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.
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The sentiment that the Mexican military is the nation's last option runs high here. But the more than 300 human rights claims in the first five months of 2008 – double the rate from the year before – is also making some wary. Susana Pedroza, a top official at Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, says most claims involve misconduct or illegal searches; far fewer are as serious as rape and torture.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Pedroza says the commission and military are committed to addressing violations. The military recently opened its first human rights department to better administer complaints, she says. And last year, the commission issued recommendations in the most serious allegations across the country – the first official notice that some soldiers have gone too far.
One of the recommendations involves the case of Raul Zepeda in Apatzingán. Chunks of tile are still missing from the floor where he works as a taxi dispatcher. Last year, the military attacked an adjacent home with a bazooka, killing four presumed narcotraffickers. Mr. Zepeda, an elderly man, hid in his workplace bathroom during the three-hour gun battle, he says, and then radioed his colleagues for help. But the military found him first: they arrested him and seven others in the immediate vicinity, He was detained for four days. Some of those in custody were tortured, and all the arrests were later deemed cruel and arbitrary.
"I had never had a single problem with the law in my life," says Zepeda.
Still, his ambivalence is typical here. He does not want the military to go. "They have a job they need to do, but they should do it with more caution," says Zepeda, who says life in this region, where isolated mountains have made it a base for drug traffickers, has improved with the military campaign.
Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst and human rights activist, says many Mexicans fear the military is becoming too powerful in the face of state weakness – a chilling reminder of a more repressive era. "The military has a higher sense of self-restraint than in the past," Mr. Aguayo says. "But now they have been ordered to go against [drug] cartels because the state has no other options. The real question is: how well-prepared are they to fulfill that role?"
In Apatzingán, Moreno, for one, says her entire community was panicked when rumors spread that the military was on its way, after a shootout in a nearby town the day before. She took all her family's cash – about $15,000 – and hid it. So many soldiers entered her home, she says, that she didn't notice the money was gone until after they left. She can neither read nor write, and hesitated to file a formal complaint, fearing it would bring more troubles. "I was scared," Moreno says
Her neighbor Bentura Esquivel, a papaya and corn farmer, says he has little faith that Moreno will ever see her savings. But he says he is giving testimony as a witness in the hope that these situations become less common. "The military was always known as being very honest," he says. "They should live up to that reputation."
Erik Gonzalez, the local representative for the state human rights commission in Apatzingán, says that two months ago about 80 people led a spontaneous protest outside the military headquarters here – something he says would not have happened in the past.
On two separate visits to the military barracks in Apatzingán, officials said no one was available to speak to the Monitor about human rights violations.
Mr. Gonzalez says there are signs that the Mexican military is concerned about violations. Last month he was invited to begin monthly talks on procedures for search warrants and other standards. "They were a little annoyed; they say they have to do what they need to do to fight organized crime," says Gonzalez. "But in the end, they realize you can't address illegality with illegality."