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

MEXICO: Women – Casualties in Army’s Counternarcotics War

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Feb 3 2010 (IPS) - Human rights organisations in Mexico and the United States sounded the alarm about abuses against women by the Mexican armed forces in the context of the government’s all-out offensive against drug trafficking in the border state of Chihuahua.

“They touched my body while saying ‘you smell so good,’ they were making fun of me and pressed me against the truck to continue searching me as if I were a criminal, and they touched my private parts,” one woman, Claudia, said in a complaint filed with the Centre for Women’s Human Rights (Centro de Derechos Humanos de las Mujeres, CEDEHM).

Claudia (not her real name) was stopped by soldiers on her way to her job in Ciudad Juaréz – the biggest city in the northern state of Chihuahua – on Nov. 4. They asked her to step out of her vehicle in order to search it. But when she asked them to hurry so she wouldn’t be late for work, they told her they would have to search her too.

Her case is just one illustration of the frequent human rights abuses committed by the security forces during counternarcotics operations in Chihuahua, which are increasingly violating the rights of women, according to human rights groups.

“In a state of near civil war, with three armies fighting each other, it is local residents who suffer, living in a virtual state of siege by the military,” Gustavo de la Rosa, the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission’s (CEDH-Chihuahua) representative in Ciudad Juárez, told IPS.

“The ones who suffer the most are those who are left alive, and normally each person killed (in drug-related violence) is mourned by his wife, his mother and his daughters, who are left in utter vulnerability, while forced to deal with the severe psychological impacts as well,” said the activist.

De la Rosa was appointed to his position in CEDH-Chihuahua, a public institution, in April 2008. But after speaking out about the violence by the drug cartels as well as the abuses committed by the army in its crackdown on drug trafficking in the state, he was forced to move his office across the border from Ciudad Juárez, to the U.S. city of El Paso, last October.

Because of its strategic location along drug smuggling routes into the world’s largest market for narcotics, the United States, Chihuahua is caught up in a turf war between the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels.

In the law few years, the number of complaints of human rights violations by soldiers filed with CEDH-Chihuahua has soared, from just three in 2007 to 162 (including 88 from women) in 2008 and 149 (78 from women) in the first 10 months of 2009.

The violations included cases of torture, forced disappearance, and extrajudicial execution.

Behind that increase was the Joint Operation Chihuahua, a military and federal police strategy launched by the Mexican government in early 2008 in response to drug-related violence in the state. The Operation involved the deployment of some 8,000 police and soldiers.

The federal police have also been the target of a number of reports of abuse. Of the 886 complaints received in the last 10 months by the Joint Operation Chihuahua complaints programme, 400 involved members of the Federal Police force.

In a Jan. 27 memo to the U.S. Congress, CEDEHM, CEDH-Chihuahua and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) urged the legislature to ask the State Department to express to the Mexican government its concerns with regard to the risks faced by human rights defenders in the border state, “given the recent wave of threats and attacks” against activists.

“In counter-drug operations, women are the main witnesses that observe how soldiers enter their homes and take away their sons and husbands without an arrest warrant. They are the ones who desperately look for their family members and confront the soldiers who have detained them to demand that they be presented to the relevant civilian authorities,” says the five-page memo.

On Jan. 3, Josefina Reyes, an activist who belonged to the National Front Against Repression, a rights group that mainly investigates police and army abuses, was killed by an armed group near Ciudad Juárez.

She had spoken out publicly about the disappearance of one of her sons at the hands of the army, and had taken part in protests against violence in the city and rights abuses by the military since 2008.

“Women are particularly vulnerable in this situation,” WOLA Associate for Mexico and Central America Maureen Meyer told IPS, pointing out they are frequent victims of sexual harassment, besides other kinds of abuse.

The memo points out that when the U.S. Congress approved significant funding for the Mexican security forces under the Mérida Initiative as of 2008, “it recognised the need to make progress on respect for human rights in Mexico, specifying that 15 percent of the funds could not be released until the State Department reported on the Mexican government’s fulfillment of a set of human rights requirements.”

The Mérida Initiative is a three-year 1.4 billion dollar assistance package to Mexico and Central America to fight organised crime and drug trafficking.

In the memo, the three human rights groups ask that “in its revision of the State Department’s next Mérida Initiative report on Mexico…Congress pay particularly close attention to any information included in the report on the consequences of the military and federal police presence in counter-drug operations on women’s rights, as well as the Mexican government’s efforts to protect women and to investigate and sanction those responsible for violating their human rights.”

Shortly after taking office in December 2006, conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a major offensive against drug trafficking, deploying thousands of soldiers and federal police to the parts of Mexico where the drug cartels are most active.

Since then, the levels of drug-related violence have soared, with 8,000 murders in 2009, according to the annual report by the government’s National Human Rights Commission. More than 2,000 of the deaths occurred in the state of Chihuahua.

Ciudad Juárez had a murder rate of 130 for every 100,000 residents in 2008, and 191 per 100,000 in 2009, making it one of the most violent cities in the world.

Last year, 184 women were killed in the state, according to CEDH-Chihuahua.

“Despite the massive presence of security forces, extortions, robbery and murders significantly increased, as did reports of human rights violations, with women being a particularly vulnerable target for abuse,” the memo to the U.S. Congress says.

In January this year, the Mexican government renamed its strategy as the Coordinated Operation Chihuahua, and began to shift control to the Federal Police, which will send an additional 2,000 police officers to the state.

The Federal Police will gradually assume all law enforcement roles in the northern part of the state, while the military’s task will primarily be patrolling and monitoring rural parts of the state, intelligence work and manning strategic checkpoints.

But human rights activists and analysts believe the measure is merely aimed at reducing the military’s exposure in the war on drugs, and that it will not substantially modify the strategy itself.

“The mere change of uniforms doesn’t modify a thing,” said de la Rosa, who sees Operation Chihuahua as a failure.

“The strategy must be overhauled, abandoning the idea of all-out war and returning to simple police law enforcement operations against criminals, with the least possible effects on civilians and greater respect for individual guarantees,” he argued.

In a December report, “Mexico: Human rights violations by the military”, London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International accused the authorities of failing to fully investigate allegations of abuses by the armed forces, including forced disappearances, extrajudicial and unlawful killings, torture, ill treatment and arbitrary detentions.

The report provides details of five specific cases of serious human rights violations by the military against a total of 35 people between October 2008 and August 2009 in Chihuahua, the northeastern state of Tamaulipas and the northwestern state of Baja California.

WOLA’s Meyer said the Mexican government is not fulfilling the requirements of the Mérida Initiative, because no progress has been made in investigating and prosecuting human rights abuses committed by Mexican troops.

In a November 2009 ruling, the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Mexico to modify its military justice code, which dates back to 1933, in order to comply with its international obligations.

Under the code, the military courts have jurisdiction when crimes are committed by on duty armed forces personnel.

The controversial code has long come under fire from human rights groups and even legislators in Mexico as lacking in transparency and for ensuring impunity for members of the military.

The memo to the U.S. Congress also requests that the State Department ask the Calderón administration to ensure the protection of the members of CEDEHM and of de la Rosa himself, who has received death threats.

“The most effective way to fight violence in Mexico is by means of strong, accountable institutions, and the United States should focus its aid on these necessary long-term reforms in Mexico,” said Meyer.

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