An international human rights court will see its first case of a forced disappearance related to the so-called “drug war” in Mexico, exerting pressure on a country that continues to call on its military to combat crime despite the poor human rights record associated with this strategy.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has submitted a case of forced disappearance at the hands of Mexico’s armed forces to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights after determining that the Mexican government had not done enough to fulfill the commission’s recommendations regarding the crime.
Military agents took cousins Rocío Irene Alvarado Reyes, Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza and José Ángel Alvarado Herrera by force and without an arrest warrant on December 29, 2009, in a rural area of Buenaventura municipality, Chihuahua, according to the IACHR. Family members immediately began searching for the subjects, while military officials initially denied evidence that local agents had taken part in their arrest (pdf). The three cousins remain missing to this day.
The incident is the first forced disappearance “in the context of the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico” to be examined by the court, and it is exemplary of how the investigation and prosecution of such cases are covered up and obstructed, the press release states.
The IACHR has repeatedly criticized the Mexican government’s lack of progress in its inquiry into the events, alleging that “the investigations related to military personnel are not being followed” (pdf). Before passing the case to the court, the IACHR had recommended that Mexican authorities investigate the location of the subjects, prosecute those responsible, and take measures to tackle the crime and associated impunity.
Family members have denounced being harassed and threatened by military agents, and at least 11 have been forced to flee to the United States.
Col. Élfego José Luján Ruiz is suspected of ordering the disappearance of the Alvarado cousins, and was recently sentenced by Mexico’s justice system to 33 years in prison for the death of two other civilians in Chihuahua in 2009.
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The IACHR’s decision on the Chihuahua case comes at a time when Mexico is facing significant international scrutiny regarding its human rights record, and it could pressure the country into addressing violations associated with its so-called “drug war.”
According to Jesús Pérez Caballero, an independent investigator on organized crime in Latin America, this will be the first investigation by the Inter-American Court into disappearances that occurred after former President Felipe Calderón deployed the military to the streets to fight organized crime in 2006. This strategy, which has been upheld by current President Enrique Peña Nieto, has been associated with a host of human rights abuses by security forces against the civilian population, including a rise in disappearances.
The international court has been insisting that Mexico reform the scope of military jurisdiction for years, Pérez Caballero told InSight Crime. And the past few months have seen a growing debate over the possibility of prosecuting Mexico’s drug war in the international arena, he said.
Yet despite this international backdrop, and the fresh memory of multiple shocking human rights violations by security forces in the past few years, Mexico appears to be moving towards consolidating or even expanding the military’s role in public security.
Mexico’s ruling party has proposed a new Internal Security Law that would seemingly give the military unprecedented authorization to investigate and act against threats to public security, in the absence of a law regulating the armed forces’ role in this area. But there are concerns that the bill would dangerously amplify military powers in a role that has traditionally been reserved for police forces.
Developments in the 2009 Chihuahua case may encourage the Mexican government to rethink its militarization of the drug war, and some positive steps have already been taken in this area. According to specialist in justice systems and judicial reform José Antonio Caballero, the IACHR’s investigative body known as the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes – GIEI) has provided “fundamental” assistance surrounding the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero in 2014. This is because the group has helped Mexican authorities recognize certain deficiencies in the way they conduct investigations into human rights abuses, Antonio Caballero explained to InSight Crime.
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Nevertheless, Mexico still appears to be far from eradicating abuses and impunity associated with its security policy, not least because of the military’s political clout.
“In my opinion the armed forces are a state within a state,” Pérez Caballero told InSight Crime. According to the investigator, the national government’s reliance on the military in its strong-armed approach to crime has led to the state turning a blind eye to official abuses.
Another important obstacle in prosecuting military agents is a certain dependency on the military justice system in prosecuting human rights abuses. Still, Antonio Caballero believes that the military justice mechanism is already in decline, and suggests that civil judges may soon be seeing more cases of military human rights violations.
For now, it will be difficult to mitigate the military’s powers until a viable police force can take their place — a prospect that still seems distant. The military’s public popularity reflects this. Despite a downturn in approval compared to before the Calderón era, the Mexican people still consider the military to be the best security force for fighting organized crime, according to a recent survey.