Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-MEXICO: Military Abuses Brought to Inter-American Commission

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Nov 4 2009 (IPS) - A case of rights abuses allegedly committed by the Mexican armed forces is coming up for a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), where it joins a long list of accusations against the army in this Latin American country.

As part of the IACHR’s 137th Period of Sessions, which began in Washington Monday, a hearing will be held Thursday on “Public Security and Human Rights in Tijuana, Mexico” at which activists and victims’ relatives will report human rights violations allegedly committed by Mexican soldiers.

“We want to denounce what is happening as a result of the public security model, which is generalised throughout the country but has had specific consequences in certain areas, like Tijuana,” in the northwestern Mexican state of Baja California, activist Humberto Guerrero with the non-governmental Mexican Commission for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), one of the plaintiffs in the case, told IPS.

The complaint, one of five cases against Mexico being heard Thursday, will air the case of a group of municipal police in Baja California who were detained and tortured by members of the military.

In addition to federal and state police forces, there are 2,022 municipal police forces in Mexico’s local administrations. The municipal police are the worst paid and least trained and many have been linked to organised crime.

Since May, 25 municipal police from Tijuana, the capital of Baja California, have been held in a maximum security prison in the western state of Nayarit, accused of working for the Tijuana cartel, one of several that traffic drugs into the United States.

The CMDPDH and the non-governmental Tijuana-based Northwestern Citizens Human Rights Commission (CCDHN), requested the hearing Aug. 8. The IACHR’s assistant executive secretary, Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, notified them of its acceptance on Oct. 5.

“We hope that the case will be found admissible” by the IACHR, Raúl Ramírez, head of CCDHN and a former Ombudsman for Baja California, told IPS.

This state, on the border with the United States, has been used as a test case for public security policies, with the army exclusively in control. More than 2,000 troops are stationed in the capital alone as part of what is known as Operation Tijuana.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who took office in December 2006, deployed the armed forces in a major offensive against drug trafficking and organised crime. Troops had been sent out on to the streets before, during the administration of his predecessor Vicente Fox (2000-2006), but never to such an extent.

So far this year, over 5,500 people have been murdered in drug-related killings by organised crime, more than were reported during the whole of 2008, according to tallies kept by journalists. Over 1,000 of these killings took place in Baja California.

A study by the non-governmental Citizens’ Institute for Studies on Insecurity (ICESI) ranked Baja California as the third most violent Mexican state, after Sinaloa and Chihuahua, also located in the north of the country.

Mexican and international human rights organisations accuse the Mexican army of committing serious rights violations in the course of their anti-narcotics operations.

Arbitrary arrest, preventive custody in military barracks, incomunicado detention and physical and psychological torture have been systematically employed by the army in this border zone, says the petition presented by CMDPDH and CCDHN.

These methods are used in order to extract confessions and, according to the victims, fabricate evidence against them. Under the pretext of fighting drug trafficking, they result in detentions without prior investigation and which violate due legal process, the petition claims.

The state National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) reports that it receives between one and two complaints a day of abuses by military personnel in Baja California.

In addition to the case of the 25 police officers, the petitioning organisations will present the cases of another 11 municipal police, two state police agents and four apprehended civilians who say they were tortured. The files have been received by CNDH for analysis.

Ramírez, the head of CMDPDH Juan Gutiérrez, and six relatives of the victims will be in Washington for the hearing, as well as representatives of the Calderón government and the state administration.

“Municipal police are suspected of links with organised crime, and they are detained under the ‘arraigo’ law, which violates due process. Under torture, they confess to crimes or incriminate someone else,” Guerrero said.

The criminal justice reform approved by Congress in June 2008 enshrined “arraigo” – preventive detention on suspicion, pending investigation – in the Mexican constitution and set a maximum period of 80 days, one of the longest in the world.

“There is a state of paranoia in Tijuana, a very deep crisis of insecurity that is damaging the social fabric,” said Ramírez.

At the hearing, the plaintiffs will ask the IACHR to accept the case. The Commission is one of two bodies in the inter-American system for protecting and promoting human rights; the other is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San José, Costa Rica.

As an autonomous organ of the Organisation of American States (OAS), the IACHR has a mandate under the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. Its principal function is “promoting the observance and the defence of human rights.”

In fulfilling its mandate, the IACHR may oversee internal investigations, recommend that states adopt specific measures, and order specific precautionary measures to avoid serious and irreparable harm to human rights. It can also submit cases to the Court, the highest human rights tribunal in the hemisphere.

The Mexican state faces several lawsuits at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Among them is the case of community leader Rosendo Radilla, kidnapped and disappeared in 1974 by soldiers in the southwestern state of Guerrero; the rape of two indigenous women by troops in the same state in 2002; and the 2001 murders of three women in Ciudad Juárez on the border with the United States, notorious as the scene of hundreds of femicides (gender related murders) in recent decades.

The hearings coincide with Attorney General Arturo Chávez’s visit to the United States this week to report on the progress of the Mérida Initiative, an anti-drug plan approved by the administration of former U.S. president George W. Bush (2001-2009) which provides 1.4 billion dollars in aid for Mexico and Central America.

This year Mexico will receive 420 million dollars under the Mérida Initiative.

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