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Feature: Battling Military Impunity in Mexico's Drug War

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #536)
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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."

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


aahpat (not verified)

should be an issue in the U.S. elections this year. We need to make it an election issue.

Barack Obama proudly supported the 2005 Combat Meth Act that has served to significantly escalate the Mexican civil problems. Now Obama is calling to more support of the Mexican military/government.

Fri, 05/16/2008 - 9:53am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The irony is virtually everyone with an education, pro & con, agrees that drug use is a social issue... for manufacturer, distributor, and consumer alike.

Libertarians, like myself, consider what we ingest to be a matter of choice... and this choice is your long as you respect the rights of others.

We know that continued marijuana prohibition, under the guise of regulation, is illegal... and the forces behind it are unlawful & criminal... and hopefully someday they, prohibitionists, will fill the empty jail cells vacated by the wrongly imprisoned.

Fri, 05/16/2008 - 1:18pm Permalink
aahpat (not verified)

To quotes by Sen. Pat Leahy's aid in the media this week regarding Plan Merida I just sent the following letter off to the aid, Tim Rieser.

RE: Plan Merida

Dear Mr. Rieser

In time magazine this week you said about the drug war crime and violence in Mexico:

"The problems are deeply rooted and there needs to be a broader, sustainable approach."

If that means continuing the core war on drugs policy then you are dead wrong. You, the Democrats and Republicans in the United States Congress who do not completely abandon the crime fostering and terrorist funding war on drugs policy are the problem not the solution.

It is the black market economy, a CREATION OF the U.S. congress war on drugs policy, that funds and fosters the criminal anarchy in Mexico. Globally, according the the U.N. that economy is worth more than $ 320-billion annually. It represents more than $ 141-billion a year in U.S. consumer demand.

This drug war policy created economy funds and fosters the violent criminal anarchy in Mexico. This drug war policy created economy subsidizes much of the criminal gang activity on American streets today. Including 75% of the record homicide deaths on my town of Allentown, PA in 2006. This drug war policy created economy funds 70% of the Taliban's operations in Afghanistan according to American War college expert John Glaze in his analysis "Opium and Afghanistan: Assessing U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy".

America's borders with Canada and Mexico are as porous as they are not due to illegal immigrant workers or bootleg consumer goods. Our borders are so insecure specifically because the value of the U.S. consumer demand for intoxicant drugs is so great that it has inspired entire industries dedicated to circumventing our best border security. The illegal workers, guns and consumer goods traffic are subsidized and supported by the massive and over-whelmingly lucrative black market that is the creation of the drug war policy of the United States congress. You and your bosses.

The war on drugs is subverting America's domestic public safety and broader national security. It funds much of the stateless terrorism in the world today. And there are reports going back to the 1990's that make clear that alQaida have been using heroin as an asymmetric weapon against the unwitting children of the west. As Sen. John Kerry put it as the World Trade Center and Pentagon still smoldered: "That's part of their revenge on the world," Kerry said. "Get as many people drugged out and screwed up as you can." U.S. Sen. John Kerry 21 Sept. 2001

The United States congress has known since before 9/11 that this weapon is being directed at our children and congress does NOTHING to change the laws that give alQaida unfettered access to the weapon. Knowing this, continued support for the war on drugs by members of the United States congress amounts to an act of treason. Support for the war on drugs is literally giving "aid and comfort" to America's sworn enemies. The U.S. congress knows that its policy is giving "aid and comfort" to America's sworn enemies.

Until 1996 I was a Democrat. A third generation Democrat. I have been an Independent voter since 1996 to oppose the pro-drug war policies of the Democratic leadership. I will continue to vote for third party candidates who share my values on this issue until the Democratic Party leadership in the congress repudiate the war on drugs and concur with the 2007 resolution by the United States Conference of Mayors: "NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the United States Conference of Mayors believes the war on drugs has failed and calls for a New Bottom Line in U.S. drug policy..." Until then both the Democrats and the Republicans are the problem not the solution to the violent criminal anarchy on our streets and around the world that is the only outcome of the misguided and counter-productive war on drugs.

Thank you for your time.

Fri, 05/16/2008 - 2:07pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Mexico and the rest of Latin America decided to stop enforcing drug laws?

1) the cartels would be out of business almost overnight
2) the US would probably decide to invade and occupy but, with its armed forces resources already maxed-out in Iraq and Afghanistan, it might be the very straw needed to break the camel's back.


Fri, 05/16/2008 - 2:57pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I agree 1OO%! It's good to see someone with the balls to openly say it. Props to you for not letting yourself be castrated by the American Government!!


Thu, 05/22/2008 - 10:28pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

That past in the 70’s, the Suisse bank them send, to Suisse people, to take from the bank of Mexico, for the Mexicans to give, the uncirculated money, pied to the Mexican bank, for giving services a selling products, from the Howard Hughes bossiness places in Mexico, the international business them sol car products and other services by air lines and selling, machinery, the gross amount of the sold them were, billions of dollars, many like 70’000,000,000,00 billion dollars, from those international business places, the dollars bills them were ready to leave the Mexican country past from the 1974 to 1975, them were in security trick, and under the supervision from the Suisse, people, when the money them were ready to go into the plain, a Mexican military car trucks them surround the plane, and them steel the money, and them threat at the Suisse representative, the Mexican expresident from those same year 1974 to 1975, he argue that he want to make safe of those money until the owner from those money he taking he leaving with them to Suisse, there it is a legally arguing that the Mexicans them use to hijacked those money, them argue that the owner from those money the legally son from mr, Howard Hughes, he does living kidnapped in Mexico, since the 10 august from 1962, by the Mexican politics exactly for those porpoises to stole money to the international bank, those are not arguing with freedom, the Mexican them are using terrorism arguing, in veer time, those bill dollar them where take to a biggest Mexican warehouse to be under the supervisions from many nations and expectation for the Mexican to doesn’t stolid an using for terrorism use, those were old bill paper money from the decade from the 60’s and 70’s, those monnaie them must to be take to Suisse to make the exchange to the coin the owner them want to do, them can to be to exchange the dollar bill in C H F frank Suisse, to destroy the dollar bill, and to build the C H F; this it is the real international rules from paid money, and to place the C H F, into the bank account owner, many can’t understand how the Mexicans them can spend those oldest dollar bill, whom can take those old bill money, some how the treasure department them can’t take the stolid dollar bill money, the Mexicans them hijacked, any way them were stolid money, the odd of every ting in about this it is because the Mexican expresident he argue with a lot of proud that he were going to make care, of those money for none body to stole them, those dollar bill, them start to be stolid in the 1998, the other reason it is that the Mexicans them are using those money to make civil war in them same country, it is the main reason, the Germans them took the power in Mexico, under the partido accion nacional, the Germans them are starting to show of to the Mexican poor public, as only the Germans them like to do, the Germans from the American country, the united states, them came to Mexico in the 1994, to kill to the pertido revolucionario intitucuional, people, formed from farmer proud Mexican public,
Poor but them proud, noting rich but unproud and with battle, now the Germans them are calling to come to Mexico to them same garvich as people, to be show of at the Mexicans, to show off the power and rich of the stolid money, many got know that the Germans from the united states, them took unfree to the Mexican country, the Germans said to the Mexican that them are goanna help to the Mexicans in them war, to doesn’t pay the big Mexican international debt, plus to stole proud others money, the Germans in the united states government them want to help to the Mexican country to spend the war at many countries owner from the Mexican international loan, them start them moved since the 1986, the supreme judge from the united states from America, he argue to the students from the pan Americana university from Mexico, to start to view that war, and to go on with the American German government., it is them own responsibility, because an American and Mexican team them are steeling, proud money to other countries with war purposes.

Wed, 10/15/2008 - 4:55am Permalink

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