On September 22, 2021, Mexico’s attorney general’s office (FGR), sought to charge and arrest 31 scientists, academics, and researchers for money laundering, organized crime, and embezzlement.
The FGR filed the charges and requested arrest warrants for the 31 academics with the intention of holding them in Altiplano prison, a maximum-security facility historically used to intern high-level criminals affiliated with drug cartels. A judge at Altiplano prison denied the FGR’s request and rejected the charges due to lack of evidence. However, the FGR released a public statement reiterating the accusations and declaring that the office would re-file the charges.
Money laundering, organized crime, and embezzlement are the most serious charges possible under a 2019 law being used by the FGR – a law prohibiting members of an advisory board from receiving money from a government science fund – and render those charged ineligible for bail during pretrial proceedings, which can last years. The FGR alleges that the accused – all former members of an independent scientific advisory board called the Scientific and Technological Consultative Forum (“Foro Consultivo”) – illegally spent millions in public funds awarded to them by the National Council for Science and Technology (Conacyt) between 2012 and 2018. If convicted, some of the academics could face more than 80 years in prison. The 31 individuals accused have denied misusing the funds, which were awarded to and spent by the advisory board years before the 2019 law passed, and do not have any criminal history.
The accusations have garnered condemnation from the international academic community as being politically motivated and intended to intimidate and silence criticism from Mexico’s academics, which has risen since Andrés Manuel López Obrador assumed the presidency in 2018. Obrador has openly accused academics of being corrupt and privileged and has overseen significant academic budget cuts and the implementation of new restrictions on how research funds can be spent. His appointed head of Conacyt, María Elena Álvarez-Buylla, aligns herself closely with his views. She is a vocal critic of “neoliberal” and “Western” science and sent letters to Obrador supporting the charges being brought against the 31 academics. She has received backlash from the scientific community – including those accused – for a number of reasons, such as reducing the scholarships available for international study, stating that academic works should be published in Spanish or indigenous languages instead of English, and ordering researchers and Conacyt employees to refrain from criticizing the body.
One international petition states that “the attorney general is trying to terrorize the academic community that has publicly and openly expressed its disagreement with the current policies of Conacyt.” Similarly, in an interview for Times Higher Education, the dean of the Division of Actuarial Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, Beatriz Rumbos, called the charges “ridiculous,” saying “[i]t looks extremely unlikely that the organized crime and money-laundering charges will ever be taken seriously by any court, but the intimidation factor is certainly working, and academics are extremely worried, for good reason.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use and threat of prosecution against scholars in an apparent effort to restrict their academic freedom and right to freedom of expression and opinion – conduct that is expressly protected by international human rights law including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, to which Mexico is a party. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from taking actions to restrict or retaliate against such conduct, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, arbitrary prosecution intended to restrict or otherwise deter the nonviolent expressive activity of scholars undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.