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Military abuses rise in Mexican drug war

The US Senate votes this week on a $465 million aid package that includes oversight of Mexico's military and courts.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 24, 2008

Residents of Apatzingán, Mexico, are ambivalent toward the heavy Army presence. Many appreciate the security, but others complain of abuses.

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Apatzingán, Mexico

When military trucks came rolling into this valley of Michoacán in December 2006, as the Mexican government opened its first front against drug factions, Antonia Moreno was ecstatic.

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But 18 months later, Ms. Moreno's view has hardened. She says soldiers entered her home illegally and dug up a stash of money she'd buried in a horse stall next door. "That's everything we owned," she says as she files a human rights complaint against the Mexican military.

As Mexico throws an unprecedented 25,000 troops and police into its war against narcotrafficking, more citizens here are wondering if the illegal detentions and unlawful searches are worth the price. It's a security versus loss of liberties trade-off that echoes concerns raised by Americans in their war on terrorism.

Nowhere is that ambivalence felt more acutely than in Apatzingán. This central Mexican city of 93,000 is notorious for its drug-trafficking cartels. It's also where more complaints of abuse (27) have been filed this year against the military than in any other city in Michoacán, the state with the most military abuse complaints filed.

Human rights abuses have slowed the passage of a US aid package to help Mexico and Central America fight drug trafficking. First year funding of $465 million was approved by the House of Representatives last Thursday and is expected to be passed by the Senate this week. Initially, the aid was conditioned on more oversight of Mexican federal forces and the justice system – stipulations that stoked a political outcry in Mexico as another example of US arrogance. The requirements have since been softened.

But Mexican human rights wokers and victims of abuse say they welcomed more oversight, especially of the military, which many worry is not trained adequately in the law enforcement role it is playing today.

"There has been a diminishing of organized crime [since the military effort began], but at a high cost to human rights," says Victor Serrato Lozano, the president of Michoacán's state commission for human rights. "There should be conditions on the aid package. This is not a violation of our sovereignty if what the US is seeking is to strengthen human rights organizations."

Still, employing the armed forces remains hugely popular in a country where police and judicial corruption has left the security apparatus nearly ineffectual, analysts agree.

Since President Felipe Calderón's effort began in December 2006, more than 4,000 people have been killed, including hundreds of cops and soldiers. Entire police forces have resigned. The government claims their strategy is working: they have arrested thousands of suspects and confiscated thousands of weapons, recovered millions of dollars, and intercepted tons of cocaine and marijuana. The rising violence, they say, is a sign of success.

But for many Mexicans it signals the reverse. In a recent survey in the daily newspaper Reforma, 53 percent of Mexicans said they believe drug traffickers are winning the campaign.

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