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POLITICS-MEXICO: Military Takes Centre Stage Under Calderon

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Apr 10 2007 (IPS) - Mexican President Felipe Calderón has placed the military on the front-line of his administration – a strategy without precedent in the modern history of Mexico, which has drawn fire from human rights organisations and has made analysts and legal experts nervous.

The military, which according to opinion polls is the most highly respected of all institutions in Mexico after the family, has been thrown head first into the fight against drug trafficking since Calderón was sworn in last December. Although the armed forces were already involved in that task since the 1990s, their role has never before been so broad and high-profile.

>From his very first minute in office, Calderón has been accompanied by military personnel. He has spoken in favour of the armed forces at military events, where representatives of the executive branch have traditionally not given speeches, and he ordered an average 19 percent pay hike for all troops.

He also transferred 10,000 soldiers and naval personnel to the Federal Preventive Police, and received unusual praise from Defence Minister General Guillermo Galván, who said the president’s legitimacy, questioned by the leftist opposition, “is cemented in popular approval” and the “overwhelming” support of the country’s institutions.

The president “has taken the hand of the military because he needs to strengthen his legitimacy, increase his bargaining power vis-a-vis the opposition, and control as far as possible the drug trafficking mafias and crime in general, which are out of hand,” said Guillermo Garduño, an expert in security and military issues at the Autonomous Metropolitan University.

However, “so far I haven’t seen any real danger of the militarisation of civilian institutions or their subordination to military influence,” the analyst told IPS.

But some human rights groups do perceive such a danger. “There is evidence that Calderón is giving too much power to the armed forces, and there is a risk that he will subject his government to that power,” Adrián Ramírez, president of the Mexican League for the Defence of Human Rights, told IPS.

Mexico’s armed forces, which unlike their counterparts elsewhere in Latin America have never staged a coup d’etat, are now heavily involved in the fight against organised crime, an area where military officials and civilian authorities jointly make up the operational command level.

Some 20,000 of the 200,000 members of the military have been deployed in several states to carry out operations against bands of drug traffickers, which are involved in a wave of extreme violence. The number of drug-related murders by these groups has climbed to 630 so far this year.

The participation of the armed forces in policing worries legal experts, who point out that according to the constitution, in peace time, no military authority can exercise functions other than those that are strictly connected to military discipline.

“No one seems to care if the constitution’s strict provision is flagrantly infringed” in the name of the fight against drug trafficking, wrote Miguel Granados, an expert in legal questions, in his column in the local newspaper Reforma.

According to the analyst, the president has clearly shown “a propensity and need to take shelter in the military institutions to govern.”

In the past, although the armed forces expressed their support for the president of the day, they generally remained behind the scenes when it came to public life.

But that seems to be changing.

General Rodolfo Carrillo, director of military health in the Defence Ministry, participated in a Mar. 24 meeting held by an anti-abortion group, Pro Vida, in uniform and accompanied by a squad of soldiers.

The meeting was held to study the draft laws under consideration in Congress and the Mexico City parliament that would make abortion legal, and was attended by delegates of conservative groups and Colombian Cardinal Alfonso López, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family.

General Carrillo’s participation in the meeting “was an enormously stupid thing to do,” said Garduño.

For his part, Granados said the general’s attendance at the meeting “became a message of proximity to and even of solidarity with” the Catholic church’s stance against abortion, which Calderón himself shares.

Another incident that has worried human rights groups was the way a recent case of alleged gang rape of a poor, elderly indigenous woman by soldiers and her subsequent death on Feb. 25 in a remote rural area was handled by the authorities.

Although the initial forensic reports and the 73-year-old Ernestina Ascensio’s dying words indicated that she had been the victim of a brutal sexual assault, the government, the public National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and the military brass discredited the evidence.

“We believe they want to let the case go unpunished, which is simply unacceptable. We regret and deplore that the government should abase itself in this way before the power of the military,” Ramírez told IPS.

Before she died, Ascensio told her relatives that she had been attacked by several soldiers. Her testimony was supported by the forensic evidence. Prosecutors said the injuries she had suffered were consistent with having been brutally raped and sodomised. She had also suffered fractures of the skull and hip.

The Defence Ministry initially stated in a communiqué that “forensic experts are carrying out a comparison of seminal fluid found on the body of the deceased with blood samples to be taken from military personnel” in a nearby garrison.

Afterwards, however, they withdrew that communiqué and asked the media to publish instead a statement to the effect that there was no evidence that military personnel had attacked Ascensio.

Before the results of a second autopsy sponsored by the CNDH were released, the Defence Ministry said that “disaffected groups with a grudge against the armed forces have repeatedly tried to bring into disrepute the actions carried out by the military for the benefit of Mexican society, and in this particular instance it was criminals wearing military uniforms who were the perpetrators of the crime.”

But according to the CNDH, no crime was even committed. After the second autopsy, the president of the Commission declared that Ascensio had not been raped but had died of anaemia caused by malnutrition and intestinal bleeding.

Xavier Olea, one of the founders of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) in the late 1980s, said Calderón has used the armed forces “to have an impact on public opinion and win public approval,” in the wake of the doubts that surrounded his triumph in the Jul. 2 presidential elections.

The conservative Calderón defeated PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador by a margin of just over half a percentage point.

The leftwing candidate and many of his supporters claimed Calderón’s victory was fraudulent and demanded a full recount of the vote. But the electoral authorities rejected the PRD’s request and carried out a partial recount instead, after which they announced that no evidence of fraud was found.

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