Human rights monitoring in DF, Mexico

2015-Boychuk-ClaireBy Claire Boychuk

It smells of cleaning chemicals and urine. Outside, a courtyard in the middle of the hospital explodes with tropical colours; red hibiscus, yellow sunlight. Inside, the colour of loneliness is gray-blue. The images will haunt me later: this man with calloused skull and twisted ankle has lived in this metal crib for fifty-two years. A sound like a zipper from the crunching jaw of a little boy whose arms are tied in bed sheets. Screams and rocking wheelchairs.

Downtown, Mexico CityI shadow our medical expert and record her observations in my notebook. Age, treatment, diagnosis. We ask, how many hours a day is she restrained in this chair? Do the patients ever leave? Do they have families? And sometimes, are the women sterilized? Between me and this great suffering is my notebook. Later we will type up these notes, connect facts and law, cite UN conventions, write letters and reports demanding that this torture end.

This is the cadence of human rights monitoring with Disability Rights International (DRI) in Mexico City. It’s hard but meaningful work. By July, much of this evidence comes together in the form of a report, No Justice: Torture, Trafficking and Segregation in Mexico. Within hours the report is picked up by every major news outlet in the city. Soon after, ABC News airs a report on DRI’s yearlong investigation into shelters for children and adults with disabilities in Mexico City. The Mexican government responds, promising to end the use of restraints and cages. This is an historic victory. DRI has been advocating for change in Mexico for over twenty years.

I leave Mexico knowing that there are still so many notebooks that could be filled with the stories of children and adults who have survived torture and abuse, who may never see justice or redress. I leave with a heightened awareness that there is so much more work to be done in Mexico and around the world to guarantee that this generation of persons with disabilities and the next live in a world free of torture. But I also take with me a simple insight that seems to be at the heart of DRI’s work. When you begin from premise that all people are entitled to live in dignity, the only logical conclusion is that change is necessary.

 

Herod’s Law: Adventures in Mexican Corruption

2013 Emily Hazlett 100x150By Emily Hazlett

Despite all the work I’ve been doing with Disability Rights International and the endless things to see and do and eat in Mexico City, at some point I found myself in the back seat of a car with seven friends, racing along a cliff-side highway beside the Pacific. I had just arrived in Acapulco that morning when a friend invited us to squeeze into his car and go get some breakfast. Life was nothing but sun and ocean and the promise of huevos rancheros, until we were pulled over by a municipal police officer who threatened us with four hundred of dollars worth of fines for driving infractions.

Now I could probably accept that it’s illegal to be seven people in a car. You may even be able to convince me that seat belts are mandatory. But then apparently we had also run a red light – and we had almost killed an innocent pedestrian in the process. Our list of infractions was limited only by the cop’s imagination, which was running particularly creative on account of all the sunshine.

Eventually we were passed a colourful pamphlet on traffic infractions, published sometime in the 1980s. The pamphlet was provided, not as a legal basis for our infractions, but so that we may have a place to safely hide our pesos while handing them over. Given that my friend could not get his license back without paying the bribe, we ultimately negotiated a $150 ‘fine’ that we paid between the seven of us.

A few days later I was in a human rights working group meeting with representatives of the government (all well-dressed men) and representatives of NGOs (all inspiring young women). We were discussing strategies for improving conditions for persons deprived of liberty in state institutions. A noble mission, but I can’t help but wonder how much impact our efforts will have in a country where the police can easily extort citizens in broad daylight under the guise of law enforcement.

My experience was actually quite tame for the state of Guerrero, which has become one of the most dangerous in Mexico since drug cartels started moving in. Many communities are distrusting of the police, accusing them of conspiring with the cartels. These communities have established their own vigilante justice groups, but these groups don’t work under any official authority, and as a result have no monitoring or oversight.

Our crazed driver, Frank, enjoys the particularly nefarious career of the professional artist: http://franciscomunoz.tumblr.com/

Our crazed driver, Frank, enjoys the particularly nefarious career of the professional artist: http://franciscomunoz.tumblr.com/

And it’s not only Mexico’s legal institutions that are suffering; estimates put the price of bribery and corruption at around $50 billion a year, or 9% of the GDP. Known as mordidas (bites), a Mexican family might spend up to $100 a year on bribes, in a country with an average annual income below $10,000.

When I got home from Acapulco I looked up the driving laws in the state of Guerrero. Turns out that there’s nothing about maximum number of passengers in a car, and seat belts are only mandatory in the front seat.

There is something about studying law in Canada that presupposes an independent justice system, and that takes for granted the rule of law. For only $150 I was able to buy myself a reminder that this isn’t the case everywhere, and that Herod’s laws of corruption and arbitrary abuse of power are alive and well in Mexico.

“And children live there?” Abuse in a Guatemalan Psychiatric Hospital

2013 Emily Hazlett 100x150By Emily Hazlett

What to do with Guatemalan children and teens who are in need of emergency psychiatric services? This was the question that was put to me on my second day of work at Disability Rights International, in Mexico City.

My first day was spent reading about what currently happens to them. Children and teens who suffer some kind of acute mental health crisis are often placed in Federico Mora Psychiatric Hospital for adults in Guatemala City. Patients there can be tied up all day, put into isolation, receive little to no medical treatment, have no clean water and not enough food, and are abused physically and sexually by the guards. The women remain permanently locked up in a small ward to protect them from being assaulted. The hospital, which is already located in the most dangerous neighborhood in the city, is also next to the biggest jail in Guatemala. As such a number of criminals are also housed there, meaning that there are always armed guards on the premises. Staff who witness abuse are afraid of denouncing it, since a number of the perpetrators, who essentially run the hospital, have ties to Central American gangs.

And so Disability Rights International has been petitioning the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights to protect the patients in the hospital (Roger Bill chronicled the beginnings of that petition last summer on this very blog). The Interamerican Commission has now asked us for alternatives to hospitalization for children with acute psychiatric problems, a request that has thrown me into the very new world of urgent care child psychiatry.  I have been drafting a request that the children remain, as much as possible, within their families (a practice that is increasingly recognized as both cheaper and more effective in Canada and the USA).

www.disabilityrightsintl.org

While the subject matter of my work is often difficult, the atmosphere in DRI’s small office remains remarkably positive. My colleagues are always happy to recommend weekend trips, pretend to understand my Spanish, and offer tips for tackling the insanity that is a metro system serving 22-million people at rush hour.

I feel extremely fortunate to be working with DRI on this project to protect the over 300 people with disabilities arbitrarily and dangerously detained at Federico Mora Hospital in Guatemala City. At the same time, I’ve just learned that DRI will soon be acting as amicus curiae at the Mexican Supreme Court, defending a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome who has been placed under tutorship. The case will hopefully set a new precedent in Mexico that will help people with disabilities maintain their legal capacity as a rule rather than an exception. In short, it’s an exciting time to be working here, as there are a number of really important projects going on in the office, and lots of work to be done.

 

Abandoned and disappeared: the state of human rights violations for persons with disabilities in Mexico

I have been in Mexico City for two weeks now working with Disability Rights International’s Latin America office and it has been an eye opening experience. The rights of persons with disabilities (PwD) are often swept aside, and PwD are frequently treated either as wards of the state or drains on social welfare, when they are just as deserving of equal recognition before the law. People with psycho-social disabilities are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, as they are frequently denied their legal capacity to make even the most basic decisions about their lives. In Mexico as in many other places, PwD are time and again abandoned to inhuman treatment in isolated psychiatric institutions.

For a popular culture reference you might imagine the novel or film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The work remains a classic reminder of the treatment of mental patients in the USA during the 1960’s. The film portrays deplorable treatment of patients; they are tied to beds, heavily sedated, stigmatized, patronized, and at the end of the film the protagonist McMurphy is lobotomized. While the work remains a timeless reminder of psychiatric institutions of the past, conditions today are far worse in much of the world.

DRI’s Mexican office published a report in 2010 documenting much of the inhumane treatment that PwD suffer in state and private institutions, illustrating the various violations of local and international law. The report entitled “Abandoned and Disappeared, Mexico’s Segregation and Abuse of Children and Adults with Disabilities” examined institutions in five Mexican states and in the Federal District, uncovering gross human rights abuses. Beyond violations of well-established international conventions such as the UN Covenant on Economic, Political, and Social Rights, the UN Convention Against Torture, the American Convention of Human Rights, Mexico’s treatment of PwD violates many provisions of the recent UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) which Mexico was instrumental in creating and which it ratified in 2007.

The key findings of the report are sometimes difficult to read. The first finding is that children with disabilities are disappeared and trafficked. The Mexican department of Integral Family Development is in charge of registering the admission of patients to state facilities, but in reality no such records are kept and children disappear into the system never to be found again by their families. For example, Ilse Michelle Curiel Martinez was placed in an institution at the age of six, despite her grandmother offering to take the child. When the parents went to look for Ilse at the Casita del Sur where she had been placed, she had disappeared. 22 other children have supposedly disappeared from the same institution, likely victims of child trafficking.

The next key finding has to do with inhumane treatment of patients which is at least cruel and unusual, and in many cases should be classified as torture. In state hospitals, patients are permanently tied to beds and wheelchairs, in some instances for most of their lives. These patients suffer muscular and skeletal deformations, are deprived of stimuli, are at risk of requiring amputation of limbs that receive poor circulation, and the patients are frequently left in their own waste for long periods of time. In some cases where physical restraints are deemed insufficient, patients are subjected to heavy sedation and even psychosurgery such as lobotomies.

Many other patients (often the majority) could easily live in the community with some support, but either their families are not willing to take them in, or other reasonable accommodations is not offered. These patients languish in institutions for a lifetime, receiving no treatment, habilitation, or rehabilitation. They are warehoused. To make matters worse, their living conditions are inhumane and degrading. Sanitation is usually abysmal, patients are malnourished, under-clothed, and when they are bathed there is typically little to no privacy.

To make matters worse, patients lose all legal and practical control over their lives. Legal capacity is held by their families or the director of the institutions where they are kept. Decisions about treatment, sexual health, rehabilitation or therapy, are all outside their control.

The conclusion of the report is that PwD should be afforded their right to live within the community as provided for by article 19 of the UNCRPD, and a process of de-institutionalization should start immediately. More generally, PwD must be provided the key rights guaranteed by the UNCRPD and other human rights conventions. The Mexican state is falling far short of its obligations under domestic and international law.

The DRI report gives some idea of the subject matter I will be dealing with this summer. Since arriving in Mexico I have been helping with this year’s Zero Project Report, a study of how the UNCRPD is being implemented across the world, what barriers exist, and which practices have worked in advancing its objectives. The Dutch Essl Foundation has sponsored the study, which seeks to focus attention on states which are not living up to their obligations, and to suggest practices that have worked in others places to overcome obstacles. In the near future I will also be working on a project relating to human rights abuses in Guatemala, and on a proposal to reform the Federal District’s civil code. In the coming weeks I hope to learn more about how the rights of persons with disabilities can be protected and I hope to tell you more of the work we’re doing.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.