The Defenders: María Elena Morera – by Lidia Arista and Fernando Villa (El Economista)

~ This interview was published in El Economista on August 5, 2014 ~
Arista - Maria Elena Morera

Foto EE: Fernando Villa del Ángel


“The basic thing we hope for from officials is that they take care of us and when that does not happen it ends up in serious problems, like the rise of the self-defense movement or taking justice into one’s own hands,” says María Elena Morera.

From her perspective, on a national scale some public security institutions have been strengthened, like the Federal Police (Policía Federal) but “we have not been capable” of achieving this outcome in several entities within the country, where the problem is just administered rather than resolving it.

The worst thing, María Elena Morera says, is that the majority of victims of insecurity remain in raw pain without being able to access justice and the delinquents remain unpunished for crimes like kidnapping, homicide, extortion, rape and violent robbery.

– How do you define yourself María Elena Morera?

A journalist once said to me that I did not know how to be quiet. He was right. I like being restless, believing in my ideals and helping people. I like being what I am.

– Why did you decide to begin your struggle?

Because with the kidnapping of my husband I realized that security and the dispensing of justice in our country are in terrible shape and that citizens must do something to change this state of affairs. I was, and I continue to be still, troubled by the security that we have, with the abuse of authority and the fakery of many officials. I am convinced that as citizens we merit the recuperation of our trust, our peace and our right to go out and enjoy our country.

– Where is the movement you are involved in right now and where do you think it will get to?

It seems to me that civil society as a whole is sufficiently mature to question, demand, and above all else propose changes. In that sense we are a crucial point in the definition of the role of civil society before the State and to provoke the growth of this so-called third sector. When we started out as activists they were around five thousand registered organizations (using the CLUNI, the Clave Única de Inscripción) and now we are about 25,000 CLUNI organizations. That suggests to us that the seed is bearing fruit and in the next few years, we propose to contribute by raising that figure so that we are comparable to other countries like Chile, that right now, has around 100,000 organizations.

 – What results has your fight had? And do you hope to have results?

Undoubtedly, the achievement always comes in the form of the efforts of many people with whom we share common cause. For example, in more than ten years of activism we have managed to make civil society visible on issues of public safety and strengthening democracy. We placed emphasis on a generation of better police officers, on the creation of anti-kidnapping units, on focused strategies to shape trust, on police development; on warming civil society organizations to the creation of specialized laws where before – because of the law – we could not participate; on opening the National Security Council to citizen’s participation, among many other things.

– What have been the best and worst moments in this trajectory?

The best moment in this trajectory was the march we did about ten years ago because that was when I realized that I was not alone and that there are more Mexicans who want a country that is just and safe than those who don’t. The worst moment was when I left the presidency of Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia (MUCD) but that ultimately turned out to be good because I established – with other friends – Causa en Común, where we don’t just deal with the issue of the rule of law but also the building of trust and the capacities of citizens.

– We are immersed in violence and there is no guarantee from the government for basic rights like legitimate authority to make decisions. There is a loss of control over physical territory and a lack of the legitimate use of force. So, are we living in a failed state?

To me it seems that there are two different things. One thing is the crisis of legitimacy in using public forces, which over long periods of negligence sprung from the crisis over making authority mean something and another thing is living in a failed state. It is obvious that there is violence in the country and that the most severe violence results from organized crime which on several occasions has come back on local authorities making them seem incapable of enforcing the rule of law. However, I consider that these problems are not sufficient to suggest that we are living in a failed state.

Even with those regions with a high incidence of criminal activity, there are always citizens and officials ready to change things and that is something that contradicts the failed state thesis.

– What opinion is warranted of the division of powers in Mexico?

To me it seems that the problem of the division of powers in Mexico is that its weight and counterweight still need to be balanced better and this is a result of some politicians who continue to think that they are in control of power and can only see what’s at stake for their own interests. The kidnapping of democracy is still going on and only with greater social participation and strengthening of our capacities can we invert this situation. We have made important steps forward but there is still a way to go.

– What do you think about the anti-violence strategies implemented by Felipe Calderón and now, Enrique Peña Nieto?

It seems to me that they are different strategies because they are from two different moments. Felipe Calderón confronted delinquency that was threatening every form of citizen coexistence. He did it with what he had and in the way he could. Enrique Peña Nieto comes from another moment. It’s up to him to consolidate what has been happening around the police to shape a peaceful society.

– As a society what is Mexico missing?

We are missing many things. I think that beyond public security we need to re-establish trust among citizens and officials. And together we need to overcome economic poverty and the lack of opportunity and social inequality that exists in the country.

– Is there any way to save Mexico?

There are many ways. One of these is to recognize that actually the government should’t do everything and private business should’t do it either. With that, one key point is that we need to grow and strengthen the third sector so that as citizens we can take charge of our own development and see that public activities are done well. It seems to me that as we get better citizens, we get better authorities, since they are a reflection of who we are overall.

– Is there any way to recover peace and trust?

Undoubtedly. The issue is one of everybody promising to make changes and making a difference each day. For example, if we commit ourselves not to discard trash in the street or in front of a neighbor’s door, not to buy pirated products, not to run stop signs, to respect speed limits, etc. We will help build a different and better country.

It also seems to me that as a society we need to make longer term plans that reach beyond every six-year presidential term. If we did that, we would think more about all of society than in the clientelist groups or in political parties.

– Has there been a change in Mexico to the ways of dealing with the problem of insecurity and the attention to crime victims?

 Yes, the way of helping victims has changed. In the last six-year presidential term we had Províctima, who was attending to victimsand after that presidential term, the new victims law was approved and since then the process changed.

 – On the issue of dealing with insecurity, have you noted any possible change in the strategy of the two governments [of President Felipe Calderón 2006 – 2012 and then of President Enrique Peña Nieto]?

There’s no real change in these programs, there’s a change in the form. By way of contrast with the previous government, this government is more about form, of coordinating itself with the state governments.

– Have we been capable of strengthening institutions charged with combating the insecurity and violence that afflicts the country?

I would say that at the federal level we have been able to strengthen some institutions, like the Federal Police. However, we have not been capable of strengthening the Attorney General. At the state level it is a lot more variable. I could tell you, for example, that Nuevo León has created a new police force and it has been capable of improving its justice systems. But then there are states that have not been able to improve their justice systems like Veracruz or Tamaulipas or Guerrero. So, one cannot generalize. There are states that have moved forward a lot and there are states that have not moved forward.

 – Under the current administration in Mexico, is the government working to solve the problems of violence and insecurity or is it just managing that problem?

I think there are entities that are just managing it and others that work towards improvement.

 – And what about the federal government?

 I would say that the Federal Police has been strengthened but not sufficiently and in the area of the Attorney General there is a lot that must be done. The Attorney General has not managed to strengthen its personnel, nor its procedures. What’s happening to us is that we still don’t know about those people from organized crime in this presidential term. We don’t know if this presidential term will end up with the same thing that happened in the last one, like Michoacán.

 – How does one cure a country that has been struck by an epidemic of violence?

 You cure it with two arms: one, institutional strengthening, because crimes rise and fall they are never going to be at zero, there is always going to be crime. The difference between Mexico and other countries is that Mexico has institutions that are much weaker.

 – And what is the other arm, aside from institutional strengthening?

Security does not walk alone, by itself. Security and violence go with other factors, like employment, social development and education. So when these are strengthened, all those mechanisms which are linked to peace need to be strengthened as well, putting violence in its place.

With the few or many advances that we have in terms of security, do the victims hope to achieve justice?

Today, as in any system of justice, the majority of victims stay in pain, in anguish, and without achieving justice. Impunity continues being very high and since impunity is high in every country, Mexico’s problem is that the crimes that injure society most, like kidnap, murder, extortion, rape, violent robbery are the ones that remain most unpunished, unlike with other countries where there is a high rate of impunity but if you commit these types of crimes you know they will arrest you; you know that there is a greater probability that they will arrest you and that’s the difference between a country with impunity and another will less impunity. When there is less impunity, the balance adjusts itself. Then the criminal considers the risk of committing a serious crime because he is going to be arrested. Here they don’t even have to think about it because they know that they are not going to be arrested. Often what seems strange is that there aren’t more crimes.

– What is needed to diminish the debt owed those people who are the victims of violence and who up until now haven’t managed to obtain justice?

I think there are many things to do: one is that the state governments need to have a much closer relationship with victims.

Two, strengthening the institutional structures for prosecuting justice.

– Has the mobilization of organizations that defend victims of violence been worth it?

Of course it has been worth it. Without them nobody would see the problem. Without them we wouldn’t have a law. Without them many victims would never have received a response, in spite of everything that there is still left to do. I mean to say that the victims would not even have been victims. Today they lack a solution. However, who does have a solution.

 – If we don’t see a change on security issues that is effective, so that people can move around safely, so they feel safe as a country, where are we going?

The basic thing we hope for from officials is that they take care of us and when that does not happen it ends up in serious problems, like the rise of the self-defense movement or taking justice into one’s own hands. If we don’t want to keep on living like this then we have to work together to have a better sort of justice.

– How does one live through the tragedy that you confronted and then take to the streets, protesting so that what happened to you does not happen to another Mexican?

They are processes of resilience that implies that a person has or does not have the capacity to overcome a problem. We see this in people and in communities. Sometimes you say to yourself, “well, I don’t understand why, if this person suffered the same crime that this other person has suffered why can one move on and the other not go forward.” And it’s because of these processes of resilience that are personal or that are in communities. In my family’s case, it’s because we have a very strong family and because we have a family network and strong friendships. Because maybe we have something that pushes us forward to confront our problems. And looking at it another way, there’s the luck of finding somebody who responds to you who helps you move forward. It depends a lot on the networks you have of family and friends.

– What do you think of the Tlatlaya Case?

It’s an unacceptable event. The Mexican State must account for what happened; informing society about the facts; repairing the damage to the victims’ families and providing guarantees of non-repetition.

In Causa en Común, we have stated on various occasions against the participation of the armed forces in public safety functions. A case like Tlatlaya helps us prove once more the error of maintaining a hardline policy characterized by military confrontations to combat crime. We need to strengthen local police forces, pursuing current standards for professionals and with full respect for human rights. The objective is to withdraw the armed forces from situations to which they are not suited.

 – What opinion do you have about the issue of the disappeared students of Ayotzinapa?

First and foremost, the most urgent thing is to demand justice, punishing the responsible and above all else finding the disappeared young people. Looked at from a different angle, this case shows the institutional weakness of the Mexican state, infiltrated by organized crime. This event should be a watershed in the institutional transformation of Mexico, for a democratic police reform, for the consolidation of a new social pact.

 – How do you interpret the behavior and management of these issues on the part of authorities, specifically Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam and President Enrique Peña Nieto?

They have responded correctly by placing these paradigmatic events at the top of their agenda. It’s up to us as citizens to demand that they quickly and completely fulfill their official obligations.

 – Where are we going? What can we do under these conditions in our country of unprecedented escalating violence and its worst human rights crisis?

What we must do is organize ourselves. Protest peacefully and propose viable solutions. We need to create links of trust between different sectors of society so that we can together build a better Mexico. That’s why its important to protest against the government when it does not do things well, but we also need to ally ourselves with the government to arrive at joint solutions.

 – Do you want to add anything?

 I hope that in Mexico we are steadily increasing our capacity to help victims and that we make this system of solidarity we sometimes overlook much more present because each time there is a victim, there are thousands of victims in Mexico. If you think that nothing is every going to happen to you eventually something does happen. But you don’t have to wait until that moment to join forces with others.

Lidia Arista is a reporter for El Economista. Fernando Villa is a photo editor at El Economista. This article first appeared under the title, “Los defensores: María Elena Morera,” and is available at:

 Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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