families, because this is not just about them, it is about a lot of people.

In the work that you’re doing now, concerning democracy throughout Latin America, do you find that you are constantly talking about this issue?

This group is made up of people from different fields trying to work together to start a conversation of how we see the future of democracy in Latin America. The first challenge is to accept that even when there are similar issues happening in our countries, it is not exactly the same.

What is happening is not just in Latin America, but also in other parts of the world. Some of the tendencies and some of the trends are similar. So you can say that what we are facing is the crisis of the representation model—the lack of capacity of the political parties to connect with the people.

The idea is to create a different narrative about what is happening in Latin America in terms of democracy and how the people can participate. We are trying to inspire other people to get involved in the discussion of the future of the democracy.

In terms of the work in Guerrero and other work you’re doing, do you feel that it’s easier or more difficult to be far away [living in New York]?

When you are involved in issues of human rights, there are different levels of commitment. There is a professional commitment, because above all this is a job, but there is also a political and a personal level of commitment. There is an intimate dimension to this work. Discussing these same topics from a distance has a lot of advantages analytically.

Today I can do a much fresher analysis without the immediate pressure of being there. When you are very close to the problems of human rights or social justice, there is a sense of urgency that you cannot shake. It’s very difficult to be able to put yourself in this bigger picture. So distance helps to analytically separate the focus of the discussion, and in this sense it is very healthy. On the personal side, there are also complications because I am outside of the pulse, and I have a sense of caution that I shouldn’t give my opinion too much about what I am not living in the first person anymore.

And this part that is very intimate is also very human. I find it difficult to be outside of contact with the people, of directly being linked to the realities. It’s a little nostalgic for me sometimes.


Laura Lehman is a second-year Masters of Public Administration in Development Practice candidate at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.  Prior to SIPA, she worked on issues of education access for immigrant youth in Washington DC and Philadelphia, and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic.