Mexican Drug Fight Nets 60,000 Suspects

The attorney general's office says it is unable to disclose how many drug-trafficking suspects remain in custody or whether they have been charged.
The attorney general's office says it is unable to disclose how many drug-trafficking suspects remain in custody or whether they have been charged. (By Marco Ugarte -- Associated Press)
By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 1, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- Mexican authorities have arrested more than 60,000 people in connection with drug trafficking over the past two years, according to government statistics from a nationwide crackdown that has also led to dramatic increases in violence and allegations of human rights abuse.

The detention figures, obtained by The Washington Post, represent the first public accounting of the government's offensive against Mexico's powerful drug cartels. President Felipe Calderón declared war against the traffickers shortly after taking office in December 2006, giving the military unprecedented law enforcement duties.

Drug trafficking in Mexico employs an estimated 150,000 people, according to U.S. officials, so 60,000 arrests could represent progress in the fight against the cartels.

But the Mexican attorney general's office said it was unable to disclose how many of the detainees remain in custody or whether they had been charged with crimes related to drug trafficking. In Mexico, it is not unusual for suspects to be arrested, paraded before television cameras but later quietly released without being charged with a crime.

The statistics reveal the expanding reach of the Mexican military in the drug war. From December 2006 to March this year, according to the Defense Ministry, the army had arrested 12,251 people, nearly one-quarter of the drug-related arrests reported by the government. Since 2007, monthly detentions by the military rose 129 percent, the figures show. The military said it had arrested only those who were caught in the act of committing a crime.

"I've never seen numbers that come close to this," said Roderic Ai Camp, an expert on the Mexican military at Claremont McKenna College in California.

During the Calderón administration, hundreds of active-duty and retired military officers have taken command positions in police agencies throughout the country. The army and police perform joint operations in several zones where trafficking and violence have been greatest. In the border city of Juarez, for example, all public security is under the military's control.

In a report released this week, Human Rights Watch alleges that the military has "committed serious human rights violations" while fighting the drug war, "including enforced disappearances, killings, torture, rape and arbitrary detentions." The report describes 17 cases involving what it describes as "egregious crimes" by soldiers against more than 70 victims.

The system lacks a process to investigate and, when necessary, bring soldiers to trial in open proceedings with full transparency, Human Rights Watch said. Allegations of human rights abuses by the military currently are judged by the military in proceedings that are mostly hidden from public scrutiny. Human Rights Watch called on the Calderón administration to prosecute serious abuses by the military in civilian courts.

"They can point to the numbers and say they are doing an effective job, but you have to ask: 'What do these numbers really mean? Are all those arrested back out on the streets?' " said José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas program for Human Rights Watch.

Carlos Flores, a Mexico City-based expert on organized crime, said the government's inability to account for the detainees suggests a weakness. "Either they are detaining people for whom they cannot effectively articulate a legal basis for the crime they allegedly committed," Flores said, "or the justice system is so permeated by these criminal organizations that even if their members are detained, they are able to get them out. Both are equally plausible."

The military detained 3,581 people for drug-related offenses in 2007, an average of 298 a month, according to the Defense Ministry. That number rose to 6,207, or 517 a month, in 2008. This year through March, the military had arrested 2,043 people, or 681 a month.

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