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

MEXICO: Military Anti-Drug Offensive Is “War Against the People”

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Dec 9 2009 (IPS) - “They came to my house and spent an hour going around from neighbour to neighbour, drilling them for information, knowing full well there was nothing there. They just wanted to harass us,” Mercedes Murillo told IPS, describing a night raid by soldiers.

The incident happened a few weeks ago in the northwest Mexican state of Sinaloa, an area that is currently disputed by several drug cartels. Murillo’s experience illustrates the population’s escalating fear as more and more troops are deployed in a major nationwide narcotics offensive that’s been going on for years.

Complaints of human rights abuses by soldiers, like the one reported by Murillo, founder of the non-governmental organisation Sinaloa Civic Front, began cropping up ever since the offensive began.

In a report released Tuesday, the Mexican chapter of the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) stated that in its law enforcement operations, the army has committed numerous abuses, including forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions. The report was published two days ahead of International Human Rights Day.

“The cases are truly outrageous, but more outrageous is the fact that they’re just the tip of the iceberg and that the authorities won’t investigate,” Alberto Herrera, executive director of AI Mexico, said during the presentation of the report.

In the 26-page document, AI describes five emblematic cases of military brutality that affected 35 people and occurred between October 2008 and August 2009 in three different states: Chihuahua in the north; Tamaulipas in the northeast; and Baja California in the northwest.


One of the cases is that of 31-year-old Saúl Becerra, who was arrested by military personnel on Oct. 31, 2008, along with five other men, in Ciudad Juárez, a city on the United States border.

The men were accused of drug-related crimes and weapons possession, but the authorities never admitted that they had arrested Becerra, and for months nobody knew where he was.

His body was found in March 2009. According to his death certificate, he had died a day after his arrest, from a brain haemorrhage caused by head trauma, that is, by a blow to the head.

In the report, AI states that the five cases illustrate a scenario of serious human rights abuses perpetrated by members of the army, which have so far been ignored by civilian and military authorities.

The military are once again under scrutiny for accusations of human rights abuses, which have allegedly been committed consistently since conservative President Felipe Calderón ordered the deployment of thousands of soldiers and police officers to combat drug trafficking and organised crime, upon taking office in December 2006.

So far in 2009, there have been more than 7,000 drug-related murders in Mexico, according to the press. Nearly 2,000 have occurred in Chihuahua, where a joint army-police operation began in November 2007.

“We’re against (the army being here) because we’ve seen what’s happened in other states,” where the army’s involvement caused “enormous human rights problems,” Cipriana Jurado, president of the non-governmental Workers’ Movement of Ciudad Juárez, said at the presentation of the report.

“New kinds of crimes have appeared, such as kidnappings, extortions and killings of young people,” the activist added.

The number of reports of military brutality has increased since 2006, when the governmental National Human Rights Commission received 182 complaints. The following year, the figure had more than doubled, with 367 reports, and in 2008 it soared to 1,230.

In the first half of 2009, 559 reports had been filed with the Commission.

Despite this situation, the Commission has issued only 25 recommendations to the National Defence and Public Security Ministries this year.

In 1996, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the army could take part in law enforcement. But it established that the army had to follow civilian orders in the performance of such duties, which has not been the case in drug enforcement operations.

The Mexico office of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights signed an agreement with the Defence Ministry to support actions aimed at preventing human rights violations, and create a system of indicators to assess military training programmes.

The AI report comes after similar reports of human rights abuses committed by members of the armed forces issued by other international and national NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Centre.

“We needed help and we’re not getting it. A war is being waged against the people, not against drug trafficking. The soldiers have no experience in dealing with the public, they distrust everything and everyone, they don’t investigate,” Murillo told IPS. Her brother Ricardo was killed in September 2007 and the perpetrators are still free.

Soldiers are protected by military privileges under the 1933 Military Justice Code, which was established to prosecute civil offences committed by soldiers in the performance of their duties.

“The State must observe the highest standards of accountability. The military courts have failed to investigate the abuses committed by the army,” Herrera said.

Since December 2006, the military courts have sentenced only three people and prosecuted another 53, although no concrete information is available, because no one has been given access to the files in these cases, not even the victims’ relatives.

“Military jurisdiction in these cases leads to impunity. There’s a problem of lack of control, of lack of discipline, in the government and in the army. If that’s not the case, the only conclusion possible is that there is an order to commit these violent acts,” said Miguel Sarre, a researcher with the private Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, during the presentation of the AI report.

In August, the Supreme Court strengthened military privileges by dismissing an appeal brought by the widow of a man who was allegedly murdered by five military officers.

“Efforts by relatives or civil society to highlight allegations of human rights violations committed by the military are often not taken seriously and sometimes rebuffed as attempts to undermine the prestige of the armed forces,” says the report, entitled “Mexico: New reports of human rights violations by the military”.

As it is unlikely that the army will pull out of the so-called anti-narcotics offensive, Herrera expects to see a further escalation of human rights violations. “That’s the trend we’ve seen so far,” he said.

Among other measures, AI is calling for strict observance of human rights during military operations, for all reports of human rights abuses committed by soldiers to be investigated by civilian authorities, and for the scope of military privileges to be restricted.

“Wouldn’t it be better to civilise the army instead of militarising the police?” Sarre asked, alluding to the fact that while Mexico is not at war its army has 200,000 active soldiers.

 
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