The Mexican government has not been very successful in tackling some of the most serious challenges of human rights abuses taking place in the country. The problem is not easy to solve, because it does not just involve state actors violating the rights of citizens, as typically occurring in authoritarian settings. The violation of human rights all too often includes the failure to protect citizens from organized crime, human trafficking rings and drug trade organizations. And in the most egregious cases, it has incorporated the collaboration of state, municipal, or federal police forces and the army with the non-state actors that have occupied many territorial spaces around the country.
Notwithstanding all its imperfections, Mexico has been democratic for almost two decades, which means that these abuses have not been corrected through the in built mechanisms of competition among political parties offering various solutions to the problems or alternation in political office at the various levels of government. The human rights record of the Mexican government includes, among other events, extrajudicial killings by the army (like the case of Tlatlaya); the collaboration of various security forces in the disappearance (and presumably death) of the 43 Ayotzinapa students; a failure to protect journalists in what has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for their work; and the horrific stories of abuse suffered by Cetral American migrants making their way through Mexico, to reach the United States.
The Center for Latin American Studies and the Human Rights Center of the Law School at Stanford University hosted this past Tuesday a visit by two of the most prominent human rights activists in Mexico. Padre Alejandro Solalinde and Ms. Nestora Salgado were in campus for two hours, presenting in the Law School to a room packed with students, faculty and I believe even some Central American service workers who heard about the event. We did not really have much time to prepare for the visit, because we only found about the possibility of Solalinde stopping by Stanford on Monday morning. Students and staff from the sponsoring institutions, including Kai Medeiros who introduced our speakers, and Mirte Posterna who moderated the discussion, immediately sprung into action, making the visit a great success. We did not know until half an hour before the event that Ms. Salgado would also be joining us and speak.
Beyond the deep admiration for our visitors, shared by virtually everyone in the room, three things really struck me about yesterday. First, I was trying to understand why such prominent personalities would want to spend time at Stanford, and it dawned on me that we sometimes forget the symbolic value that holding an event of this type in our University. We do not just offer some legitimacy to the causes defended by our guests, but by making their presence visible, we can help protect them from the real risks they face in their daily activity. We should make no mistake in thinking of these as academic events. They are not. But they play an important educational role, in raising more awareness among our student body of the great challenges in the world and, in this specific case, the plight of Central American migrants in transit through Mexico; and the challenges faced by community police organizations in the Southern states. Solalinde and Salgado were brought to campus by a group of committed social activists from our area (Maria Guadalupe, Enrique, Jose) who had never been to our campus. They organize events regularly at almost all major universities throughout the area, but Stanford in some way had not been a possibility for them until now. I am glad we opened our doors to them.
Second, I was really struck by the energy in the room, particularly during the half an hour or so after the event, in which people took pictures, laughed, talked to each other. It was a meeting of minds and hearts, in which I could witness human empathy and connection at its best. Students (and faculty) were excited and motivated by what they heard, and our visitors also felt welcome and appreciated by the members of our community.
Third, I was surprised by the modest but forceful presence of our two guests. They did not ask for money. They did not even ask us to do much for Mexico. Solalinde made his case regarding the importance of migrants and their protection and how their culture, spirituality and values will enrich and reinvigorate the United States. Salgado made a plea for students to take advantage of their privileged position to continue studying, learning, and make some difference in the world. Both of them asked for action here in the United States. They were both highly critical of the Mexican government and US policy through the Merida initiative. It could hardly be otherwise for a person that was wrongfully imprisoned for almost three years and another who had to leave the country for some time when the threats to his life became imminent. Solalinde and Salgado are far to the left in their critique of market forces, free trade and globalization. But their demeanor and attitude at Stanford was one of coming to share their story and use arguments, reason, and an appeal to human dignity, rather than any extremism or zealotry for their cause.
I am happy that we could be part of this process, and that our community embraced our guests with such generosity and respect.