Human rights groups are stepping up efforts to monitor police activity during protests in Mexico, as demonstrations over the disappearance of 43 students continue across the country, often ending in violent clashes and dozens of arrests.
On Monday, as thousands of Mexicans marched through downtown Mexico City demanding justice for the missing students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers college, volunteers in brightly colored vests kept a close eye on riot police deployed to the protests.
“We came here because in the last march, police used force in an excessive and indiscriminate manner, they broke with protocols and many people, including members of civil organizations were injured,” said Perseo Quiroz, the executive director of Amnesty International in Mexico.
A group of about 50 Amnesty volunteers attended the march in bright yellow vests, monitoring for potential clashes between protesters and police.
“These vests help us to identify each other,” Quiroz said. “But they’re also a message to the government that Amnesty is here, and we are monitoring what´s happening.”
Comite Cerezo, a Mexican human rights group that monitors arrests during political demonstrations, claims 17 people were detained illegally during protests on Nov. 20. More than 200 people have been detained in demonstrations in Mexico City over the past two years.
The group tracks claims from protesters who say they were jailed on trumped up charges or hauled away and beaten by police.
“This is a problem that has been dragging on in Mexico since the beginning of President Pena Nieto’s administration,” said Hector Cerezo, one of the founders of the human rights group. “It´s almost as if the government is trying to scare people from attending protests.”
While the protests in Mexico City have largely been peaceful, violence often breaks out towards the end of the demonstrations between police and small groups of masked youth.
Mexico City officials say the arrests are part of an effort to crack down on groups of suspected “anarchists”, who break storefront windows during protests and have attempted to set fire to government buildings.
However, some people who attended the protests say they were wrongly detained.
Azin Andrade, a visual arts student, was arrested by riot police on Nov. 20.. He said he lost track of a group of college friends who had come with him to the protest, and was approached by police while he looked for them in Mexico’s main square known as the Zocalo.
“I told them I was just a citizen, and I was about to leave,” Andrade recalls. “All of a sudden, their leader made a signal for them to detain me. They hit me with their shields, and their batons, in the shin, in the rib, and on my head,” Andrade said.
Andrade and ten other students were detained for 24 hours in a local prison and charged with attempted murder and conspiracy. The men were later transferred to a federal prison in Veracruz.
“They loaded us on a truck that just looked like a civilian vehicle, and didn’t tell us where they were going to take us,” Andrade recalls. “On the way there they said they were going to burn us like the Ayotzinapa students, they joked about chopping our bodies up and disappearing us.”
Andrade and the students spent a week in jail before human rights lawyers won their release by campaigning for their cause on local media, and proving to judges that they did not participate in acts of vandalism.
According to Cerezo, Andrade´s case is part of a pattern.
“Most of the time, detainees who are arrested in protests are released (within days) because prosecutors have no evidence to prove that they participated in illegal activities,” Cerezo said.
With more protests expected, human rights organizations are calling on police to exercise restraint and to cut down on arbitrary arrests of protesters.
“They have to let human rights observers know who the officers in charge of riot police contingents are, so that someone can be held accountable for what happens,” said Marcela Zendejas, a spokeswoman for the press freedom group Article 19.
The group recorded 28 acts of physical aggression by police against journalists and human rights observers during a march on Dec. 1.
Three people were detained during Monday’s protest, a lower number than the arrests following the Nov. 20 demonstration.
But activists are not convinced it reflected a change in police tactics. “We´ll have to see what happens in future protests to see how things play out,” said Francisco Cerezo, a co-founder of Comite Cerezo.
“There was a big presence of human rights observers in this march, and I think that somehow discouraged police from detaining people,” Cerezo said.