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In Mexico, War on Drug Cartels Takes Wider Toll
Military Campaign Draws Accusations Of Rights Abuses

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."

Mexico's army opened its first department-level human rights office this year. But the office is authorized only to pass on complaints, not initiate investigations on its own. Gen. José Antonio López Portillo, who heads the office, said the military's human rights record during the deployment has been "satisfactory."

Of the 421 human rights complaints his office received between December 2006 and February 2007, he said, more than 100 have been dismissed for insufficient evidence. No soldiers have been convicted, he said, and only the case of a shooting in June at a checkpoint in Sinaloa state that killed two women and three children has reached the military courts. He declined to discuss the Nocupetaro case specifically.

"The message is clear," López Portillo said. "There are very few complaints."

A Deadly Ambush

On May 1, the day before Norberto Ramírez said he was beaten, suspected drug cartel assassins ambushed an army convoy patrolling trafficking routes near his remote village. Five soldiers, including a colonel, were killed in the attack, which local residents contend was intended as a show of force by the cartels.

Most homes in this village, sprawled between craggy ranges in Michoacan's Tierra Caliente, have no telephones. Cellphone signals do not reach here, and the only Internet connection is in the mayor's office.

Because of its isolation, the village became an easy-to-protect headquarters of the small Nocupetaro cartel in the 1980s and '90s. Local officials estimate that half the town was once involved in the drug trade, mostly peasants tending plots of marijuana. But the village also hosted cartel leaders and other big drug traffickers, whose organization has outlived some of them.

In the late 1990s, the government moved against drug-trafficking in Michoacan, and the economic effects on the small-time growers and businesses they sustained were swift and devastating. The town emptied, with as many as a third of its residents heading to the United States during harvest seasons.

"It was like a huge factory closed," said the then-mayor, Marco Antonio García Galindo, now 36. "It was better before the drug trade left because there was money, but it was also worse because this place was much more violent."

The trade soon returned to the region, taking a more violent turn that would peak in May.

A Swift Response

The army responded swiftly to the deadly ambush, pouring hundreds of troops into Nocupetaro and the surrounding region.

Over two days, soldiers ransacked houses, strapped villagers to wooden posts and robbed homes, according to human rights reports and interviews with more than a dozen villagers. Mexico's human rights commission cited physical evidence that four girls, all under 18, were raped.

The night the soldiers were killed, Ramírez, a wiry father of five with sad, sunken eyes, had gone to bed in his three-story concrete house in Caracuaro, a small town outside Nocupetaro. He had built the house himself with money earned during 27 years of migrant labor -- building highways in Texas, driving forklifts in Indiana, packing perfume in New Jersey.

In November 2006, tired of the months away from home, he said, he began buying cars in the United States for resale in Mexico. Just two days before the hooded soldiers roused him from sleep last May, he had cleared $500 on a 1990 Chevrolet Cheyenne pickup.

"You're coming with us," he recalled the soldiers telling him.

After taking his money, Ramírez said, the soldiers drove him to La Estrellita bar on the edge of Nocupetaro. They pounded his stomach and back with their rifles, placed his head inside the plastic sacks and jabbed him with electric cattle prods, he said. All along, he said, he told them he knew nothing about the ambush.

At the same time that Ramírez says he was being tortured, García Galindo, the mayor, said he counted at least 300 soldiers in the village. The national human rights commission report said villagers described seeing men tied to posts and "asphyxiated by being submerged in basins of water," accounts corroborated in interviews conducted here recently.

García Galindo, an articulate entrepreneur who owns a water purification plant, was overwhelmed. His police chief had only an elementary school education, no law enforcement experience and had been a migrant laborer until just before he took office. The village judge was the dentist.

With no sense of his legal options and the army in the village streets, García Galindo said, he started calling government agencies.

No one returned his calls.

A Life Demolished

Ramírez said he was taken to a military prison where he was held for several days, then released without charge.

He returned home doubled over in pain, he said. Medical exams, the results of which he provided during an interview, showed severe damage to his liver and intestines. He underwent surgery but was hospitalized again later because of complications.

Each day, it seemed, a new bill arrived. The receipts are stuffed in two backpacks: $300 for medicine on Sept. 4; $450 on Sept. 5; $1,500 on Sept. 8. There are months' worth of them. Unable to keep up, Ramírez sold his little rental house in December. It was to have been the future home of his 12-year-old son, Heriberto Ramírez.

Soon, he said, he plans to leave because he cannot find work. But the green card that allowed him to work in the United States was taken by soldiers, he said, and he doubts he will be able to secure a new one.

If he cannot, Ramírez said, he has another plan. He'll jump into the Rio Grande and swim.

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