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Amnesty, Forgiveness and Justice in Mexico, Can They Coexist?

An opinion piece from Hortensia Picos-Lee


October 9, 2018

In Mexico, we have been talking a lot about amnesty in recent months due to the "amnesty" policy which the new government led by the next President of the Republic Andrés Manuel López Obrador plans to implement when they take office on December 1.

Amnesty comes from “amnesia” or “loss of memory”, through the Greek word for “forgetfulness”. It has been defined as “an act of sovereign power that covers with the veil of oblivion the infractions of a certain class, abolishing the processes that have begun or that must be started, or the sentences pronounced for such crimes”.

This topic has been controversial since the beginning, since it has been interpreted by many people and organizations as an act of forgiveness for those who have committed all kinds of crimes, regardless of the context in which they occurred, the reasons why they violated the law, the nature of their fault and the degree of harm to their victims. Forgiving and releasing those who have irreparably damaged innocent people seems at first sight nonsense, an inconceivable idea and disrespectful of the pain suffered by the victims or the people close to them.

Those who will work in the next government have often explained how their concept of amnesty will be put into practice. It is essentially aimed at people with low economic resources who have been forced to plant drugs or transport them under coercion or due to a strict need. of survival, people who have not murdered others and who have the lowest level within the criminal organizations. However, this idea has been misunderstood, because it has been assumed that the society should forgive and free those who in one way or another have become involved with drug trafficking, an activity that has degraded the human being to the lowest level and has caused too many deaths, disappearances and violence. In addition, there is a certain resistance to forgiveness, because forgiving implies that we must understand, accept, reconcile, and an injured reason and a broken heart does not understand, does not accept, has no peace.

In a State of Law such as ours, unrestricted compliance with the law appeases the internal fire and popular clamor. However, there remain questions in the air: What happens if even after applying the law, the anxiety of justice is not satisfied, leaving the feeling that the imposed punishment does not solve the underlying problem? What should we do when our judicial system has exhausted all its resources to effectively carry out its work and is still overwhelmed by insecurity and crime?

In these circumstances, the State through its legislative body can exercise its prerogative to create special laws to apply them over common laws, in order to deal more effectively with situations as serious as drug trafficking, which has completely ruined our social peace. The inability to contain and punish criminal groups has led to a strategy to free people who have been forced to work for these groups from punishment and then guide them to legitimate productive activities. Therefore, applying the amnesty in violations of the law committed in very specific circumstances is a valid option to promote the pacification of the country; the State takes away the blindfold to justice and makes clear that sometimes it is more beneficial to absolve than to imprison. Then the freed people can, to the extent of their possibilities, respond to the forgiveness by cooperating to destroy the criminal groups. The people and families that have been victimized by drug lords could appreciate this.

Since amnesty is then a means to achieve social tranquility, those who embrace it commit themselves to accept the legitimacy and legality of those who grant it and not to reoffend in their criminal activities. This is important because Mexico has been characterized by the corruption that sustains organized crime through pacts with the government, a reality that fiercely merges drug trafficking and power structures and thus solidifies the activities of the drug gangs. Every day ordinary people are recruited to execute crimes, people who will be imprisoned or murdered when things go wrong. It is in this context that amnesty seems legitimate for certain cases.

But this explanation has not calmed the mood of those who think that there should be no forgiveness or forgetfulness, for any reason. They believe that the door that is opened to some criminals is automatically open to all. In the situations contemplated by the amnesty, Mexican society is asked to forgive and forget, to accept that legally there will be no crime to prosecute. To many people in a society as aggrieved as ours, this amnesty costs too much -- they demand that the criminals be punished as a guarantee that the State is really working for their safety and as a way of alleviating and restoring their hurt dignity.

It is then necessary to point out that the amnesty is not for all; a State that does not sanction crime empowers the rule of arbitrariness and creates an environment conducive to new social or political crises. Amnesty is not indiscriminate forgiveness. The perpetrators who have affronted men and women in their very existence, their integrity and their dignity must painfully face the consequences of their actions; the victims need and deserve to be restored, even if the penalty imposed on the offender does not strictly correspond to the damage inflicted.

This last situation moves us to explore another perspective in the delicate subject of forgiveness and justice. The question arises whether it is possible for people and communities that have suffered the horrors of crime can forgive those who have filled their lives with so much pain. This question points to the possibilities that these people and communities have of overcoming the pain that lasts over time and that threatens to reduce their existence to being only victims of the perpetrated acts. The forgiveness to the offender who attacked him or her appears as a possibility of liberation upon ending the action of the victimizer over the victim, who is then able to incorporate his painful past into a biography that is projected onto a present of struggle for justice and a future that can be loaded with hope. An ideal is to seek reconciliation between victim and perpetrator, but this is not always possible since, for reconciliation, the latter must acknowledge his guilt, repent, be willing to repair his fault as much as possible and commit himself not to repeat his conduct. This does not always happen; forgiveness can be unilateral, reconciliation can not. However, forgiving gives the victim the possibility of freeing himself from his suffering, assuming that this pardon is a strictly personal decision and does not exempt the State from its responsibility to impart justice and apply the sanctions that correspond to the provisions of its laws.

God always forgives us. We have violated God’s law yet God’s heart is always open to forgiveness. God says: "I am the one who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (Isaiah 43:25).

However, even if God forgives us, we can not reconcile with God if we do not confess our sins and accept God’s presence in our lives. It is clear that no human being can be compared to God in terms of love and generosity, but in each person should exist the intention to forgive and reconcile with whoever has hurt him. The process of forgiveness can become very difficult; the words "I forgive you" are tied to the throat when the offense has left wounds too deep and too sensitive to pain.

However, to forgive is possible precisely because God first forgave us. Through Jesus Christ, God took the initiative to reconcile with us. Jesus Christ gave us the ultimate example of forgiveness: from the cross he forgave his executioners who had crucified him. Suffering indescribable pain, he gave us an example of forgiveness so that we can follow his steps. No doubt the claim of justice of an innocent person deserves an answer, but the justice that lacks mercy, cannot forgive and does not give the offender the opportunity to return to reintegrate into society after receiving the amnesty or having paid for his or her crimes is very similar to revenge.

It is impossible to know now the results of the amnesty project, as proposed by the next Mexican government. But it represents a brave and different treatment to the issue of violence, a true attempt to achieve social reconciliation in a broad sense, a solution to face the pain and heal the fractures left by violence. For now, we can try to understand what this project means and we can intend to have the courage to forgive those who have offended us and our society. Let's not look for revenge; let the laws act as they should for seeking justice and, if it does not come by human hands, place ourselves in the hands of God so that God may be the righteous judge who is never wrong. Only in this way will the quote of Saint John Chrysostom come true: "Nothing resembles God so much as being always ready to forgive."

Hortensia Picos Lee is the Spanish Resource Editor for BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz.

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