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RIGHTS-MEXICO: Armed Forces Accused in Civilian Courts

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Oct 4 2007 (IPS) - The armed forces in Mexico are playing a central role in the security strategy ordered by President Felipe Calderón, but they are also being pilloried because of complaints that soldiers have raped women in two states.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), part of the Organisation of American States (OAS) system, will hear arguments at its 130th session in Washington in the case of two women who were allegedly raped by soldiers in the southern state of Guerrero.

The IACHR will hear the arguments of non-governmental organisations and the Mexican government on the cases of Valentina Rosendo and Inés Fernández, indigenous women of the Tlapaneca Me’phaa people in Guerrero, on Oct. 12.

In a separate case, on Monday a criminal court judge in the northern state of Coahuila convicted and sentenced four out of eight soldiers accused of the rape of 14 exotic dancers, waitresses and sex workers in the town of Castaño in Coahuila. Sentences of three, 20, 30 and 40 years in prison were handed down to the troops who were found guilty.

This was the first time a civilian court has sentenced members of the army in the history of the country.

On Jul. 11, 2006, soon after the presidential elections won by the rightwing Calderón, and while Vicente Fox (2000-2006), his fellow party member, was still in power, a group of soldiers left their duties guarding electoral ballot boxes in the city of Monclova, and headed to Castaños, where they raped and abused women in a bar.

The judge acquitted the other four accused soldiers. According to the bishop of Saltillo, Raúl Vera, the verdict was weak and provides “a wide-open door” for the army to continue to violate human rights.

In a communiqué titled “We continue to be victims of unpunished abuses of power,” Bishop Vera, well-known for his commitment to the defence and promotion of human rights, said that “the sex workers and dancers were subjected to humiliating, inhumane and degrading treatment, in addition to receiving death threats.”

Mario Patrón, a lawyer for the Montaña Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre in Guerrero which presented the cases of Rosendo and Fernández to the IACHR, told IPS that the indigenous women had brought their lawsuit to the Commission “after a long and exhausting process of seeking justice in Mexican institutions.”

According to their case files, which reached the IACHR in November 2003 and June 2004, respectively, Rosendo was 17 when she was attacked and raped in February 2002 by two soldiers, while six others watched.

Fernández, who was 29, suffered similar mistreatment at the hands of the armed forces in March 2003.

The Montaña Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre, the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and the Tlapaneco Indigenous People’s Organisation (OPIT) are the petitioners in both cases.

They allege that the Mexican state is responsible for the illegal detention, rape and torture of the two women, and for the lack of subsequent investigation of the events that had been reported.

“We believe we have all the evidence necessary. The army violated rights on two levels: first, as direct perpetrators of the sexual abuse, which we regard as an act of torture, and secondly, by obstructing justice,” Patrón said.

After taking office in December 2006, Calderón ordered the deployment of more than 12,000 soldiers to combat drug trafficking in several states.

But using the army for police work has left a long trail of human rights violations, such as unwarranted house searches and arrests, theft, torture, rape and murders, sometimes committed by soldiers under the influence of drugs, according to a report on four specific cases by the National Human Rights Commission.

These cases include that of the bar in Castaños, and three others that have occurred under the Calderón administration.

The events in Guerrero and Castaños have reopened the debate on the appropriateness of military jurisdiction over the armed forces when members of the army commit common crimes.

“One of the basic principles of any justice system is its independence and impartiality. When the institution imparting justice is not independent of both parties concerned, that principle is violated,” said Patrón, who will travel to Washington to attend the Commission’s hearings.

The Mexican army is one of the most adept in Latin America at closing ranks to evade accountability for its actions, which have historically remained beyond the reach of civilian courts.

Patrón hopes that the IACHR will produce an in-depth report on both cases, while giving the Mexican government a deadline to comply with its recommendations. The IACHR may issue such a report in the first quarter of 2008.

If that does not happen, Fernández and Rosendo’s case files will be forwarded to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the final legal instance within the OAS system, where a ruling against the Mexican state may be passed.

At its forthcoming session, the Inter-American Commission will hear arguments in cases from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Peru, the United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.

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