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Skeptics doubt Mexican data on military abuses
Figures contradict U.S. numbers; complaints rise as drug war rages

By William Booth and Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 23, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- The Mexican military has convicted just one soldier of a serious human rights violation during a bloody, three-year campaign against drug traffickers, according to Interior Ministry figures that are significantly lower than those reported by the U.S. government.

The Mexican military has come under scrutiny because of a surge in complaints against soldiers, including allegations of torture, beatings and illegal raids and arrests. The Mexican army is leading the fight against the powerful drug cartels as part of President Felipe Calderón's U.S.-backed strategy to put 45,000 troops into the streets and employ soldiers as police.

In response to inquiries by the group Human Rights Watch, Mexico's Interior Minister, Fernando Gomez-Mont, said that three soldiers have been found guilty of human rights crimes committed during the three years of the Calderón administration. However, one conviction resulted from an automobile accident and another was overturned on appeal, according to the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for security throughout Mexico.

The sole remaining case involved a soldier convicted of opening fire at a military checkpoint, killing one civilian. That soldier was sentenced to 9 months in prison.

Human rights monitors in Mexico and the United States describe the handful of convictions as proof that Mexico's military is incapable of prosecuting abuses among its officers and troops. The army pursues cases before secretive tribunals and refuses to release basic information, such as the names of the accused.

"The bottom line is that the Mexican military is not producing credible results, and you cannot do business with a military that refuses to be accountable," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas program for Human Rights Watch.

In the dark

Mexico's national human rights commission has received more than 2,000 complaints about the army's conduct over the last three years. But it has been difficult for human rights organizations, journalists and even the U.S. and Mexican governments to obtain detailed information from the army about abuse cases.

"I think the Americans are beginning to understand the magnitude of what is happening in Mexico and who they are in bed with," said Jorge Castaneda, former foreign secretary in Mexico and now a professor at New York University.

In August, the State Department reported that military courts had convicted 12 Mexican soldiers since 2006 and were investigating 52 others for homicide, torture, kidnapping and extortion. The report was required before the U.S. government could release tens of millions of dollars under the Merida Initiative, a $1.4 billion, counter-narcotics package signed by President George W. Bush.

"The U.S. Congress made clear that it supports the Merida Initiative against the cartels, but it does not support a blank check for the Mexican military," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). "A portion of our aid is conditioned on respect for human rights."

In response to questions from The Washington Post, a military spokesman, a colonel who declined to have his name used, said, "The army does not systemically violate human rights. Period. There may be individual cases of abuse, but we are dealing with them.

"It's like the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan, only more difficult because they can usually tell who are the criminals and who are the civilians," he added. "We do not have that luxury. In the drug war, the line between criminal and civilian is blurred."

The military spokesman disputed the figures provided by the Mexican interior minister. He said the military had convicted 10 soldiers of human rights abuses committed in the last three years and that an additional 30 officers and troops were in jail as cases against them were investigated. He declined to provide details about the 10 convictions.

Human rights allegations

U.S. officials complain that it is difficult to obtain the most basic information from the military on human rights cases. Obama administration officials maintain that the Mexican government is making sufficient progress on human rights to justify the continued funding and an ever-closer partnership.

"They are very well aware that the longer they stay in the street, the longer they have these levels of allegations against them, the institution suffers," said John Feeley, the deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City.

But human rights monitors said the Mexican government has failed to prosecute nearly every case that has been reported. In the southwestern state of Guerrero, where the army maintains a strong presence, it has not prosecuted a single case despite dozens of reports of torture and abuse, according to Jose Raymundo Diaz of the Collective Against Torture and Impunity.

In June, the army, backed by paramilitary forces, allegedly fired on the mountain village of Puerto Las Ollas in Guerrero, abused several residents and fired on the local pastor during a two-day period. Although the case is under investigation by the national human rights commission, no soldiers have been prosecuted, according to Diaz.

Earlier this month, three teenagers from Puerto Las Ollas were shot to death by unknown assailants described by villagers as paramilitary forces.

Of the more than 2000 complaints lodged against the military in the last three years, the National Human Rights Commission, a government institution, has found enough evidence of abuse in 27 cases to refer them to the military for prosecution.

Alleged victims of torture testified that soldiers beat them; pulled out fingernails; applied electric shocks to their genitals; and poured water over their mouths and nostrils or submerged their heads in buckets of water. The alleged victims testified that the torture sessions took place on military bases.

The military spokesman said the army has arrested more than 17,000 suspects, prompting more complaints. More than 16,000 people have died in drug-related violence, including hundreds of police officers, prosecutors and soldiers in the last three years.

"What is the benefit of militarization when we have so many abuses of human rights committed by soldiers," asked Abel Barra, executive director of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center in Guerrero. "The situation has gotten out of control. Militarization has caused more damage to society here than it has helped us live in peace."

Researcher Michael E. Miller contributed to this report.

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