Mexico has followed Colombia’s footsteps by passing a sweeping law that aims to compensate victims of the country’s drug war. Both projects are incredibly ambitious, and may yet heal some of the wounds left by years of violence — if implemented correctly.
On January 9, Mexico’s new president signed a new law to help and compensate victims of crime and human rights violations, hailing it as an advance unprecedented anywhere in the world. President Enrique Peña Nieto said that, with the measure, the Mexican government was putting people at the center of its policy, giving “hope and assistance” to the “thousands” who had suffered from violence.
The central aim of the law, which was first proposed by activist groups, is to set out the rights of victims to receive protection and financial aid from the government. Under the law, the government will set up specialized bodies to help victims, including a committee to oversee assistance, a compensation fund, and a register of the dead and disappeared.
The Victims Law officially came into force on February 8, just over a year after a similar project to compensate victims was launched in Colombia. Both countries have many thousands of people who have been abused, displaced, or have lost relatives to a conflict driven by the drug trade. And both countries continue to generate new victims each day.
Even though the Victims Laws in Mexico and Colombia pursue the same overall aim, the two pieces of legislation have significant differences on how to identify victims, and how to go about recompensing them. Some of the most important differences include:
1. Defining the Victims
In both Colombia and Mexico, those personally affected by the conflict, as well as relatives of those who have died or disappeared, can apply for compensation. However, as it currently stands, Mexico’s law does not set restrictions on who can claim to be a victim. This means that, in theory, the law could apply to members of organized criminal groups, behind much of the violence.
Colombia’s law blocks members of armed groups from receiving compensation, with the exception of those who were recruited as minors, and demobilized while still under the age of 18.
Another key difference is that Mexico’s Victims Law covers those harmed by common criminals and organized criminal groups. In contrast, Colombia’s law is restricted to abuses committed “in connection with the armed conflict.” This implies that the law will apply only to those abused by groups involved in Colombia’s nearly 50-year civil conflict, namely the guerrillas, paramilitaries, and state forces. This leaves a major gap, potentially excluding victims of Colombia’s common criminals and drug trafficking organizations, who carry out equally brutal acts.
The Victims Laws in both Mexico and Colombia pledge compensation for victims of abuse by state authorities. This is key, as both countries have seen widespread abuse by the security forces. In Colombia, perhaps the most painful example of such abuse was the “false positives” scandal, in which elements in the military killed civilians and then presented their bodies as guerrillas killed in combat. There are thought to be some 3,000 victims of these “false positive” killings. In Mexico, there is evidence that state agents have forcibly “disappeared” thousands during the campaign against organized crime initiated under President Felipe Calderon.
Mexico sets no time limit for awarding compensation — meaning that even victims of the country’s “Dirty War” in the 1960s and 1970s would, in theory, be included. Meanwhile, in Colombia the government will only give compensation for crimes dating back to 1985 (or 1991 for land restitution cases). Those who suffered abuses prior to these dates can ask that their case be investigated, but cannot file for financial reparations.
Mexico sets a higher limit on compensation; the state will cover claims for up to 1 million pesos (about $78,000) in cases where the person responsible for the crime cannot pay. Colombia sets tighter limits on compensation, agreeing to cover claims worth some 40 minimum monthly wages — currently about $12,000. President Juan Manuel Santos has acknowledged that the sum ought to be higher, but said that this is not possible given the large number of potential claimants.
One positive side effect of offering compensation might be to encourage the Mexican state to carry out more effective investigations, as Brisa Maya, director of the National Center of Social Communication (CENCOS) pointed out to InSight Crime. The responsibility for paying damages only falls to the government if the person responsible for the crime cannot be located, or is unable to pay, giving the government a strong incentive to locate and convict the guilty party.
Both Colombia and Mexico are trying to fund reparations with assets seized from criminals. As seen so far in Colombia, such an approach will likely prove slow and difficult, as it can take years to legally confiscate property even from very high profile criminals.
3. The Results so Far
Colombia’s Victims Law has been a disappointment in many ways, stalled by threats and attacks against those trying to reclaim land, and by the sheer administrative difficulty of administering the project. Since the law came into effect in January 2012, the government claims to have paid out $518 million to some 158,000 people, and plans to have compensated a total of 260,000 people by the end of 2013. The budget for the scheme in 2013 is some $3.3 billion, about $300 million of which is for reparations, and it is expected to cost $30 billion over 10 years. The government estimates that there are 4 million people who will have the right to claim reparations or land restitution.
In Mexico, the Interior Ministry admitted last month that it did not have a figure for how many people are likely to make claims. It has set a budget of some $465,000 for the National System for Attention to Victims in 2013.
The cost of paying reparations to Mexico’s victims is still unknown. The law has been strongly criticized for not including a budget plan — as one academic pointed out, “A law which does not have an assessment of how much it is going to cost isn’t a law, it’s rhetoric.”
Mexico’s Victims Law is not considered to be the final version. Peña Nieto and the law’s supporters said that the priority was to get the measure onto the books, then revise it later. The Senate is currently considering changes proposed by a coalition of social movements, meaning the law will likely see face revisions in the near future.
Mexico and Colombia are currently facing similar challenges in battling the fragments of once-united drug trafficking cartels, now believed responsible for much of the violence in the two countries.
But while the security problems facing Mexico and Colombia are comparable, the two nations ended up approving very different Victims Laws, underlying the differences between the two conflicts. In the coming years, both countries will likely face more bumps in the road in ensuring that the legislation does in fact provide justice for victims. The laws do provide some hope, but it is time for the victims in both Colombia and Mexico to receive something more substantial.