Jesus Michel is taking commitment to human rights beyond the small circuit of academics and activists. He's building what he describes as "a culture of respect for human rights" among the least-informed citizens that encourages and enables them to stand up against the abuses that have long been their lot.
The New Idea
Jesus founded the organization Pueblo Nuevo (New People) on the southern periphery of Mexico City to end the impunity with which both the authorities and common citizens violate the human rights of others. Pueblo Nuevo does this by teaching people what their rights are and how to defend them in practical day-to-day terms.To break down feelings of helplessness in the face of unchecked power and dispiriting corruption, Pueblo Nuevo mobilizes people in groups. In multivictim cases such as mass evictions or roundups, Pueblo Nuevo organizes everybody in any way involved with the case to put pressure on the police and judiciary to investigate and bring the violators to court. In cases where only one person or a few people are directly involved, Pueblo Nuevo encourages friends and neighbors to accompany the victims pressing the resulting cases. The group has also formed a network of public service lawyers to whom they refer labor and civil grievances, cases that fall outside of the usual tight definition of human rights but which they feel are part of "the chain of human rights violations" that affect the most vulnerable.Standing up is important, but Pueblo Nuevo uses a wide array of approaches in addition to confronting violators. They understand that many violations occur because of unwarranted fears. Since such mutual misapprehension is especially likely between poor neighborhoods and the police, Jesus has developed a special program to bring together members of the community and the police to help overcome the distrust and misunderstanding so common between them. In Jesus's original zone of action, police roundups have ceased and complaints against the police have dropped dramatically.Reports of sexual and physical abuse in the home, however, have increased as Pueblo Nuevo has made it clear that these too are human rights abuses and should not be accepted passively by the victims. Demand for Pueblo Nuevo's services far exceeds the organization's capabilities. Jesus feels he must now recruit and train many more human rights defenders from the communities, and this training provides them with detailed diagnoses of important types of violations, including those that occur within homes.
Government and the police long have wielded power almost uncontested in Mexico, and they have frequently abused it. In the past year, Pueblo Nuevo has heard the following cases against the police: 15 illegal detentions, 6 torture cases, 5 threats, 4 extortions, 3 murders, 3 sequesters, 3 injuries, 1 missing person, and 1 violent eviction.
As long as people believe that justice is beyond their control, they take little active interest in understanding exactly what their rights are. Most commissions and centers that deal with human rights abuses in Mexico tend to be composed of well-meaning university professors and political activists who see the problem from a distance. Although these human rights defenders are important in terms of mobilizing public opinion and putting pressure on the government, at the grassroots level they contribute very little.
Not only are most people, then, unaware of the rights they have, they are also ignorant that they commit abuses themselves, most often in their homes. About one fourth of the people who come to Jesus for help do so because of family problems, such as abandonment, family violence, and sexual abuse.
The first step for Jesus in building a "culture of respect" for human rights is the "diagnostic" phase. Jesus conducts surveys to measure the people's understanding of their rights and to identify the rights they feel are more threatened. To get honest and open responses, Jesus tries to get the interviewers introduced to the respondents by mutual third-party acquaintances. The survey results prove the problem: few people are well informed of just what their rights are. The surveys also help locate the people in the communities who wish to get training and become community leaders in this area.
Jesus uses the results of the survey to help design new strategies, such as the training school for Human Rights Promoters that he has recently established. Twenty students are now enrolled in a one-day-a-week, year-long program that will teach them how to lead their neighbors in the defense of human rights and how to teach the course to others.
He has also begun shorter neighborhood workshops to teach people their rights and simple procedures that will permit them to defend themselves. In these workshops, participants review the details of actual cases, identifying those aspects that were handled correctly and those that were not. If the case has not yet been closed, these workshops invite the workshop participants to help develop the group's strategy for the case and help with the work.
To address the problem of family abuse, Jesus is creating a directory of all the institutions and procedures that exist in the country that work with families. It lists clearly where a person or family can go for help with particular problems. He is also expanding a family care program that consists of visiting with families for 10 two-hour sessions in order to analyze together the structural mechanisms that perpetuate abuses and how to change them. These family members also become familiar with Jesus's directory, interviewing techniques, and other tools to make them effective counsel to their friends and neighbors.
Pueblo Nuevo is linked with 36 other non-governmental human rights organizations which operate nationally. With many of these groups, Jesus has engaged in collaborative efforts, such as denunciations of particular abuses, workshops, and support of one another's cases. Jesus hopes that these links will help him expose other organizations to his ideas, thereby encouraging their spread throughout Mexico.
Jesus Michel was born in Mexico City and studied applied mathematics for three semesters in one of Mexico City's private Universities. Jesus then went to work in a bank for a short while, but seeing the constant misery and exclusion of the politically and economically disadvantaged inspired him to enter missionary work as a member of the Congregation of Missionaries of the Holy Spirit. He studied theology and philosophy and undertook pastoral work for 10 years, until, in 1986, he decided to dedicate himself to human rights issues full time.