In Mexico, War on Drug Cartels Takes Wider Toll

Norberto Ramírez said he was beaten and tortured last May by Mexican soldiers targeting drug traffickers and assassins in his remote village of Nocupetaro, and ruined by the ensuing medical bills.
Norberto Ramírez said he was beaten and tortured last May by Mexican soldiers targeting drug traffickers and assassins in his remote village of Nocupetaro, and ruined by the ensuing medical bills. (By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)
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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 14, 2008

NOCUPETARO, Mexico -- Plastic sacks give Norberto Ramírez chills.

On the May night last year when his nightmare began, Ramírez said, Mexican soldiers pulled a plastic sack over his head and cinched it around his neck while he lay inside a dark bar in this desolate village. He gagged. They pulled off the sack, he said, then put it back and cinched it again.

It went on like that for hours.

"I thought I was going to die, and I wanted to die," said Ramírez, 44, whose recollections match details in a human rights commission report authorized by the government and in interviews with more than a dozen villagers.

Ramírez's ordeal occurred during one of the most volatile moments in Mexico's military campaign against drug cartels, a war that has ranged from the U.S.-Mexican border to Gulf ports to insular rural outposts such as this, and that pits the country's demand for security against its stated commitment to human rights.

A village of 3,000 mostly small-plot farmers, Nocupetaro is among a constellation of communities where the military has been dispatched to take on the cartels in one of the largest domestic deployments in Mexican history. President Felipe Calderón has sent more than 25,000 soldiers and federal police across the country over the past 16 months in response to drug-related violence that has killed more than 5,300 people since 2006.

According to government figures, major army operations in nine states have led to more than 22,000 arrests and the seizure of 50 tons of cocaine and 40,000 weapons. The operations, government officials say, have shaved $9 billion a year from the cartel's roughly $23 billion drug trade.

But in nearly every state where the army has deployed, residents have accused soldiers of grave human rights violations that now number in the hundreds. Here in the western state of Michoacan, Calderón's home state, more than 100 such violations have been alleged, including the fatal shooting Jan. 12 of a 17-year-old boy at a checkpoint.

In an anti-narcotics plan now before Congress, President Bush has proposed sending the Mexican military $205.5 million in equipment in 2008, more than 40 percent of the proposed outlay for the year. The Merida Initiative, as the program is known, designates a portion of Mexico's proposed $950 million package for 2008 and 2009 for human rights training for police, prosecutors and prison officials, though none for the army.

"The military is committing excesses, and that is a reminder of the Dirty War," said Sergio Aguayo, founder of the nonprofit Mexican Human Rights Academy, referring to the period in the 1960s and '70s in which government troops are accused of having killed hundreds of student protesters and civil rights activists. A few government officials were briefly jailed, but there have been no major convictions.

A report issued in September by Mexico's government-sponsored National Human Rights Commission gave details of three cases that occurred during Calderón's military campaign, including in Nocupetaro. The commission concluded that 59 people here were subjected to "cruel and degrading" treatment at the hands of soldiers, including "arbitrary and illegal detentions," torture and looting.

The commission's head, José Luis Soberanes, urged Calderón to "get the armed forces back to the barracks and stop sending them on missions they are not trained for."

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