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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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."

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