Public Keeps Faith in Mexico Army, Despite Abuse Debate

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While a landmark Supreme Court decision has put abuses by the Mexican military at the center of public debate, a new poll suggests that the country’s citizens have a high level of confidence in the army.

According to a new poll published in Excelsior, 58 percent of respondents said that the army respects human rights, with another 15 percent saying that the force shows partial respect. Only 21 percent said that the army did not respect human rights.

Furthermore, two-thirds of the polls respondents said that the army’s conduct with regard to human rights was satisfactory, compared to just 29 percent who said it was not. For the Federal Police, in contrast, just 45 percent gave the agency a satisfactory rating on human rights, with 52 percent saying it was unsatisfactory. The results for the municipal police — 30 percent satisfactory, 69 percent unsatisfactory — were even worse.

Majorities of respondents also expressed confidence in the “fuero militar,” as the military’s former exemption from civilian trials is known, and the army’s ability to police its own, while just 22 percent said that they thought the civilian tribunals were more trustworthy than the military tribunals.

This vote of support for the army comes less than two weeks after a historic Supreme Court decision that eliminated the fuero militar. As a result of the decision, troops accused of abusing civilians will now be sent to civilian courts.

The decision was hailed by many in the human rights community, who have long complained of the armed forces’ unwillingness to punish human rights abuses. The most detailed account of the problem came in Human Rights Watch’s 2009 report, “Uniformed Impunity,” which detailed more than a dozen cases in which accusations of rape and murder were brushed under the rug.

The problem, according to critics, was that the judges were accountable to the military brass. As a result, they were less likely to make a judgement that would embarrass any of the branches of the service, even if this meant looking the other way on serious accusations.

The hope is that now, with civilian courts taking over, abuse cases will stand a better chance of being properly investigated.

But as some commentators have noted, the widely dysfunctional civilian courts may not be a much more effective venue. More than twice as many respondents to the Excelsior poll saw the military courts as more trustworthy than the civilian courts, rather than the other way round. As InSight Crime has noted, according to the government’s own accounting, more than 70 percent of all federal arrests in 2010 failed to reach trial because of a lack of evidence or procedural errors by the prosecutor. Studies frequently put the rate of impunity for all crimes committed in Mexico at 98 or 99 percent.

Furthermore, the military remains a powerful force in Mexican life, and will likely try to pressure civilian investigators. In short, whether one is a staunch defender of the military or its harshest critic, the Supreme Court decision does not mean that the situation is resolved.

Regardless, the polls demonstrate that for the majority of Mexicans, the most pressing security concern is the abysmal state of the police, especially at the municipal level. This squares with previous polling demonstrating that Mexicans by and large support the use of the army to combat the drug trade.

In other words, the majority seem to feel that, regardless of the periodic reports of human rights abuse, the armed forces remain the best a set of bad options. For many, it seems that the alternative is being under the control of whichever criminal gang dominates their area.

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