ACAMBARO, MEXICO – When one of the United States executes a high-profile prisoner, Mexico shudders with indignation.
If the prisoner happens to be a Mexican national, the indignation is deafening and usually laced with a healthy dose of nationalism.
Days before the execution, the Mexican media and the country’s political leaders join to blast American society for supporting capital punishment.
Progressive newspapers, such as La Jornada, will suddenly portray the declarations of their staple political targets as the noble efforts of human rights heroes.
There is a pervasive sense that Mexican society is better than its American counterpart on this one defining issue, leading many Mexicans to ask, “Who is more civilized?”
The death penalty was effectively abolished in Mexico in 1929. Mexican nationals executed in the U.S. are almost treated as martyrs, for they have died at the hands of a nation that is viewed as ever-imperialist, ever-cruel.
Ironically, the possible use of the death penalty to combat skyrocketing crime rates in Mexico is gaining support. Mexico’s homicide rate is more than twice the U.S. rate, and in the country’s larger cities, especially Mexico City, violent crime has become painfully common.
Drug war-related violence and high-profile kidnapping rings that prey on the country’s well-to-do and middle class have recently made the death penalty a more frequent subject in newspaper opinion pages and on radio talk shows.
Conservative politicians, unable or unwilling to deal with the primary roots of Mexico’s crime problem – an economy that keeps two thirds of the population in poverty – are asking that Mexican society at least discuss the possibility of bringing back the death penalty.
During the recent election cycle, a popular campaign slogan used by some gubernatorial candidates suggested the intolerance that is gripping Mexico: “Human rights are for humans, not rats (thieves).”
Indeed, were it not for the aversion Mexicans feel when one of their compatriots is executed in the U.S., capital punishment might very well enjoy greater popularity.
Public indignation, of course, gives Mexico’s leaders plenty of room for moral posturing. The most recent example came Nov. 9 with the Texas execution of Miguel Angel Flores, convicted of an 1989 murder and rape.
Flores was the fourth Mexican national to be executed in the U.S. since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment after a brief four-year ban. Currently, 19 of the 446 prisoners on death row in Texas are Mexican nationals, according to Richard Ellis, an attorney for Flores. (Amnesty International calculates that 44 Mexican citizens are on death row nationwide.)
The day before the execution, Mexico’s president-elect Vicente Fox Quesada asked Governor George W. Bush for clemency, telling a reporter for that he was fundamentally opposed to the capital punishment.
Fox also said he was greatly troubled that Flores had not been told of his right (under the 1936 Vienna Convention) to contact Mexican consular officials at the time of his arrest. The Mexican consulate did not learn of the case until July 11, 1991, a full 10 months after Flores was sentenced to death.
Mexican government officials have said they would have provided expert counsel to Flores had they known of his arrest. But in a recent report, the Mexican Human Rights Defense League claimed that the Mexican government has not provided sufficient help to Mexican nationals sentenced to death in the U.S. and that officials become involved only when public opinion forces them to do so.
The Texas execution of Flores is unlikely to strain political relations between Fox and Bush. Fox is widely considered an ally of Texas big business, and his call to Bush was an obligatory act of diplomacy.
The next day, the same evening that Flores was executed, Fox was delivering an upbeat keynote speech at the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s 26th Annual Los Angeles Dinner. He made no mention of Flores or the many Mexican nationals on death row in the U.S.
Pacific News Service commentator Martin Espinoza reports from Guanajuato, Mexico.