Miguel Concha: A Good Man

Luis Hernández Navarro

Mexico City. Fray Miguel Concha Malo was a central figure in the process of formation, expansion, consolidation and political advocacy of the human rights movement in Mexico. A pioneer of this cause, his personal biography merged and intermingled with it.

A priest of the Santiago Province of the Order of Preachers in Mexico, a doctor of theology, journalist, university teacher and public intellectual in favor of peace and social justice, Father Concha was also an essential reference in the struggle for the democratization of the country and for the dignity of those at the bottom. A progressive Christian, his book La Participación de los Cristianos en el Proceso popular de Liberación en México (The Participation of the Christians in the People’s Process of Liberation in Mexico)(1968-1983) is a classic for understanding the experience of the Grassroots Ecclesial Communities.

Flanked by Pablo Gonzalez Casanova and Victor Flores Olea, Miguel Concha before a conference at UNAM in 2008. Photo: La Jornada

In a nation where the social movement is highly fragmented and divided, Miguel Concha was a personality of unity and consensus; in a country where corruption is rampant, Father Concha was an indisputable ethical reference.

Fray Miguel was, literally, marked by the tragic experience of the progressive Catholic Church in Latin America in the seventies and eighties of the last century and the repression it suffered at the hands of the military dictatorships. “Today we know – he wrote in the newspaper Unomásuno (One plus One)- that since 1968 around 850 Latin American bishops, priests, men and women religious have been imprisoned, tortured, assassinated or have disappeared.”

He rigorously analyzed the de facto governments in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil. He documented and denounced the abuses perpetrated by the military against civilians. He was deeply influenced by Roberto and Benjamín Cuéllar Martínez, main figures of the Socorro Jurídico Cristiano de El Salvador (Christian Legal Aid of El Salvador).

With the contributions of Salvadorans and Guatemalans seeking peace, he coordinated the book Los Derechos Políticos como Derechos Humanos (Political Rights as Human Rights). There he reclaimed the idea-power of the defenders of civil rights in those countries in which it was also necessary to fight for the right to vote freely and individually, so that suffrage could be calculated and so that citizens could be elected to positions of popular representation. Faithful to these findings, he actively participated in the construction of oversight bodies for free and fair elections.

But he did not limit himself to doing so only outside our borders. With special devotion he turned to documenting in Mexico the police and military barbarities against the civilian population, especially the most humble. When he began to do so, the struggle against repression, political persecution and police abuses had a long history behind it. However, its conversion into an organized human rights movement, in which Dr. Concha was a key player, was much more recent. Although the social mobilization in favor of the release of political prisoners from the 1956-1960 railroad and teachers’ insurgency and the 1968 student-popular movement were very relevant, they did not use the language of human rights to name their demands.

In its beginnings, the most important antecedents of this movement are, on the one hand, the heroic actions of Doña Rosario Ibarra de Piedra against repression and for the return alive of the politically disappeared and, on the other hand, the arrival in Mexico of waves of hundreds of Latin American political refugees fleeing military violence, especially Salvadorans and Guatemalans.

In our country, the Human Rights NGOs experienced a real boom from the 90s of the last century. If in 1984 there were only four civil organizations working in favor of human rights, in 1991 the number increased to 60.

These organizations – of which Father Concha was an undisputed authority and inspiration – developed from both religious and secular perspectives with the explicit objective of seeking to curb abuses in different regions of the country. Their multiplication was the result of both citizen initiative and the action of religious, political and social forces against state impunity.

Several elements contributed to its growth within our borders. The first was the concern of international groups about the human rights situation in the country. Institutions such as Amnesty International (AI) produced reports documenting the repression in certain regions (Oaxaca and Chiapas) or areas (prisons) that revealed the seriousness of the situation.

AI’s first reports on our country were written in 1986. One was called Mexico, Human Rights in Rural Areas: Exchange of Documents with the Mexican Government on Human Rights Violations in Oaxaca and Chiapas; the other was entitled Amnesty International’s Concerns about Mexico. At the time under President Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988). In 1991 it released Mexico: Torture with Impunity.

The reports were very difficult to disseminate and those who wrote them were stigmatized by those in power. However, the relevance and veracity of the documents would be fully documented following the Zapatista uprising of January 1994.

These pioneering works, together with Miguel Concha’s essay “Las Violaciones a los Derechos Humanos Individuales en México: 1971-1986” (Violations of Individual Human Rights in Mexico: 1971-1986, published in the book coordinated by Pablo González Casanova and Jorge Cadena Roa, Primer Informe Sobre la Democracia: México, 1988 (First Report on Democracy: Mexico, 1988) broke new ground.

Father Concha’s pioneering work was a dramatic x-ray of the degree of deterioration of respect for individual rights in the country. At the time, it set an invaluable precedent for the monitoring and study of human rights.

Dr. Concha regularly lent his voice to the voiceless. For this reason, he was just as much in demand as a speaker at the most important peasant marches in the country as he was as a spokesman at conferences and popular assemblies. Without exaggeration, it can be said that he was a central bridge that united the world of progressive Catholicism and the atheist (and even Jacobin) left. The number of marriages, baptisms and communions he officiated among left-wing militants, journalists and their children would deserve to be in the Guinness Book of Records.

His weekly journalistic articles, first in Unomásuno (One Plus One) and later in La Jornada, were a rigorous and informed record of the cause of human rights in Mexico. They contain the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of his mission, agenda and battles.

Far from any personal protagonism, Miguel Concha was also a builder of institutions. One of his central works was the Vitoria Center, a non-profit civil association independent of any political party, created in 1984, which took legal form as a civil association in 1989. Its members draw their inspiration from the 16th century Dominican friar Francisco de Vitoria, who defended the human dignity of the indigenous people. Vitoria is also considered the pioneer of public international law in Latin America.

When Ernesto Zedillo’s government derailed the peace dialogue in Chiapas, undertook the paramilitarization of the state and the National Intermediation Commission (Conai) was dissolved, Miguel participated in the founding of the Grupo Paz con Democracia (Peace with Democracy Group) together with, among others, Pablo González Casanova, Luis Villoro, Rodolfo Stavenhagen and Víctor Flores Olea. The collective tried to help build a peaceful solution to the conflict in the Lacandon and later intervened as a kind of current of opintion in key issues of the political situation in the country, from the 2006 electoral fraud to the offensive against the Mexican Electricians Union in the time of Felipe Calderón.

For years, the group shared bread and salt in the modest meals in the cafeteria of the Centro Universitario Cultural de los Dominicos, Fray Miguel’s house. What could have been a Tower of Babel became an unprecedented space for reflection on the political situation of the country. Father Concha’s modesty, generosity and patience gave the group cohesion and stability.

When he suffered political or ecclesiastical pressures, he would discuss them with his closest companions. However, he did not go into details or dramatize.

The last months of Miguel’s life were painful. Supported by his Dominican brothers, he faced with determination and discipline the fracture of a leg on two occasions. Still, he had to spend more than five months in bed while diabetes undermined his health.

Miguel Concha’s legacy in the realm of defense and the construction of a culture of human rights in Mexico is monumental. He was, without a doubt, one of the indispensable ones. He was also a good man in a world that is not.

This article was published on January 10th, 2022 in La Jornada. https://www.jornada.com.mx/notas/2023/01/10/opinion/miguel-concha-un-hombre-bueno-luis-hernandez-navarro/ English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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