"Shut up, or we will send you home in pieces," read the note that arrived at the Network of Civil Human Rights Organizations of Guerrero. It was addressed to Mexican public interest attorney Vidulfo Rosales and signed by vigilantes who proudly called themselves, "The Law."
Rosales heads up the legal team at the Tlachinollan Center, an organization honored with the 2010 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for litigating a series of precedent-setting cases against human rights abuses in the poorest region in the poorest state of Mexico. Every day, the team at Tlachinollan fights for justice on behalf of the indigenous communities whose remote mountain homeland is now in the crosshairs of a volatile narco-trafficking network and an increasingly ferocious and vindictive military -- a world in which starvation is rampant, where soldiers rape and torture the citizens they are stationed to protect and students are gunned down in broad daylight in the name of crowd control.
Now they find themselves defending one of their own: after a period of reflection, the organization has reluctantly decided that it will be best for Rosales to leave Mexico temporarily, fearing that the threats against his life are too loud to ignore, the protections offered by the government too minimal, and the perpetrators too powerful to dismiss.
Last month, with the help of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights and a coalition of organizations that have called on Mexico's government to launch its formal investigation into these threats, Vidulfo Rosales arrived in Washington, D.C. to join a summer program in humanitarian law at American University. His temporary home is just one time zone removed from the community where he grew up; but in practical terms, it is a world away.
When I visited the Mexican State of Guerrero in April, our drive from the airport to Tlachinollan's office was 11 hours down rural roads in the bed of a pick-up truck. A few days later, on the road to Acapulco, my 14-year-old daughter, Michaela, and I would be forcibly detained, harassed, and threatened at an illegal checkpoint by eight soldiers brandishing automatic weapons.
But we were with Tlachinollan Executive Director Abel Barrera, one of Mexico's most well-known human rights defenders. For hundreds of families living in the Montaña region of Guerrero, being pulled over that day would have been the start of a tale that wasn't just frightening, but may well have been fatal. The clients Tlachinollan represents are survivors and surviving relatives of the systemic corruption and human rights violations that have held Mexico's indigenous communities hostage for years.
The death threats may have been addressed to Vidulfo Rosales, but they sent a message to all the Tlachinollan clients they cited: Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo, two women who were raped by soldiers in 2002; the families of students who were shot dead by police during a peaceful protest in December; the thousands of Guerrero residents who face eviction in the name of the La Parota dam project; and the countless more who dream of coming forward themselves.
In 2010, the Inter-American Court ordered Mexico, for the third time, to try cases of military abuse against civilians in civilian court. Mexican President Felipe Calderón issued a statement supporting the decision, but even as these cases pile up and threats against advocates like Vidulfo Rosales grow, the Mexican government does little to move these prosecutions forward.
And all the while, the United States continues to add to the $1.6 billion in aid that our Merida Initiative has sent to Mexico and its military since 2008 as part of a proposed narco-trafficking reform efforts.
I've met Vidulfo. I know he won't let this physical divide distract him from the women and men he has dedicated his life to defending. But now he is in Washington, D.C., when he should be in La Montaña, building a new era of justice for the victims and survivors whose uncommon bravery made this fight possible.
Vidulfo Rosales' time stateside this summer comes at a high price for himself, his family, and his clients, but it presents the United States with a pivotal moment for determining its role in this growing human rights crisis. As a member in the Organization of American States, a key player in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and a force for justice worldwide, we must do our part to build a future of human rights and human dignity throughout the Americas, and call on Mexico to protect its indigenous communities and the advocates like Vidulfo who risk everything to defend them.