Relatives shovel dirt over the coffin of Eduardo Gonzalez Ramirez during his burial in a cemetery in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Rodrigo Abd/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

This rough little border town in the middle of nowhere has seen its share of lawless men, the cocaine cowboys whose wild rides end out in the desert with a shovelful of dirt tossed into their shallow graves.

Then the general came to town, and the place went to hell.

Brig. Gen. Manuel de Jesus Moreno Avina, commander of the 3rd Infantry Company, arrived in spring 2008 in Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande from tiny Presidio in Texas’s Big Bend country.

The general, as he is known by all here, quickly began what his own officers described in court testimony as a “reign of terror.”

Instead of confronting organized crime, his soldiers allegedly became outlaws themselves. Then people began to disappear.

Now, four years after Moreno’s 18-month tenure in Ojinaga, the landmark case against the general and his men may finally change the way Mexico prosecutes soldiers tied to alleged abuses during the country’s bloody drug war.

The Mexican Supreme Court recently ruled that Moreno, his officers and two dozen of his soldiers should be tried for human rights crimes in a civilian court — and not, as the constitution mandates, before a secret military tribunal whose proceedings can take years and go nowhere.

If it happens, such a trial would mark an unprecedented shift of power that could end a century of impunity for Mexico’s armed forces, whose top generals have fought hard to protect themselves from scrutiny.

“What the people want to see after all these years is a real trial,” said Ariel Garcia, a physician in Ojinaga. “It is not right that someone who was sent to protect the people did the exact opposite.”

The doctor said he knows what he is talking about. While he was at the hospital performing surgery in 2008, his house, like many others here, was ransacked by troops in a fruitless search for weapons and drugs.

“When we saw these soldiers, we were not only afraid,” Garcia said, “we were ashamed at what they had become.”

String of embarrassments

The Supreme Court needs to rule on at least five cases involving military jurisdiction before a precedent is established and a change in the constitution is possible.

It has sent three cases to civil courts, including one that dates to 1974, when a community activist was stopped at a military checkpoint in the western state of Guerrero and never seen again.

The actions follow a string of embarrassing arrests of military officials.

In May, four high-ranking army officers, including a former undersecretary of defense, were arrested for passing law enforcement intelligence to the Beltran Leyva drug cartel.

The arrests have come as the U.S. Northern Command seeks closer ties with the Mexican armed forces, including joint training exercises and anti-drug efforts, and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents deliver intelligence packages to the Mexican army and marines about the whereabouts of drug lords.

Moreno and the 3rd Infantry were supposed to be the tip of the spear in Joint Operation Chihuahua, President Felipe Calderon’s U.S.-backed strategy to deploy more than 50,000 Mexican troops to the streets to retake territory lost to narcotics cartels.

People in Ojinaga say the strategy failed.

According to testimony gathered by the Mexican military and submitted to Mexico’s Supreme Court, the general and members of the 3rd Infantry Company executed illegal arrests and unwarranted searches; collaborated with traffickers; drove around town drunk and consorted with prostitutes at the barracks; confiscated drugs and sold them; stole vehicles, cash, televisions and mattresses; smuggled marijuana and cocaine; and assisted cartel assassins.

Although the testimony implicates the general and his men in seven murders and disappearances, they have been formally charged with the murders of three men, including one who was wrapped in wet blankets, laid on a metal cot and tortured to death with electric shocks.

His body was allegedly doused with diesel fuel and burned at a desert ranch. The soldiers said they told the doctor at the hospital to record his death as an overdose.

Official complaints to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission against the military garrison in Ojinaga soared after Moreno arrived — from zero in 2007 to 58 during his reign. He was removed from command in September 2009.

Marat Paredes Montiel, a top official at the rights commission, said the complaints ranged from illegal detention to rape and torture.

“The armed forces launched a war without any training in human rights protections,” Paredes said.

‘The people are still afraid’

Moreno and 29 of his men remain in custody, according to a Mexican army spokesman, who denied that military tribunals provided a form of impunity. However, three years after their arrest, none of the men has been tried or sentenced.

The testimony of officers and soldiers in the 3rd Infantry Company deployed to Ojinaga came to light only because parts of the Supreme Court file were shared with the national newspaper Reforma, which published excerpts.

Court officials and human rights lawyers confirmed the outline of the testimony.

People in Ojinaga rose up in protest against the military, and 1,500 people crowded into the central plaza calling for peace and respect.

“It was code, calling for ‘peace,’ ” said a town official who declined to give his name, fearing reprisals. “We were too afraid to directly call for the military’s ouster.”

The people “are still afraid of this guy,” said former mayor Cesar Carrasco, who recalls the day a soldier put a gun to his chest and told him to mind his own business.

“They worry the general will get a light sentence, or they will just let him out of jail and that he’ll come back and take his revenge,” Carrasco said.

Human Rights Watch collected evidence related to more than 230 cases of killings, disappearances and torture allegedly committed by soldiers and police during Calderon’s tenure. In not a single one of those cases has an official been held accountable.

The group also obtained records showing that the military prosecutor’s office opened 4,000 investigations during the Calderon administration into grave human rights violations allegedly committed by military personnel against civilians. From those investigations, only 33 soldiers were convicted.

Carrasco said Ojinaga’s residents don’t care where the general and his men are tried, they just want to hear that he is still in jail. Many Mexicans don’t have much trust in the civilian courts, either.

“The recent decisions by the Mexican Supreme Court involving military and civilian jurisdiction are very important — a very big deal,” said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

“But it’s not clear that civilian courts will produce adequate prosecutions, either,” he said.

Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.