UN questions Mexican Army's role in drug war

A United Nations report calls on the Mexican government to consider withdrawing the military from the streets amid a spike in human rights complaints.

Marco Ugarte/AP
Mexican army special forces soldier are seen in formation during an exercise drill simulating combat against organized crime and drug cartels gunmen at the army's Special Forces Training Center in the State of Mexico on March 17.

Marking one of the strongest statements yet against Mexican President Felipe Calderón's heavy-handed tactics in fighting the drug war, a United Nations report has called on the government to consider withdrawing the military from the streets.

The recommendation follows a spike in abuse claims since the Army was first deployed four years ago to fight drug traffickers, said the preliminary report by a UN human rights office working group. The group said the military and other government forces have become involved in an increasing number of disappearance cases that can no longer only be attributed to organized crime.

“The military is not trained to do public security tasks but to confront armed forces,” which explains the growing number of violations, said Ariel Dulitzky, a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

Human rights groups have been raising alarms for years about the Army's role in the drug war, reporting a rising number of cases of rape, torture, disappearance, and arbitrary shooting. But the UN's call for Mexican troops to return to their barracks begs the question of whether police are prepared to take on the powerful cartels and whether Mexico is doing enough to equip them for that task.

“Withdrawing the Army at this point will not resolve all of the human rights problems,” says Jorge Chabat, a national security expert in Mexico City. “It may be a desirable solution, but it isn’t viable,” he says, recommending stronger oversight, prosecution of abuses, and use-of-force protocols for the Army.

Debate over pulling back Army

Abuse claims against the National Defense Ministry hit about 1,500 last year, up from fewer than 200 claims in 2006, according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.

Because troops are tried in military courts instead of civil courts for rights abuses, most cases go unpunished, the UN and other groups say. While President Calderón has sent a proposal to Congress that would try cases of torture, rape, and disappearance in civic courts, watchdogs say it is too limited because the Army can easily avoid civil trials by reclassifying torture crimes as abuse while extrajudicial killings at checkpoints are not on the list.

Despite these frustrations, the semi-autonomous commission and most rights groups stop short of calling for the removal of the Army, which still enjoys relative popularity even though polls show Mexico is losing faith in the drug war. Instead, NGOs pressure President Calderón to stick to a longer-term exit strategy.

Pulling back troops “is not something you can do from one day to the next, but what we haven’t seen is a well-thought-out strategy of how the government plans to withdraw the Army from drug operations,” says Maureen Meyer, a Mexico analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. The border city of Ciudad Juárez is one of the only places the Army has been replaced by federal police, she adds.

Mexican groups like the Human Rights Montaña Tlachinollan Center in an indigenous region of Guerrero applauded the UN statement. It remains to be seen if the UN's call for Army withdrawal will be echoed by other international organizations.

Shoot first. Ask later.

The UN report also cites human rights commission data showing that 11,333 Central and South American migrants passing through Mexico were kidnapped between April and September 2010 – and 8.9 percent of the kidnappings involved federal, state, and municipal police, and officials with the National Immigration Institute.

The massacre of 72 migrants in Mexico last August sparked an outcry from Central American countries that said the country was turning a blind eye to criminal rings. Several countries have since signed agreements with Mexico to coordinate protection of migrants. The UN human rights chief urged Mexico in January to investigate the disappearance of 40 other Central Americans.

The UN report says that charges against soldiers range from torturing detainees to engaging in enforced disappearances before handing suspects over to civic authorities. Media reports have testified to this, with a former Army general who now heads security in the violent northern city of Torreon recently admitting to shooting first and investigating later.

“Why interrogate them?” the general said in a March interview with local newspaper La Jornada. “The Army has security and intelligence, it doesn’t need information.”

Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch criticized the federal government for not speaking out against that interview.

But he also commends Mexico’s Congress for passing a constitutional reform this month – not yet signed into law – that may go further than any other legislation to protect rights in Mexico. It elevates international human rights accords to the level of constitutional articles, allows foreigners due process if they are expelled from the country, and defines civil liberties that cannot be derogated during a state of emergency, says Mr. Steinberg.

'Living a nightmare'

The Calderón administration says it is doing all it can to protect human rights while it battles ruthless traffickers, whose confrontations have led to 35,500 killings since 2006.

A joint statement Thursday by the Foreign and Interior Ministries said that the Army has accepted all recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission and that the government has set up a registry of missing persons. But, the statement adds, Mexico is “obligated” to use armed forces as temporary and complementary tools in specific regions due to the violence.

For some, these steps have come too late. Rosario Villanueva Rocha’s son disappeared after being arrested in 2009 in Coahuila. At least five municipal police have since confessed to robbing him and then handing him over to the feared Zetas gang. The officers said the Zetas killed him and three companions, according to Ms. Villanueva Rocha.

Nevertheless, she has not given up hope of finding her son alive.

“I took a step into hell, and I’m living the worst nightmare I could imagine,” she says. “My son has been hurt by authorities we are supposed to trust.”

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