Mexican soldiers in rights abuse cases could face trial instead of tribunal

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 7:29 PM

MEXICO CITY - Under pressure from the Obama administration and human rights groups, President Felipe Calderon is pushing a new law that would require Mexican troops accused of human rights abuses to be tried in civilian courts, instead of the secretive military tribunals that have mostly protected soldiers for the past 70 years.

The proposal, sent to Congress here Monday, represents a major policy shift for Calderon, who has been criticized by human rights groups and the media for the impunity wielded by the Mexican military, which operates largely without independent oversight.

More than 4,000 human rights complaints have been filed against the Mexican military since Calderon ordered troops into the streets and villages to fight powerful drug trafficking mafias four years ago. More than 29,000 people have died in drug-related violence.

Calderon aides said that top Mexican generals support the new proposal, which would transfer cases involving military defendants accused of rape, torture and forced disappearances to civilian courts.

"This is a big deal, a fundamental change, a major move forward, if the military leadership has really signed off on it," said Roderic Camp, a professor at Claremont College in California who studies the Mexican armed forces. "The most controversial part of Calderon's fight against organized crime has been the broad use of the military and the human rights charges against them. Mexico has a very poor record in transparency in this regard. This could change that."

Human rights organizations described the proposals as significant but incomplete.

"This is an unfinished and fragmented proposal," said Luis Arriaga Valenzuela, director of PRODH, the most prominent human rights organization in Mexico. He said that complete reform would allow civilian courts to try all cases against the military involving illegal searches, arbitrary arrests, threats, thefts and false arrests.

Maureen Meyer, a Mexico specialist at the rights group Washington Office of Latin America called the proposal a step forward and a way to settle long-simmering cases before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights - but not enough.

"The military should be judged in civilian courts on all charges of abuse," Meyer said. "If you are killed at a military checkpoint by Mexican soldiers, based on the Calderon proposals, this case would still be judged by military tribunals."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company