Mexican Army Human Rights Abuses Charged

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Nearly three months after the Mexican army kicked off Operation Chihuahua Together against drug trafficking organizations in Ciudad Juarez and the state of Chihuahua, multiple accusations of human rights violations committed by soldiers are surfacing in the press.

A hot point of contention is in the Juarez Valley just outside the border city of the same name. Long the stomping ground of drug traffickers and other criminal bands, the rural area bordering the Rio Grande has been the target of repeated army raids in recent weeks. While the operations have netted arrests and drug loads, some residents charge the army is going overboard and harassing innocent citizens. On June 14, valley residents staged protests outside the offices of the Federal Attorney General (PGR) and in the downtown plaza in Ciudad Juarez.

Josefina Reyes, a resident of the town of Guadalupe Bravo, charged that soldiers recently raided her home and destroyed property before making off with a cell phone and other goods. “On that day, there were around 25 more searches in which they made off with various people,” Reyes said.


As of mid-June, 50 legal complaints against the army had been filed with the PGR’s Ciudad Juarez office. The complaints accuse the army of committing abuses of authority, carrying out illegal detentions, forcibly disappearing citizens, conducting improper searches, and inflicting bodily injuries and damages.

In one of the worst incidents, three men were shot to death by soldiers June 8 at an army checkpoint near Cuahtemoc in the central part of Chihuahua. The full story of the incident is still not thoroughly known, and it isn’t certain whether the killings were the result of an intentional attempt by the victims to run the roadblock or due to an accident related to possible drunken driving and/or the failing brakes of the victims’ car. Reportedly, the soldiers began shooting after the suspect vehicle struck and severely injured a soldier.

A reporter on the scene, El Diario’s Hugo Reyes, was forced to lie on the ground by soldiers. A member of the Chihuahua State Congress’ human rights commission, legislator Victor Quintana, showed up at the site of the incident but said he was denied access by the military.

Meanwhile, Chihuahua’s official State Human Rights Commission (CEDH) received 28 complaints about the army in May and an additional 32, mainly from the border town of Ojinaga, during the first 11 days of June. Jose Luis Armendariz Gonzalez, CEDH president, said complaints have also come from the municipalities of Chihuahua, Manuel Benavides, Madera, Guachochi, Delicias, Cuahtemoc, Namiquipa, Bachiniva, and Casas Grandes. According to Armendariz, human rights cases involving the army are turned over to the National Human Rights Commission in Mexico City for further action.

CEDH investigator Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson contended that human rights violations shared a “dangerous pattern.” Many of the purported victims, he said, were small-time drug dealers and addicts who were beaten and tortured. According to the official, detainees have been allegedly subjected to electric shocks, simulated suffocations with plastic bags and razor cuts at army installations. De la Rosa compared the reports with the rampages of the 1970s Dirty War, a period of time when torture and disappearance were widely employed by the Mexican government against dissidents and suspected guerrillas.

There was no immediate comment from the Mexican military on either the PGR or CEDH complaints. At the state level, elected officials have begun showing some concern about the army’s alleged abuses. Earlier this month, the Chihuahua State Congress exhorted the Defense Ministry to punish any soldier involved in abuses. State Congress President Jorge Alberto Gutierrez Casas later urged military officials to come clean about the Cuahtemoc checkpoint shooting.

“We are going to demand from the legislative branch that human rights not be violated in a struggle that is focused on organized crime, because what happened at the checkpoint doesn’t justify the response of the army members.” Gutierrez said. “The army is one of the institutions which has more prestige and credibility in the eyes of the citizenry, and because of this we must not permit isolated situations to end up discrediting the confidence that society has in them.”

Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz struck a similar tone about the army’s reputation. Insisting that no abuses had occurred during the last weeks since the municipal police began participating in joint operations, Mayor Reyes said the army as a whole should not be held responsible for a few bad apples. “Like any other big force that exists in Ciudad Juarez, there will always be abuses,” the mayor said, “but abuses by individuals, by persons, and not by the army, by the institution.”

Reports of human rights complaints in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua come at an especially sensitive time for both the federal Mexican and US governments. The Mexican army is expected to be the primary beneficiary of the Bush Administration’s proposed anti-drug assistance package to Mexico known as the Merida Initiative. A version of the billion dollar-plus aid plan passed the US House of Representatives last week, but it is still waiting action in the US Senate where lawmakers have attached human rights and justice system reform conditions.

Both the Bush and Calderon administrations have criticized conditioning the Merida assistance as an affront to Mexico’s national sovereignty. On June 16, President Bush appealed to US lawmakers to approve Merida “without many conditions.”

Human rights advocates in Mexico and abroad have long contended that the use of the Mexican military in the drug war is a violation of the nation’s Constitution which precludes the army from acting domestically in times of peace. Pressured by the escalating narco-violence, many Mexican lawmakers, business and civic leaders have agreed that the army is the only force capable of taking on the highly-organized and well-armed private armies of the various drug syndicates.

Officially launched to bring organized crime under control, Operation Chihuahua Together has had decidedly mixed results even by its own objectives. Mexican soldiers and federal police have detained scores of suspects, confiscated some weapons and seized several large drug loads, but none of the leaders of the warring cartels have been arrested so far.

Perhaps most importantly, the deployment has not halted the violence. Indeed, an analysis of homicide rates in Ciudad Juarez before and after the beginning of
the military operation reveals that the violence has actually worsened since the army deployed in late March. According to press accounts, 210 people were murdered from January 1 to March 31. From April 1- only a few days after the army operation began- to June 16, a reported 276 people were murdered.

In a startling declaration, Mayor Reyes told the El Paso Times that local authorities knew that a major, violent confrontation between rival cartels was imminent early this year.

Reyes said the local government even knew the date when the violence would commence and passed the tip on to federal authorities. According to Reyes’ account, the information was available nearly three months before a government operation to contain the violence was announced. Even though narco-violence has long been a stark feature of Ciudad Juarez, the level of violence witnessed in 2008 is unprecedented.

Additionally, new manifestations of violence that never existed before in Ciudad Juarez have surrounded the implementation of the military operation. For instance, a dozen businesses have been torched by presumed cartel elements in recent days. On the Internet, rival drug organizations wage a cyber-war complete with threatening videos and insulting messages. In another development heretofore unseen on the border, individuals have started hanging execution lists and “narco-banners” from public monuments and overpasses. Postings are even seemingly tied to coincide with rush hour and maximum exposure. In the 21st Century battle for the Ciudad Juarez drug “plaza,” a psychological war increasingly accompanies the physical one.

Source:Frontera NorteSur

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