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Mexico: Military Investigations Shield Army Abuses

In a new report released today, Human Rights Watch called on Mexico to end military jurisdiction over all cases involving human rights violations.

The Mexican justice system currently leaves the task of investigating and prosecuting army abuses to military authorities. Because of this arrangement, serious violations go unpunished.

"When it comes to human rights abuses, Mexico cannot rely on the army to police itself," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. "It is a recipe for ensuring that no one is held accountable."

Mexico's army has played an increasingly active role in policing the Mexican countryside in recent years, especially in regions with large indigenous populations. Last January, President Vicente Fox declared his intention to wage a "war without quarter" against drug trafficking, raising concerns that aggressive policing practices by the armed forces could take insufficient account of the protection of human rights.

The report, titled, "Military Injustice: Mexico's Failure to Punish Army Abuses," gives a detailed examination of five cases in which civilians from Guerrero state reported serious violations committed by soldiers. Despite credible evidence supporting their claims, military authorities brought charges in only one of the cases-and only after local residents surrounded a military camp and refused to leave until the government promised a thorough investigation.

The report says a major flaw in the military justice system is its lack of transparency, which bars civilians from monitoring the progress of investigations. Another is its lack of accountability to civilian authorities.

Although the current military attorney general insists that his office is committed to investigating abuses, its ability to do so is greatly undermined by a widespread fear of the army that inhibits civilian victims and witnesses from providing information to military authorities. Civilians who have pressed for investigations into alleged abuses have reported suffering reprisals.

Digna Ochoa, a human rights lawyer who worked on several of the cases documented in this report, received repeated death threats after she called attention to alleged army abuses. Ochoa was found shot to death in her Mexico City office on October 19. A note left by her side warned other human rights advocates that the same would happen to them if they continued with their work.

The problem of army impunity received official recognition last week when the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) presented President Fox with a study that documented military participation in widespread acts of torture and forced disappearances in the 1970s and '80s. President Fox announced the creation of a special prosecutor's office to investigate the cases documented by the CNDH.

"Prosecuting these past abuses is an important step toward ending army impunity, but it is not enough," said Vivanco. "The government must also tackle the flaws of the justice system that allowed these abuses to go uninvestigated and unpunished for so many years."

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