Mexican Military Officials Can Face Internal Tribunals for Drug Charges

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The Mexican Supreme Court has ruled that military officials facing drug trafficking charges can be tried in military tribunals rather than civilian courts, raising questions about the potential for impunity for corrupt elements of the armed forces.

In a ruling with wide-ranging implications for Mexico’s drug war, Mexico’s Supreme Court voted six in favor to and five against a decision that an officer accused of aiding drug trafficking should be tried in a military tribunal. As Milenio reports, the majority opinion held that Lieutenant Martin Rueda Ovando, who lied to superiors about eradicating a marijuana field, could be held accountable through an internal military process rather than a civilian trial because his actions caused no harm to civilians.

The ruling appears to be part of the Court’s broader attempts to define the limits of military trials. On August 22 the Court confirmed a landmark ruling released in 2011 which held that allegations of human rights abuses by military officials must be prosecuted in civilian courts.

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While the ruling in itself does not establish a concrete judicial norm, it is a worrisome precedent.  Human rights advocates have been critical of the Mexican military’s ability to impartially hold its own accountable for abuses, so there are reasons to doubt whether military tribunals will be well suited to judging drug trafficking cases.  

While the Mexican military on the whole enjoys a reputation as more trustworthy than both state and federal police forces, it has not been immune from the influence of drug trafficking.  There have been numerous cases of corruption within the military over the years, perhaps the most famous of which is that of General Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, who was arrested for accepting payoffs from the Juarez Cartel in 1997.

More recently, the government arrested three generals for suspected links to the drug trade in May, and in August all three were charged with complicity with drug trafficking. The officers have so far been prosecuted by the Attorney General, but if their trial was moved to a military court, their high rank and likely extensive connections could potentially influence the case.

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