Mapping human rights skepticism in Mexico

Mexico, it seems, finds itself perched on the horns on a dilemma:  should it fight crime or protect the rights of those accused of committing it? Since President Felipe Calderón declared war on drugs in 2006, some 95,000 Mexicans have been murdered, and another 25,000 disappeared, through 2012. At the same time, the Mexican government was implementing a 2008 criminal justice reform that explicitly codified international norms such as the presumption of innocence and assistance of counsel during interrogations. Some may argue that time and money spent on justice reform in the face of uncontrolled gang violence is misplaced, while others will say it is highly warranted. Indeed, in an atmosphere ridden by violence and fear, the rights of the accused may seem like a luxury—something to be conceded only after pressing security problems are brought under control. As abhorrent as it might seem, the idea that rights protect criminals—which I’ll call “rights skepticism”—is an understandable response to violence that is spiraling out of control. Certainly, office-seekers looking to make political hay of crime frequently adopt anti-rights stances. On the other hand, mounting rights abuses make protecting the rights of the accused paramount. But where do ordinary Mexicans stand on this security-rights tradeoff?  

In 2014, the Americas and the World (CIDE, Mexico City) teamed up with the Human Rights Perceptions Polls (University of Minnesota) to probe Mexicans’ views on rights. The two groups had already worked together in 2012, but this new polls expanded the number of human rights questions. Pollsters asked respondents on a scale of 1 to 7 (with 1 being “not at all” and 7 “very much”), “[H]ow much does ‘protecting criminals’ have to do with what you understand as human rights?” Do Mexicans believe that human rights protect criminals?  Does this belief vary across regions, as well as by aspects of the local social context, including crime rates? Our survey evidence, judiciously combined with other data, suggests that Mexican opinions vary depending on geography and politics.  

Demotix/Enrique Perez Huerta (All rights reserved)

"The idea that rights protect criminals—which I’ll call 'rights skepticism'—is an understandable response to violence that is spiraling out of control."

The liberal view

The good news for rights advocates is that most Mexicans do not associate human rights with protecting criminals. Of the 2,400 respondents we surveyed, the average level of agreement with this understanding of rights was just 2.7 on a 1-7 scale (anything under “4” indicates disagreement and anything over, agreement). In a separate survey, the average agreement level of 500 business, political and social leaders was 2.8. So in general, among both elites and masses, agreement with this sentiment was fairly low. But it wasn’t zero, either.

If Mexicans don’t think human rights are for protecting criminals, what do they think they’re for? Mexicans heartily endorse the understanding of human rights as “protecting people from torture and murder” (5.8 general public, 6.8 leaders). Leaders and the public also understand rights as “promoting economic and social justice” (5.9 public, 6.5 leaders) and “free and fair elections” (5.2 public, 6.5 leaders). In short, most Mexicans repudiate skeptical critiques, hewing to a liberal vision of rights.   

The skeptical view

Of course, some Mexicans do believe that human rights protect criminals. Who, and where, are they?  To see where rights skepticism is concentrated, I estimated and mapped municipal-level averages, 185 in all, for rights skepticism. Though some municipalities had up to 60 respondents, most had just 10. To get municipal-level estimates, I used a statistical technique called “small area estimation” (SAE) to combine information from respondents in a given municipality with information from similar respondents in other municipalities, and from other municipalities with similar characteristics.

Figure 1 shows the averages of the belief that human rights protect criminals for the municipalities included in the sample; municipalities in green are in the lowest 25% and those in red, in the highest 25% (yellow and orange are in between). Strikingly, rights skeptics are concentrated in Mexico’s northern border states, all of which are wracked by drug violence. Rights skepticism is, on average, about 1.4 points higher in the north than elsewhere. In contrast, those who do not believe rights protect criminals (the green and yellow patches) are mostly in central and southern Mexico. Scattered red splotches indicate other hot spots around the country, including embattled Guerrero state—where 43 teacher’s college students were forcibly disappeared in Ayotzinapa last September—and on the southern border with Guatemala.

The social context:  crime and politics

The concentration of rights skepticism in Mexico’s north suggests two possible causes: crime and political preference.  Though drug trafficking organizations have now spread throughout Mexico, the north has historically borne the brunt of their violence. Figure 2 maps the 2011 murder rates (per 100,000 inhabitants) in the 185 municipalities included in the survey; darker blue indicates higher murder rates, which ranged from 0 to 276.6. High-murder rate municipalities overlap considerably with rights-skeptical ones. Exploratory analysis indicates that every 50 additional murders increase rights skepticism by about .3 points (5% of the 1-7 scale). The cumulative effect, however, is large. Placid San Diego de la Unión, Guanajuato, for example, had no murders, and averaged a very modest rights skepticism of 2.8 on the 1-7 scale. Tumultuous San Fernando, Tamaulipas, on the northern border—where a mass grave of 172 Central American transmigrants was discovered in 2010—had 276 murders and averaged a whopping 5.2.

The north is also where center-right National Action Party (PAN) gained its first electoral foothold, suggesting another possible cause of rights skepticism: party politics. Indeed, analysis reveals an association between the PAN’s municipal vote share and rights skepticism. As Figure 3 shows, for every ten percentage points the PAN vote increases, the belief that rights protect criminals increases .22 points (3.6% of the 1-7 scale). It would be reckless to conclude that the PAN has manipulated voters’ deepest fears to gain electoral advantages. But it might not be far-fetched to suggest that, if it wished, the PAN could certainly do so.


Surveys can tell us a great many things about human rights. They can portray broad attitudinal tendencies and associations between opinion and other factors, such as geography and political affiliations. As indicated in this analysis, Mexicans largely eschew the notion that human rights protect criminals; indeed, the data suggest that many may reject the rights-security tradeoff altogether. Small area estimation, which reveals the geographic concentrations of attitudes, shows that rights skepticism concentrates in northern Mexico. Combined with other data, surveys can point to contextual factors that abet rights skepticism, such as murder rates and party preferences. This information can then help target areas and social segments ripe for the rights message, while also identifying fertile ground for rights skepticism. This, in turn, can help fine-tune programming and communication efforts. Surveys alone, though, cannot ensure rights are upheld. For that, committed activists, lawyers, and government officials will always be necessary.