Available Evidence Contradicts President’s Statements
August 10, 2009
There is plenty of evidence showing that army abuses in Mexico routinely go unpunished. Rather than pretending it doesn't exist, the Calderón administration should address the problem and stop defending the failed system of military justice that perpetuates it.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) - The claim by President Felipe Calderón of Mexico today that army abuse cases are effectively prosecuted in Mexico flies in the face of all available evidence, Human Rights Watch said.

At a news conference in Guadalajara, concluding the North American Summit, President Calderón stated that his government has an "absolute and categorical commitment to human rights," and that his critics would need to prove "any case, just one case, where the proper authority has not acted in a correct way, that the competent authorities have not punished anyone who has abused their authority, whether they be police officers or they be soldiers or anyone else."

"There is plenty of evidence showing that army abuses in Mexico routinely go unpunished," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Rather than pretending it doesn't exist, the Calderón administration should address the problem and stop defending the failed system of military justice that perpetuates it."

Since Calderón deployed more than 40,000 troops to combat drug-related violence, Mexican soldiers engaged in counternarcotics operations have repeatedly committed egregious abuses against civilians - including rape, torture, and killing. Last year, the country's human rights ombudsman received 1,230 complaints of military abuses, a six-fold increase over the past three years.

The Mexican military customarily assumes jurisdiction to investigate and try army abuse cases in military courts. In its April 2009 report "Uniform Impunity," Human Rights Watch documented in detail 16 cases of egregious abuses investigated by military prosecutors in which there has been no accountability. Nine of the military investigations were closed without any convictions.

For example:

  • In a May 2007 case, soldiers detained eight people after a shootout between the military and alleged drug traffickers in Michoacan. Soldiers took the detainees, none of whom were involved in the shootout, to military installations, where the soldiers beat and kicked four of them, placing their heads in black bags, and forcing them to lie on the floor, blindfolded. A federal prosecutor requested that the military investigate the soldiers' actions. The military closed its criminal investigation in a month and sent it to the archives, arguing there was no evidence that the soldiers had committed a crime.
  • In August 2007, five soldiers detained a man in Michoacan, held him incommunicado in military installations for over 24 hours, beat and kicked him, placed a cloth bag on his head, tied his arms and feet, poured water on his face while they hit his abdomen, and applied electric shocks to his stomach. A federal prosecutor requested that a military prosecutor investigate the case. Despite the existence of medical exams documenting the torture, the military closed its investigation, determining it did not find evidence that the soldiers had committed a crime.

The report also documented fundamental flaws in the military justice system that contribute to the failure to hold soldiers accountable for abuses. These include a lack of basic safeguards to ensure independence and impartiality. Given that the system does not meet basic standards, over the past decade international bodies (including the UN Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) have repeatedly called on Mexico to transfer cases of military abuse to the civilian justice system.

In repeated meetings with top Mexican military and civilian officials, including the military attorney general, and despite several written requests over the course of several months, the government has been unable to provide a single example in the past 10 years of a conviction by military courts of a member of the military accused of committing a serious human rights violation.

Since Human Rights Watch presented the report, the Mexican Ministry of Defense has reported publicly that there have been "12 convictions issued during the current administration." But the ministry has not provided basic information substantiating the claim, such as the facts of the cases that led to the convictions. The crimes for which the soldiers were convicted included the "infraction of duties that all members of the military need to abide by," which is not a human rights offense, and "involuntary manslaughter," which could, for example, be a death caused by a car accident. 

Under US law, 15 percent of funds to be provided under the Merida Initiative, to help Mexico tackle the fight against the drug cartels, are to be withheld until the State Department reports that Mexico has met four human rights conditions included in the aid package, One of these requires that Mexico is ensuring that "civilian authorities are investigating and prosecuting army abuses, in accordance with Mexican and international law."

International human rights bodies have consistently rejected the use of military prosecutors and courts in cases involving abuses against civilians, stating that the jurisdiction of military courts should be limited to offenses that are strictly military in nature.