General as Mexico's law enforcer alarms rights groups

Skeptics react against a mixing of the military and the fight against crime.

When President Vicente Fox announced his nomination of Gen. Marcial Rafael Macedo de la Concha to attorney general late last month, human rights groups all over Mexico were shocked.

Phones began to ring, letters were written, senators were called. Rights groups claimed General Macedo, who was attorney general in the military before his nomination, has a "dark past" of permitting military abuses to go unprosecuted.

Macedo's nomination "is one more step in the militarization of justice and public security that contradicts the desire of a democratic transition ... and moreover ignores the recommendations of the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS)," read an ad in La Jornada newspaper last week, paid for by a 50-member organization of rights groups.

Senators from both the president's conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) easily approved Macedo's nomination. The few senators of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) - a minority in the Senate - voted against Macedo.

Despite the outcry, since 1995 the military has been increasingly brought into two major areas of law enforcement in Mexico: the struggles against crime and drug trafficking. But the military's own record in antidrug enforcement has been less than exemplary. Numerous high-profile cases in recent years have implicated military officials in drug trafficking. Recently two high-ranking officers, Gen. Francisco Quiroz Hermosillo and Gen. Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro, were convicted - by Macedo - of involvement in drug trafficking.

But, say some analysts, corruption within the military pales in comparison with corruption within the attorney general's office. "Some law enforcement officials have told me it's over 50 percent in some areas," says Jorge Chabat, an expert on drug trafficking at the Center for Economic Research in Mexico City.

"Fox wanted to make a show of force to clean up corruption within the [attorney general's office," says Mr. Chabat. "And the fact that Macedo is a military man could facilitate coordination [in law enforcement efforts] with the military."

Yet rights groups point to their futile attempts at getting the military's attention, and say that record is cause for alarm. "We have sent 20 complaints in the last four years to the National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH) regarding cases of torture by military personnel," says Abel Barrera, director of the Center for Human Rights of the Mountains, in Guerrero state. Mostly they were cases of soldiers dressed as civilians, who arrived in small towns looking for members of the EPR (People's Revolutionary Army). "They drag people out of their homes and torture them," he says.

The commission recommended the military investigate the cases, but "from all those cases, no investigation results were ever sent to the CNDH," says Mr. Barrera. The OAS's Human Rights Commission also recommended several cases be investigated. But Macedo's office refused to investigate them or was "ineffective."

For newly elected President Fox, eliminating corruption and the links between law enforcement and drug trafficking - charged as this issue is in US-Mexico relations - is perhaps more pressing than human rights abuses. Nevertheless, rights groups see it as "incongruent" that Mr. Fox signed an accord of cooperation on human rights with UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Mary Robinson; appointed well-known rights activist Marieclaire Acosta to the newly created position of ambassador for democracy and human rights, and then chose Macedo for the position of attorney general.

Not so, says analyst Jeffrey Weldon, political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "I think [Ms.] Acosta will function as a checks and balances [if there are abuses in the Attorney General's office]."

Mr. Weldon admits to being "surprised" at Macedo's nomination. But "we'll have to wait and see what he does."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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