Mexican President Vicente Fox’s record on human rights has been “disappointing” in spite of pledges to put the issue at the top of the government’s agenda, a rights group said on Wednesday.

Under Mr Fox, whose six-year term ends in December, Mexico “has yet to establish accountability for past atrocities or to make serious progress in curbing the abuses that continue to be committed on a regular basis,” said US-based Human Rights Watch in a report.

The findings are almost certain to upset Mr Fox, who in 2000 ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) and promised to place human rights at the centre of government policy.

They could also provide ammunition for opposition parties contesting the presidential election on July 2. An influential poll this week put Felipe Calderón, of Mr Fox’s centre-right National Action party (PAN) in the lead with 39 per cent of the vote.

He leads Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the leftwing Democratic Revolution party (PRD), who has fallen to second place for the first time since the campaign began in January with 35 points.

“Fox’s arrival was an historic opportunity for change,” José Miguel Vivanco, head of HRW’s Americas division told the Financial Times. “The tragedy is that he had the right ideas, the right strategies, even the right diagnosis but the fight was not there.”

In particular, HRW criticises Mr Fox for not putting sufficient energy behind his proposal to reform Mexico’s justice system and tackle the frequent use of torture and the misuse of pre-trial detention.

The reforms envisaged eliminating the admission in court of pre-trial confessions, which HRW insists are commonly extracted from suspects through the use of torture. They would also have allowed federal judges to grant provisional liberty to some suspects of “serious crimes”.

The list of crimes defined as “serious” has grown to include relatively minor offences, resulting in the detention of thousands of individuals who often have to wait months in prison for a judge’s decision, says HRW.

As a result, more than 40 per cent of the country’s prison population have yet to be convicted of a crime.

“You can have a lot of beautiful plans but, if you fail to deliver, the pattern is going to be the same,” said Mr Vivanco.

However, the report does stress Mr Fox’s “dramatic progress” on transparency, and says his administration has “pursued a course of unprecedented openness”.

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