Mexico Military’s Rights Abuses Go Unpunished: Report

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A new report provides another strong argument against Mexico’s use of military to fight organized crime. However, like earlier investigations on the issue, its findings fly in the face of a stark political reality: the Mexican people continue to ask for the army to save them.

The 42-page document by the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, entitled “Armed with Impunity,” (see pdf) treads some of the same ground as previous reports on this matter, but it does offer some precise and salient points for anyone seeking to understand this complex and politically-charged issue, especially as the country prepares to usher in a new president in December.

Among the report’s most important conclusions are:

– The military’s abuses against civilians often go unpunished.
– The government needs to enforce recent changes in Mexican law in order to give preeminence to international legal treatment of the use of civilian courts to judge military personnel.
– The government needs to reduce its reliance on the military in its fight against organized crime.
– The government needs to strengthen the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), the only body that has chronicled the military’s abuses in Mexico.

None of these changes will be easy to implement, especially considering that the incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto has indicated that he will continue using the military to fight organized crime, if not expand its role.

What’s more, as the report makes clear, the military’s involvement in security matters goes well beyond the government’s use of the army and the navy to take over defunct police units and areas where security forces are being outmatched and overwhelmed. And it began well before current President Felipe Calderon deployed close to 50,000 troops to different violence-plagued areas.

By the end of the 1990s, military personnel ran 28 of the country’s 32 state police commands, and continue to be the default answer to poor police leadership. They have been asked to join the National Public Security Council, which deals with domestic law enforcement issues, and have been Attorneys General.

This is not just a question of human rights or rule of law. Reform is a political and financial question for these institutions. The report, for instance, notes that the army has doubled in size in the last three decades, and the military’s budget has increased fourfold since 1996, going up six percent since Calderon took power in December 2006.

Beyond the question of resources is the political calculus that any incoming president would make. As it is in most of the world, these decisions are often based on polls, and the polls do not favor withdrawing the military from conflict-ridden areas. To be sure, the military is consistently ranked alongside the church as the country’s most respected institution.

In the Pew Research Center’s “Global Attitudes Project,” the military received 83 percent and 80 percent “support” from respondents in 2011 and 2012, respectively, when asked about its role in fighting organized crime.

The Trans-Border Institute authors say that this popularity, in part, has to do with the fact that many poor and rural families populate the military’s ranks. They add that the Mexican army has long been the default solution during crises, from floods to public protests.

“As a result, in public opinion polls measuring levels of trust, the military is typically ranked higher than any other government institution, and is widely perceived to be the best hope for promoting law and order in Mexico,” the report says.

What’s more, drawing from CNDH data, the authors say that the military’s abuses are concentrated in two areas: Chihuahua and Michoacan states. Both these areas have seen notable declines in abuse cases since abuse allegations peaked in 2009, leading the authors to posit a number of theories.

“This trend may indicate that the scaling back of military involvement in key cities, such as Chihuahua, has helped to reduce the number of violations by military personnel,” they write. “It may also reflect the fact that the military has actually attempted to prevent further violations, based on CNDH recommendations and scrutiny from human rights organizations. However, a less rosy view is that perhaps military human rights violators have gotten better at concealing abuses.”

No more is mentioned about this “less rosy” view, and that’s where the report falls flat. So-called “aggressors” have been killed by security forces during “confrontations” at an increasingly worrying rate. As chronicled in this InSight Crime story, the number of dead “aggressors” rose from 231 in 2007 to 2,099 in 2010, the last year the government released data on this issue.

These “confrontations” happen in both urban and rural areas, with no discernible geographic pattern. The more important aspect of these “battles” is that there is only one witness — the military — and therefore only one account of what happened.

This trend does not appear to be abating, and neither the Attorney General’s Office or the CNDH have the means, the political capital or the will to delve into these battle scenes in the moments after they happen.

The authors’ failure to explore cases in which so-called “aggressors” are killed is part of a larger, more disturbing story. At the heart of this story is an attitude, reflected from the top down in Mexican politics, military and society, that those who die must have done something to deserve it. Until that attitude changes, there is little chance the military will be held accountable for its abuses against civilians.

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