Brig. Gen. Manuel de Jesus Moreno Avina, commander of the 3rd Infantry Company, arrived in spring 2008 in Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande from tiny Presidio in Texas’s Big Bend country.
The general, as he is known by all here, quickly began what his own officers described in court testimony as a “reign of terror.”
Instead of confronting organized crime, his soldiers allegedly became outlaws themselves. Then people began to disappear.
Now, four years after Moreno’s 18-month tenure in Ojinaga, the landmark case against the general and his men may finally change the way Mexico prosecutes soldiers tied to alleged abuses during the country’s bloody drug war.
The Mexican Supreme Court recently ruled that Moreno, his officers and two dozen of his soldiers should be tried for human rights crimes in a civilian court — and not, as the constitution mandates, before a secret military tribunal whose proceedings can take years and go nowhere.
If it happens, such a trial would mark an unprecedented shift of power that could end a century of impunity for Mexico’s armed forces, whose top generals have fought hard to protect themselves from scrutiny.
“What the people want to see after all these years is a real trial,” said Ariel Garcia, a physician in Ojinaga. “It is not right that someone who was sent to protect the people did the exact opposite.”
The doctor said he knows what he is talking about. While he was at the hospital performing surgery in 2008, his house, like many others here, was ransacked by troops in a fruitless search for weapons and drugs.
“When we saw these soldiers, we were not only afraid,” Garcia said, “we were ashamed at what they had become.”
String of embarrassments
The Supreme Court needs to rule on at least five cases involving military jurisdiction before a precedent is established and a change in the constitution is possible.
It has sent three cases to civil courts, including one that dates to 1974, when a community activist was stopped at a military checkpoint in the western state of Guerrero and never seen again.
The actions follow a string of embarrassing arrests of military officials.
In May, four high-ranking army officers, including a former undersecretary of defense, were arrested for passing law enforcement intelligence to the Beltran Leyva drug cartel.
The arrests have come as the U.S. Northern Command seeks closer ties with the Mexican armed forces, including joint training exercises and anti-drug efforts, and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents deliver intelligence packages to the Mexican army and marines about the whereabouts of drug lords.
Moreno and the 3rd Infantry were supposed to be the tip of the spear in Joint Operation Chihuahua, President Felipe Calderon’s U.S.-backed strategy to deploy more than 50,000 Mexican troops to the streets to retake territory lost to narcotics cartels.