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Report demands that Mexico try human rights claims against military in civilian courts

October 5, 2010 |  3:33 pm

Mexico soldier

A new report on human rights abuses by Mexico's military in the country's ongoing armed conflict with drug traffickers depicts in stark terms the air of fear and impunity that have come to define the drug war, particularly in violence-torn Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Human rights claims against the military have jumped by 1,000% since President Felipe Calderon dispatched the army in December 2006 to combat drug gangs, and a variety of institutional reforms are crucial to reversing the trend, says the report released Tuesday by the liberal Washington Office on Latin America.

Mexico's Constitution stipulates that crimes against civilians by members of the military must be tried within civilian institutions, but Mexico's Code of Military Justice has been "broadly interpreted" to "assign jurisdiction of military discipline to include or encompass any disciplinary action against a soldier," said Maureen Meyer, main author of the WOLA report.

"So that's been one of the main issues, that there is that conflict over what the military interprets what their jurisdiction should be and what the Constitution says," Meyer told La Plaza from Washington, D.C. "In practice, the [civilian system] could say, 'This is our case.' But they most actively cede that jurisdiction to the military justice system."

Mexico's military led police operations in Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located, between March 2008 and April of this year. Military personnel have been accused of a range of abuses, such as forced disappearances, rape and robbery, even extrajudicial killings.

Army officials say they are working to prevent rights abuses by soldiers and have blamed some incidents on drug-gang henchmen disguised as troops. Military officials say they prosecute wrongdoers when there is evidence. But prosecutions have been few and details generally not made public.

In one case cited in the WOLA report, a man on his way to a night-shift job in Juarez was stopped at a military checkpoint, where soldiers allegedly planted drugs in his vehicle. The man was blindfolded and taken to an undisclosed location, where he was beaten and interrogated for three days. When he was released, the report said, soldiers warned him: "If anyone asks what happened to you, tell them that you were kidnapped. Remember that we know where your family lives."

In another case, a woman was stopped at a military checkpoint on her way to work and sexually assaulted by soldiers.

The report, titled "Abused and Afraid in Ciudad Juarez," was co-authored with the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Augustin Pro Juarez, a Jesuit-affiliated organization in Mexico City, and included data and testimonials from affiliated human rights groups in Ciudad Juarez. Such groups are also at risk of abuse as they investigate claims against the military in the violent border city. The WOLA report cites multiple threats against human rights activists and the unsolved shooting death of at least one, Josefina Reyes, in January.

The report concludes by demanding that judicial reforms passed by Mexico's Congress in 2008 be more speedily implemented and that the "gray area" over jurisdiction of human rights claims against the military be resolved. The international human rights community, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, has repeatedly called on Mexico to handle military-abuse claims in civilian courts.

The United States is also applying pressure on the issue, recently withholding allotted aid funds under the so-called Merida Initiative due to concerns about progress on human rights, as La Plaza reported earlier this month. Discussions on the jurisdiction issue are expected in the newly convened session of Mexico's Congress, Meyer said.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: A Mexican soldier. Credit: Targina.net

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