Mexico’s Military Malpractice: Business as Usual or About, Face?

President Felipe Calderón’s aggressive counter-narcotics campaign in Mexico has begun to sprout a disturbing trend of abuse emanating from the Mexican armed forces. The human rights violations allegedly authored by the military rest on the underbelly of a drug conflict that has created frenzy throughout much of the country. As the country has seen an increase in military personnel patrolling its streets, so too has the public witnessed an increase in complaints of human rights violations. This disturbing trend highlights the reforms that need to be implemented in order to improve Mexico’s flawed human rights record. If advancement is to occur in safeguarding society, such abuses must be properly investigated and tried in a court of law.

History of Mistrust

The Mexican military’s murky past is, to a large extent, the source of the public’s instinctive mistrust. Much of its history is characterized by the Dirty War that overshadowed the 1960s and 70s. During that period, the military was repeatedly involved in aggressively disappearing and silencing many young dissidents and activists, with over 1,200 such casualties recorded for the period. The armed forces’ brutal tactics peaked during the tragic clash with students at La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, Mexico City. On October 2, 1968, Mexican military units confronted the most serious challenge to domestic tranquility at the time by putting a violent end to massive student-led protests. While the number of those killed is still debated, a recent public disclosure of secret official documents suggests that the military fired upon the protestors without any threatening provocation. The resulting ferment following the Tlatelolco massacre was met with a governmental resolve to modernize and strengthen the military. From 1960 to 1980 armed forces’ personnel doubled in size from 60,000 to 120,000 active members of the military. Changes in organization, structure, and the military’s curriculum followed. The National Defense College, established in 1981, with the aim of advancing the education of senior officers, expanded the traditional and administrative military curriculum. These steps helped reinforce Mexico’s military capabilities in the decades that followed, but little was done to improve the military’s image or to enhance human rights courses in its syllabus. To this day, the courts have yet to convict anyone for the crimes committed during the country’s Dirty War, or to release some of the more revolting documents pertaining to the Tlatelolco massacre.

The Rising Tide of Complaints

Over the years the military has been accused of various human rights violations by a host of Mexican nationals as well as by documentation provided by a host of NGOs. But only a minimal effort has been made by the government to address these charges. Taking office in 2006, President Calderón implemented an extensive initiative to improve internal security and improve the state of readiness of the armed forces. Soon after the deployment of 45,000 soldiers throughout the country during counter-narcotics operation, 4,500 complaints were filed against military personnel by adversely affected victims or their relatives. These ranged from arbitrary arrests and fabricated reports to murder and rape, the charges against the military began to rise throughout the President’s incumbency. The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), the branch of government in charge of monitoring human rights cases, received 1,791 complaints in 2009 alone, nine times the number in 2006. These allegations all involve serious misconduct by active soldiers towards civilians.

Unfortunately, the CNDH has displayed limited clout in bringing an end to these abuses or in reforming the policies that give rise to them. Amnesty International has criticized the Commission’s oversight on cases as being extremely slow and restricted in scope. Out of the nearly 1,800 complaints received in 2009, CNDH managed to compile only 15 case recommendations against the allegedly responsible authorities. Once a recommendation is finalized, it then falls under the discretion of the Department of Defense (SEDENA) to conduct a criminal investigation and then to prosecute. After various inquiries by a number of specialists, the exact number of soldiers punished for human rights abuses is still unknown. SEDENA adheres to a strict code of confidentiality regarding all human rights violations. The lack of transparency and accountability, and the systematic hiding behind the protective mantle of “state security,” has deepened the perception of impunity being seen by outraged Mexican citizens who have been calling for justice to no avail.

Constitutional Confusion

SEDENA, which houses the military judicial system, operates under a broad interpretation regarding its jurisdiction over cases involving military personnel. The Mexican Constitution stipulates that charges of “crimes and faults against military discipline” brought against a soldier in active service fall under the purview of the military judiciary. While international law approves of separate courts for such indictments, the military has considered cases of abuse against the citizenry to fall under its authority and not that of civilian courts. The Supreme Court, in an attempt to properly clarify jurisdiction on these issues, has defined active service as “performing the inherent activities of the position that he/she is carrying out.” SEDENA, in an attempt to claim jurisdiction, has included aberrations such as rape, torture, and kidnapping as part of the “inherent activities” of a soldier. This expansive view taken by the Department is a glaring misinterpretation of the Constitution. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned this practice and called upon Mexico to live up to its international obligations of accountability when dealing with such serious abuses. Up to now the military justice system has shown itself ill equipped to handle these violations, having shown a lack of impartiality and transparency.

Empty Promises

“[Name] any case just one case, where the proper authorities had not acted in a correct way, that the competent authorities have not punished anyone who has abused their authority.”
-President Felipe Calderón, 2009

Challenging anyone who questions his administration’s commitment to protect human rights, President Calderón, as the above remand indicates, stands firmly behind the military courts’ procedure. At the 2009 North American Summit, he assured the public that his commitment to protect human rights not only held top priority, but was also being handled properly in its implementation under his administration. However, human rights advocates paint a different picture. A 2009 human rights report by a U.S. organization characterized Mexico’s rights institutions as being ineffective in bringing an end to the abuses and violations of which they have been accused. The report recounts SEDENA’s inability to provide any recent examples of indictments of soldiers by a court martial proceeding that had led to a conviction. SEDENA was only able to cite one case that was resolved in 1998. Since 2006, the U.S. Department of State notes that only two cases have been handed over to civilian prosecutors for crimes allegedly involving the military and its civilian victims. A similar report released in 2009 by Amnesty International found the same weaknesses in the CNDH’s capabilities and influence. Both human rights organizations outlined case after case of alleged misconduct by the military. The vast majority of the files reported upon are technically still under investigation by SEDENA; in other words, nothing is happening. More recently, Raúl Plascencia Villanueva, President of CNDH, stated in February 2010 that “95% of crimes committed are left unpunished…which makes us one of the countries with the highest rates of impunity and crime per capita.” This failure to bring justice to literally thousands of victims is a dereliction of President Calderón’s administration and its failure to create legitimate channels to remedy this unsettling trend. Dr. Villanueva’s remarks support the sentiment of pessimism among much of the population since the Dirty War of the 60s and 70s.

Fostering the culture of impunity that taints Mexico’s human rights record is the wall of confidentially SEDENA imposes upon its court hearings. Although military trials theoretically are open to the public, SEDENA releases no information on dates for current or upcoming hearings, making it difficult for observers to effectively monitor the proceedings. Often no information is provided until a judgment has passed, minimizing public scrutiny. Defendants and defense lawyers favor the military courts over other court systems because of the increased chance of receiving lower sentences and conditional liberty after paying bail. The acts of the courts rarely represent the point of view of impartial observers delivering sound, even-handed rulings. Rather, they reflect a lack of regard for international standards, placing the military’s own institutional interests before that of citizens. The legitimacy of the courts and military grievously suffer because, according to the population, little remedial action is being taken for what appears to be very serious crimes.

Little Pressure from Mérida

Both the U.S. and Mexico have stated their dedication to preserving human rights, and yet have acquiesced to the palpable deterioration of human rights standards in Mexico. The Mérida Initiative, a comprehensive security program between U.S., Mexico, and Central America, outlines various requirements aimed at the improvement of human rights. The total amount of assistance appropriated to Mexico since the program’s implementation has been approximately $1.3 billion, 15% of which is subject to the fulfillment of human rights conditions. The stipulations include improving transparency and accountability, investigating and prosecuting military forces who have been credibly alleged to have committed human rights violations, and prohibiting the use of torture and other cruel treatment by the military. The U.S. continues to release funds that were conditioned upon the improvement of human rights despite strong evidence that little improvement has, in fact, been made until recently. SEDENA’s creation of a special unit in charge of assuring full transparency is a step in the right direction. The Citizens Liaison Unit (UNIVIC), announced in June 2010, was created to “strengthen the communication links between civil society and the Secretariat.” Whether or not this marks an improvement towards fair and transparent human rights cases is still far from certain.

The trend that has arisen from the collaborative effort to rid the region of narcotics undermines the entire operation. The military’s effectiveness in uprooting the drug cartels must be matched with its adherence to human rights standards. When the same authority that is stomping out criminals is committing the crimes itself, its efforts to eliminate fear and insecurity become severely handicapped. Civilians see one state of anarchy and outrage replacing another. Amnesty International believes the reports of human rights abuses to be considerably higher than official figures show. Reasons for this include the fear of civilians, distrust of the military, and the country’s judicial systems’ lack of predictable law enforcement. While progress has been seen in modernizing the military’s structure, strength, and training, little has been done to change its abusive practices or its culture of violence, or for that matter, its democratic instincts.