Soldiers as police? In Mexico, a push to get them back to the barracks.

A trial related to an Army patrol's massacre of 22 people last year underscores both progress being made in holding soldiers accountable – and the tough challenges that lie ahead.

Edgard Garrido/Reuters
Clara Gomez Gonzalez listened at a July news conference in Mexico City to present a report about the Tlatlaya case. Ms. Gomez Gonzalez's daughter Erika, 15, was one of 22 people killed in the Army patrol attack.

When a Mexican Army patrol killed 22 people – many of whom had already surrendered – in rural Tlatlaya in June 2014, it was a startling reminder of the risks of using soldiers as police.

The Army has deployed across the country for nearly a decade to fight criminal groups and drug traffickers. But human rights activists have long advocated getting soldiers back to the barracks, arguing that they’re trained for combat, something that is not compatible with civilian policing.

The issue of military misconduct as well as government follow-up has recently taken on new importance, with soldiers implicated in a number of high-profile cases of abuse over the past year and a half. And the Tlatlaya case grabbed headlines once again this month when it was announced that only a few soldiers involved in the attack would be put on trial.

Yet amid the troubling allegations, there have been promising developments to hold soldiers accountable for their actions. Particularly noteworthy was a congressional vote last year to place the military under civilian jurisdiction for crimes committed on the job. The move was hailed as an important step toward transparency, taking allegations of military torture, disappearances, or massacres out of the shadowy proceedings of military trials and into the public's view.

The military “is an institution with a poor record for sanctioning people that are responsible for wrongdoing,” says Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America. “We are seeing a reflection of the history of the Mexican military [in the Tlatlaya case], and that they have never felt they had to be held accountable.”

Still, Tlatlaya is proving that changing military behavior may demand more than landmark legal reform. A lack of evidence gathered by the attorney general's office means that the seven soldiers and one Army officer initially implicated in the massacre southwest of Mexico City have now dwindled to just three soldiers detained to stand trial. And concurrent with this first civilian trial of soldiers since the 2014 jurisdiction change is a parallel military investigation into the Tlatlaya case – the result of a legal loophole

This means that not only did the armed forces have access to the crime scene, but the dual trials could result in conflicting verdicts, says John Ackerman, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“The fact that on paper there are cases that civilian authorities are investigating into military wrongdoing is an improvement,” says Mr. Ackerman. “But it will only truly make a difference if anyone is convicted."

Otherwise, he adds, "it will show that the power of the military is so large that it goes beyond its own jurisdiction and extends to civilian courts.”

The government first reported the deaths in Tlatlaya as the result of a routine shootout between soldiers and criminals. But three survivors came forward to tell another account, which included being sexually tortured to ensure their silence and witnessing the execution of at least eight unarmed citizens.

The military and the federal police were also implicated in an eerily similar shootout in Michoacán in May, which left 42 dead. And international investigators who wanted to question soldiers in relation to the disappearance of 43 teacher's college students in the state of Guerrero have so far been blocked from gaining access. 

Last summer, a local human rights organization published findings, uncovered in their defense of one of the Tlatlaya survivors, that purportedly shows a military unit involved in Tlatlaya had standing orders that encouraged soldiers to “take down" criminals in late-night raids. 

While some welcome the effort for transparency through civilian trial, many are still pushing to remove the military from the streets completely.

Just last week, the United Nations’s High Commissioner of Human Rights said it was critical to create a plan for the withdrawal of Mexico’s military from policing in order to tackle some of the most pressing human rights concerns, from massacres like Tlatlaya to disappearances and torture. More than 150,000 people were killed across Mexico between 2006 and 2015, and another 26,000 have disappeared, according to the UN – sky-high numbers the human rights commissioner blames on the overall faulty police, judicial, and investigative systems.

But a key challenge lies in the fact that Mexico doesn’t have a well-trained, efficient police force to take over the military’s policing role, despite reforms.

“None of us got into the Army to do this,” Defense Secretary Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos told local media last week about his unhappiness with soldiers taking on law enforcement duties in Mexico. "We are not comfortable, we didn't ask for this, we didn't study for this, but apart from obeying the president's order, society is asking us to do this."

The military has long ranked as one of the most trusted institutions in Mexico. But that approval has started to fray. According to the Pew Research Center, 75 percent of respondents thought the military had a good influence on Mexico in 2014, while today, 61 percent do.

"It's important to see individual soldiers investigated and convicted of wrong doing," says Meyer, who sees this case as raising awareness about other confrontations between criminals and the military or federal police, and how they are categorized by the government. "The advantage with the Tlatlaya case is that it came out."

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