Amnesty new office tackles Latin America's 'hidden crisis'

Mexico City (AFP) - With a brand new Americas office in Mexico City, Amnesty International wants to tackle the "hidden crisis" afflicting human rights in the vast region, the organization's head said Tuesday.

In an interview with AFP, secretary general Salil Shetty said the first headquarters based inside the region, covering from North to South America and the Caribbean, will allow the rights groups to react faster to a slew of problems.

Another office will open in Lima this year, as part of the London-based organization's effort to move its regional operations to countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

"There is actually a hidden crisis on this continent," Shetty said from the new Americas office, where a staff of 30 will work on regional issues next to the space used by its Mexico country team.

"The economic growth has been accompanied with growing inequality, so we have large sections of the population who are excluded from economic benefits," Shetty said.

Electoral democracy has not given a voice to indigenous communities, violence is "exceptionally high," human rights defenders are attacked, and women, migrants and people of African descent face discrimination, he said.

"The underlining issue in our view in all of the countries in Latin America on human rights is impunity and the lack of accountability," Shetty added.

"People, particularly if you're rich and you have the right connections, can literally get away with murder."

- Mexico's 'disappeared' -

Outside the office, a yellow wall refers to the "more than 22,000 missing people in Mexico," an issue that Shetty said he raised with President Enrique Pena Nieto last year, along with torture.

Pena Nieto has faced protests over his government's handling of the disappearance of 43 college students.

Authorities say a police-backed drug gang killed the students, but families of the missing reject that conclusion.

"With the 43 students going missing, suddenly the government has woken up as if it's a new problem," Shetty said.

"This issue (of disappearances nationwide) has been completely neglected by the government. You don't need to wait for a crisis to address this."

The government lacks a proper database of missing people and a system to search for them.

"We had the father of one of the missing students yesterday and he was saying that they're just fed up with words," Shetty said.

"People are now getting more and more agitated that there is a lot of talk but very little action."

- Venezuela and Cuba -

Turning to Venezuela, where dozens of people died last year in a crackdown on opposition protests, Shetty said Amnesty was concerned that the way President Nicolas Maduro dealt with dissent violated international standards.

Amnesty has called for an investigation into last year's violence but not action has been taken.

"There's a lot of people who are seen as political opposition who are held, we believe, unlawfully," Shetty said.

In Cuba, Amnesty hopes the diplomatic detente with the United States will prompt Havana to give the rights group more free access to visit the island.

"There are still too many cases of people locked up for political reasons," Shetty said.

"The opening is good as long as it comes with the opening up on the human rights side as well."