Lawmakers in the United States this week took the first steps toward approving a $1.6 billion dollar, three-year anti-drug assistance package for Mexico that is heavily weighted toward aid for the Mexican military. The Mexican army needs all the help it can get as, with 30,000 troops deployed against violent drug traffickers by President Felipe Calderón, it wages war against the so-called cartels, say supporters of the package.
poster of assassinated human rights advocate Ricardo Murillo
But even as the aid package, known as Plan Mérida after the Mexican city where US and Mexican officials hammered out details, was being crafted, the Mexican military was once again demonstrating the risks of using soldiers for law enforcement. On the evening of March 26, near the town of Santiago de los Caballeros in the municipality of Badiraguato in the mountains of the state of Sinaloa, a five-man military patrol opened fire on a white Hummer driven by a local man back from the US. When the smoke cleared, four people in the vehicle were dead, two were wounded -- and there was no sign of any weapons.
It was the second time in less than a year that soldiers in Badiraguato had opened fire, killing multiple innocent civilians. Last June, three school teachers and two of their young children were killed when soldiers at a checkpoint perforated their vehicle with bullets. That case went away after the military paid their families $1,600 each.
Seeing yet another unjustified killing by the military was enough for Mercedes Murillo, head of the independent human rights organization the Frente Cívico Sinaloense (Sinaloa Civic Front). The veteran activist saw her brother assassinated in September after discussing the June killings on his radio program, but that didn't stop her from filing a lawsuit designed to end what is in effect impunity for soldiers who commit human rights offenses against civilians.
Under Mexican law -- the result of a post-revolutionary political settlement designed to keep the military out of politics -- members of the military do not face trial in the civilian courts, but in special military courts. This martial fuero -- a privileged judicial instance whenever the military are on trial -- results in soldiers charged with human rights abuses being judged by members of their own institution, and all too frequently, being absolved of any wrongdoing no matter what the facts are.
Mercedes Murillo with legal assistant
Now, Murillo and her legal team, acting on behalf of the widow of the Hummer driver, have filed suit in Sinaloa district court in Mazatlán, challenging the fuero
system. She doesn't expect immediate success, she said.
"This is the first case presented in Mexico against the actions the army has taken," said Murillo. "We know that when we present this in Mazatlán, the judges will give us nothing. Then we must take it to the Supreme Court of Mexico, and there might be people there who will study what we are presenting."
But Murillo isn't counting on the Mexican courts; her vision goes beyond that. "I don't think we can win here, but even if the Supreme Court says the military can do what it wants, that will lay the groundwork for going to the Inter-American Court. Military impunity violates international treaties that Mexico has signed," she argued.
The Organization of American States' Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission of Human Rights are autonomous institutions charged by the hemispheric organization with interpreting and applying the American Treaty on Human Rights and ensuring governments' compliance with it. Mexico is a signatory to that treaty.
"Using the military for drug enforcement in Mexico is a serious problem," agreed Ana Paula Hernández of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountains in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. In addition to being one of the most impoverished areas of the country, the mountains of Guerrero have long been home to poppy and marijuana farmers, as well as the occasional leftist guerrilla band over the decades. The military has been deployed there for years.
But while most attention these days is focused on the military's deployment to fight the cartels in major cities, Hernández cited the military's more traditional drug war role: manual illicit crop eradication. "It's an almost impossible and useless task since illicit crop cultivation is an issue of survival in the mountain region, as in other parts of the country," she said. "In these regions, farmers have two options -- either they grow illicit crops or they migrate, so of course they will continue to find ways to grow illicit crops. It will never end unless the social and structural reasons for it are addressed."
Frente Cívico Sinaloense (Sinaloa Civic Front) office, hippie shop next-door
But instead, successive Mexican governments have sent in the military to root out the poppy and pot fields. At least, that is their stated purpose, but Hernández isn't sure they're serious. "This is the excuse for deploying the military in many rural and indigenous regions, but in many cases it's more about a counterinsurgency strategy than a crop eradication strategy," she said.
The military presence in such regions is "an intimidating and threatening" one, said Hernández. "They set up camp wherever they like, often destroying licit crops and harvests in the process, stealing the water from the community, entering people's homes to take their food, stopping people on the roads to interrogate them, and so on. Worse yet, the military has become one of the main perpetrators of human rights abuses in the region, committing violations as serious as sexual rape for example," Hernández said. "This is something that is very common but that is rarely denounced."
Tlachinollan has documented some 80 cases of human rights violations carried out by members of the military in the region in recent years, including the rape of two women, Valentina Rosendo Cantú and Inés Fernández, by soldiers in 2002, said Hernández. But because of the military court system, nobody has been punished.
"Justice has not been carried out in a single case," she said. "It is very difficult, almost impossible, to obtain justice in cases where the military is involved. They remain untouchable to a certain degree and without a doubt, absolutely unaccountable to society for their actions."
As for Cantú and Fernández, they have given up on Mexican justice and are now seeking redress before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Their case is pending after a hearing last October.
While Mexican citizens and activists struggle to rein in the military, some US experts wonder whether involving soldiers in drug law enforcement does any good anyway.
"We don't think it's a problem that can be solved militarily," said Joy Olson, executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "The use of the military in the drug war is not a new thing -- they continually bring in the military because the police are either too weak or too corrupt to deal with the traffickers -- but the question is whether it can deal with the challenge at hand, and we don't think so," she said.
But even if the military is unable to stop drug production and trafficking, it will continue to be the backstop for hard-pressed Mexican politicians unless real reforms take place, Olson said. "We need to be talking about significant police reform. Until that happens, the military will be used over and over again without solving the problem."
Murillo agreed that police reforms were necessary, and vowed never to give up the fight for justice. "They killed my brother because he criticized the army," she said, "but we are so used to the soldiers now that we are not scared. I have nothing to lose. My sons and daughters are married, my husband is 82. If they kill me, I don't care. That's the only way to work. You can't be afraid."