A Mexican military court acquitted all but one of seven soldiers in a prominent human rights case involving alleged military abuse, a serious blow to the credibility of military justice in the country.
The June 2014 case involved the military opening fire on 22 alleged criminal suspects in a warehouse in the town of Tlatlaya in Mexico state. All were killed by soldiers, even though the majority had surrendered first, according to a report by the government’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).
Survivors of the killing also told the CNDH and media that authorities later threatened and beat them, in order to pressure them into saying that all those who were gunned down were members of a criminal group.
In September 2014, the military justice system arrested one lieutenant and six soldiers, charging them with breach of duty. However, in October 2015 a closed military court acquitted six of them, a ruling that only recently became public thanks to a petition from a human rights group, the Associated Press reported. The lieutenant was ordered to serve one year in prison, which he has already completed.
A parallel investigation is ongoing in a civilian court, as the Attorney General’s Office has charged seven military personnel with homicide and with altering a crime scene, among other charges. However, last October the court acquitted four of the seven suspects, citing lack of evidence.
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In some ways, the outcome of this case serves as justification for why Mexico’s Congress approved reforms to the military justice system in 2014. These reforms allowed alleged military human rights crimes against civilians to be prosecuted in civilian rather than military courts.
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Such reforms were sorely needed as military justice has a dismal record in Mexico. As noted by human rights think-tank the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), of the 5,000 cases opened by the Military Attorney General’s Office between 2007 and 2012, only four saw convictions.
Also contributing to the urgent need for these reforms is the Mexican government’s heavy use of the military in its war against organized crime, leading to increased reports of human rights abuses. Indeed, military emphasis on aggressively pursuing suspected members of organized crime groups — as well as impunity for those accused of committing illegal executions — is what helped make a phenomenon like Tlatlaya happen.
It remains to be seen how the Attorney General Office’s prosecution of the Tlatlaya case will proceed in the civilian court. However, that investigation has also has come under criticism for failing to sufficiently investigate the role that military higher-ups may have played in approving the Tlatlaya shooting.