Mexico: A Tale of Two Regions
Los Angeles, July 15, 1997
The Humanitarian Law Project observed the July 6 elections as Foreign Visitors in Mexico D.F. and in the northern zone of the highly conflictive state of Chiapas. The 16 member HLP delegation was composed of attorneys, immigrants rights activists, academics, human rights workers and congressional aides.
The view from the disparate areas of observation gives HLP both hope for democracy in Mexico and grave concern for democracy's prospects and the fragile peace in the country's southern region.
The following is a summary of our findings in Chiapas and Mexico D.F. There were problems in both regions, though clearly the situation in Chiapas was the more alarming.
Despite the irregularities observed and reported, there is no evidence that the outcome was significantly affected in Mexico City. This is cause for optimism, but also caution, as the relative successes in D.F. may lead to decreasing emphasis on national and international observation of elections.
In the areas of conflict in Chiapas, the 80% plus abstention was the most dramatic and poignant statement made by the electorate of that region. It was clear that the absention was the vote. The question remains: will that vote be respected and the root cause of the abstention be effectively addressed?
Mexico City: Problems Amid Progress
HLP had a team of eleven observers in and around Mexico D.F., targeting the more conflictive districts of the city. The HLP team found almost every type of problem observed in past elections, though clearly there have been successes in curbing the scale of such problems in these elections.
The following is a summary of the major irregularities and problems encountered by the HLP team.
Physical Attacks: Two members of our team, Evangeline Ordaz and Yolanda Chavez, were assaulted in the course of their observation. Humanitarian Law Project Page 2
When they attempted to witness the vote count at a polling place in Chimalhuacan, just outside D.F. (after the casilla was closed two hours early) two PRI representatives angrily confronted them. As they drove away from the site, someone threw a rock through their car's back windshield. Remarkably, despite the shattered glass that fell on them, neither was injured.
IFE Complacence: The Federal Electoral Institute was in no way equipped or seemingly even inclined to receive the report of our two delegates attacked in the above incident. The delegates went to the IFE to file this report and were shocked to find no protocol in place. After being referred to a journalist for reasons still unclear, they were finally given blank sheets of paper on which to write the reports. Despite it's newly independent state, the IFE still has much work to do in its information gathering and advocacy on behalf of victims of electoral malfeasance.
Coercion,harassment/ coaccion, hostigamiento: HLP observed informal mechanisms of voter coercion, particularly in low-income neighborhoods; older voters and voters with lower levels of education were often targets. For example, voters opened their marked ballot, in plain view of party representatives positioned next to the ballot boxes before depositing the ballots in the boxes. We term this coercion, because social organizations affiliated with the official party, trade basic services, such as running water, in exchange for a commitment to vote for the PRI.
There were numerous instances of this practice that often materialized as a PRI party representative (every party was allowed 2 representatives in each casilla) standing next to the ballot boxes. The "x's" are easy to see on Mexico's ballots - one needs to fold them very carefully to protect the secrecy of the vote. Also, police stationed outside casillas were asking voters for their credentials in violation of electoral policy.
Premarked ballots/buying votes - Boletas marcadas/compradas : - Judi Kessler and Lynne Halpin arrived at the site where a PRIista who had premarked ballots in his possession near a casilla had just been taken into custody. He was paying voters 100 pesos to take in the premarked ballots under their clothing, deposit them in the ballot box urna, then return the blank ballot as proof of their "voto comprado".
Shaving of Voter Lists: HLP observed many cases in which voters with proper credentials were not on the nominal lists. While usually isolated incidents, in a few cases a significant number of properly registered voters were excluded from the lists, suggesting tampering with the lists consistent with past patterns of fraud.
"Raton Loco"/"crazed rat" (sending voters from casilla to casilla) : The practice of the "raton loco", once pervasive in opposition party strongholds, has been curtailed as a result of the 1996 electoral reforms. However, HLP still came across cases of voters who were told, "You aren't on our list", then sent to other polling places only to receive the same response, in effect, turning them into a "crazed rat". We witnessed numerous voters with proper credentials turned away and sent to "casillas especiales" (for voters in transit). Eventually, these voters who ended up in a "casilla especial", if permitted to vote, could only do so in regional elections and not local ones.
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Ghost Polling Sites "Casillas Fantasmas" : We arrived at several official polling places, only to find that they didn't exist. In one case, one casilla had been relocated, however there was no information as to where it was. We eventually tracked it down via word of mouth on the street - when we arrived, very few voters had shown up.
Opening/Closing of Casillas: Many polling places opened as much as one or two hours late. While this could merely be inefficiency, HLP witnessed two specific instances of polling places closing early in D.F. One of these early closures led to the violent confrontation previously noted.
Chiapas: Burned Ballots and Absent Voters
HLP sent a team of five to observe elections in districts 1 and 3 of the northern zone of Chiapas, Ocosingo, Bachajon, Yahalon, Chilon, Tumbala and Tila. It was apparent to us that conditions in this region were not conducive to fair elections. We found an atmosphere of intimidation and a generally high level of disorganization at the polling places. The popular discontent with these conditions may have contributed to the now widely reported burning of casillas and blockades on election day in the northern zone of Chiapas. Equally as dramatic was the widespread, albeit quieter, expression of discontent with electoral conditions: massive abstentions from voting. The people in this region did not feel conditions were either safe enough or fair enough to warrant participation.
The abstention was on a grand enough scale to reflect a conscious choice made by the indigenous communities of non-participation on election day based on the violence and chaos that has become their daily reality .
In our informed opinion, there was a significant case made for postponing the elections in Chiapas until such time as conditions permitted. We can only hope that the IFE will more carefully assess the situation in this conflictive region when determining whether to annul the elections in the the areas in question.
Voter Turnout: Because of the abstention, the turnout was so low that in many casillas we were unable to observe the voting process, as no one was casting votes at the time of our visit. At polls observed near closing time in Ocosingo and Tila, for example, the turnout was between 10 and 20 percent. Limited interviews with residents indicated a dissatisfaction with the conditions leading up to the elections as the primary cause of this high abstention rate. Due to fear of reprisals, we were unable to conduct extensive interviews on this issue. (See section on intimidation below.)
Intimidation: The extent of intimidation is extremely difficult to determine by a simple visit to polling places. Nevertheless, actions we observed, as well as reports from residents, suggested a climate of fear and intimidation in many of the municipalities observed. The community of Sabanilla, adjacent to our observation site, was still in mourning following the murders of 8, including an 11 year old child, by the paramilitary group, Paz y Justicia, just days before the elections. Humanitarian Law Project Page 4
In the municipality of Chilon, the local "Chinchulines," village bosses and their henchmen, kept a very intimidating presence throughout the town and around the voting areas. A local resident stopped us to ask that we return later in the day because the residents feared violence from these Chinchulines.
In another town, (details omitted to protect the resident who spoke with us), a man began to explain the violence and intimidation that had taken place recently when another man, vague about his purpose there, approached, leading the first man to change his story and profess how well things were going.
Another item to note was the police presence that day. Heavily armed police patrolled in trucks, though these trucks typically left town as soon as we arrived. In several municipalities, such as Ocosingo and Tila, the voting areas were located at the buildings which housed the police stations. In Ocosingo, the list of names for the mesas directiva was posted at the entrance of the police station; a window from that station looked directly into one of the voting booths. In Tumbala, six heavily armed policemen stood just to the right of the voting region. Given recent arrests in this town which are being contested as politically motivated, their very presence contributed to the air of intimidation.
Although we did not observe military patrolling, as they were forbidden by law from doing so on election day, we were shocked by the extreme militarization of the area. We observed several military encampments in the zone. Given the elaborate construction underway, the permanent nature of these camps was obvious and does not bode well for the issues plaguing the region.
Intimidation of Observers: From the evening before the elections, our delegation was under observation in Ocosingo by a man who identified himself as a member of the military. He was observed giving orders to casilla officials on election day. Another man, identified by people in the town as a PRI operative, kept us under surveillance and photographed us repeatedly.
In addition, a man who originally identified himself as the president of one of the casillas demanded to be given one delegate's visa which was photocopied. The man turned out to be the PRD representative at this casilla. There was yet another man who identified himself as a member of the Partido Cardenista who attempted, in vain, to entrap us into violating our status as Foreign Visitors by offering us a copy of the voter list to photocopy.
Voting Procedures: With so few voters, we expected the actual voting process to go fairly smoothly, which in fact, was not the case. The six casillas we watched at opening all began at least one hour late. The mesas directiva (those officially assigned to the voting sites) often seemed unsure of the procedures and in one case in Ocosingo, the entire four-person mesa directiva did not show up and was replaced by people not on the list as substitutes. In front of this same casilla, was a fairly large stage with an equally large backdrop displaying the PRI logo, in clear violation of the rules against electoral propaganda near the voting places. The
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backdrop was painted over after we were observed taking a photograph. One other note: Not a single member of the mesas directiva in any casilla wore name tags, as required by electoral regulations
Secrecy of the Vote: In Yahalon, a PRI representative talked to people as they walked to the booth. In Petalcingo, a PRI representative stood behind a booth with no curtain and watched the voters, while at another, we spotted a voter showing his ballot to the entire mesa directiva. We also observed a man "helping" a woman place her ballots in the box by taking them from her and reading them. These violations were executed in plain view of our observation team and it is reasonable to imagine more flagrant abuses when no outside observers were present.
Burning of Casillas and Roadblocks - As of the date of our departure, no one had claimed responsibility for the burning of casillas and the roadblocks. Although these occurred in our area of observation, we were not present at the time they took place.
Chiapas Conclusions: Our first responsibility was to gather information on the elections and our Chiapas team did its best to gather such information amidst the very crippled state of the electoral process in this region. However, we left Chiapas feeling that our impact there was more immediate. For example, the plea for help from the resident of Chilon mentioned above led us to return and possibly prevent, at least for that day, violent actions by the chinchulines. In another incident, a polling place, which at the time of our visit was planning to close at 1:00 p.m. so that they could "eat lunch," stayed open until at least 4:30 when we returned to investigate.
Given the extreme conditions of the region we were surprised that incidents such as the burning of the casillas and the roadblocks were not more widespread. The military and police occupation, the fear and the grief are taking its toll on the communities and turning to outrage. We trust that the significance of what occurred in Chiapas will not be lost on the principal parties to the conflict and that a peaceful and just resolution can be achieved in the near future.
There is no way to measure the impact of such incidents on the final statistical results, but they point out the importance of national and international observers. Unfortunately, there were so few observers in this region that the number of polling places covered was distressingly low. Nevertheless, it is in such situations that international observers can be most valuable in the electoral process.
The IFE fell short of expectations, given the Mexico City incident and the irresponsible assessment that elections were viable in the conflict zone in Chiapas. Its follow-through in the coming post-electoral period, when it will be confronted with the reported irregularities, will help define its independence or lack thereof. The notion that what we witnessed in Chiapas was as a result of local disputes were was demonstrably without basis. Throughout our observations the government (local, state and federal) presence were pervasive and intimidating to the indigenous
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population in particular. For example, our efforts to interview the political prisoners, residents of our area of observation and imprisoned in Cerrohueco in Tuxtla Gutierrez, were thwarted by the Sub Secretario de Gobierno (Assistant Secretary of State of Chiapas) with inadequate pretexts and statements to the effect that our visit must be approved by the federal government's office of Gobernacion.
It is our opinion that an evaluation of these and other elections should be placed in the context of the national, state and local landscape, as well as events and conditions preceding and following the elections.
We applaud the tireless efforts and valor of Mexican citizens for their pre-electoral and election day efforts to create a viable democratic electoral system. Pollsters and journalists played a significant role despite obstacles and pressures. (With Mr. Cardenas' 2-1 lead in the polls, it would have been difficult for the PRI to repeat the "formula" of 1988). Noteworthy too, are the political opposition parties who battled against the odds for electoral reforms. And although one of the most important reforms, that of campaign financing, was blocked by the PRI, significant gains were nevertheless achieved. We hope that these accomplishments will be respected and enforced, and will lead to a more representative process in an otherwise tarnished electoral history.
The HLP report by casilla/voting site and updated analysis will follow as will periodic updates. It was our experience in 1994, that much was revealed in the days and weeks following the elections that provided a more accurate picture of what truly occured on election day.
The following were HLP election delegates: Susan Alva, Patrick Bonner, Lydia Brazon, Ty Brown, Enrique Buelna, Yolanda Chavez, Robert Curley, Elena Fernandez, Niels Frenzen, Lynne Halpin, Todd Howland, Judi Kessler, Sherry Klein, Evangeline Ordaz, Rudy Ramirez, Jacqueline Soohen
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