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Mexico: Deliver Justice for Killings, Disappearances in Monterrey

Army and Navy Abuses, Cover-Ups Should be Prosecuted in Civilian Justice System

Military and police officers were implicated in a series of deaths and disappearances in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, Human Rights Watch said today. Federal and state prosecutors should take immediate steps to prosecute those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

In a recent fact-finding mission to Nuevo Leon, Human Rights Watch investigated eight killings during 2010 that evidence indicates were the result of unlawful use of lethal force by army and navy officers. Human Rights Watch also documented more than a dozen enforced disappearances in Nuevo Leon since 2007 in which the evidence points to the involvement of the army, navy, and police.

"Failing to prosecute soldiers and police officers who kill, carry out enforced disappearances, and commit other grave violations sends a message that these abuses are acceptable tactics for combating organized crime," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "While it is true Nuevo Leon is experiencing unprecedented levels of violence, such abuses only undermine public security efforts and worsen an atmosphere of lawlessness."

Victims' families told Human Rights Watch that they had complained to state and federal authorities, and that in most cases investigations had been formally opened. But no one has been held accountable for any of the crimes Human Rights Watch documented in Nuevo Leon, according to the families.

Human Rights Watch found serious shortcomings in several investigations into these cases opened by civilian justice officials. These included not interviewing key witnesses, not visiting the crime scene, or failing to carry out other basic procedural steps. The military had also assumed jurisdiction in some cases and had failed to conduct meaningful investigations. Mexico's military justice system has long ensured impunity for soldiers who commit human rights violations against civilians.

In some cases, family members of victims who have sought investigations into the incidents have been intimidated or harassed.

The Nuevo Leon killings documented by Human Rights Watch include:

  • Rocío Romeli Elías Garza and Juan Carlos Peña Chavarria

The husband and wife, both 29, were shot by members of the army on March 3, 2010 in Anáhuac. Two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the couple were walking to their car from the factory where they worked at approximately 12:15 p.m. when they were caught in a shootout between the military and armed men.

Two armed men tried to carjack their car, but under pursuit from soldiers, abandoned the effort and fled. Peña jumped out of his car and tried to run to safety, but was shot by the military. Peña and Elías were able to take cover behind another automobile. When the shooting stopped, Elías raised her hands and pleaded for help for her husband, yelling that they were civilians and were unarmed. She was shot by a soldier standing approximately 10 feet away.

Soldiers approached the bodies and shot them again from point-blank range. Then, the witnesses said, the soldiers moved the bodies and planted arms near both victims. A statement released the following day by the military said it had killed eight criminals in a shootout.

Family members of the couple filed a complaint on March 11 with the state prosecutor's office. On August 9, the state prosecutor's office issued a document stating that the Elías and Peña "were victims of a confrontation between personnel from the army and assassins," and that no evidence suggested that the two "belonged to any criminal group or organization, nor have they been identified by anyone as participants in the incident in which they lost their lives." In November, a parallel investigation was opened in the military justice system. 

Nearly a year after the killing, both family members and witnesses informed Human Rights Watch that neither civilian nor military investigators had interviewed them and that they had not been told the status of the investigations.

  • Vicente de León Ramírez and Alejandro Gabriel de León Castellanos

At approximately 9 p.m. on September 5, 2010 seven civilians were driving on a highway near Apodaca. The civilians' car sped up to pass a military convoy, after which a captain shot at the vehicle's tires, and then three other soldiers opened fire on the car. Fifteen-year-old Alejandro and his father, Vicente, were both killed. Five other passengers were wounded, including two children, ages 8 and 9.

In a press release on September 6, the army claimed the killings had taken place at a roadblock. In response to a Senate request, on October 13 the army submitted a report about the incident that contradicted its earlier account (referring to the roadblock), saying that the military had signaled at the car to stop from another moving vehicle, and that the captain had fired at the vehicle when the warnings were not heeded. The military admitted that "there was no attack against military personnel" from the car, and that the three soldiers had opened fired "because of inertia." Survivors of the incident, including the wife Vicente, said the military had opened fire without warning, and had not signaled for the family to stop.

Military prosecutors have opened an investigation into the incident, and several soldiers have been charged with "violence against persons causing homicide." Human Rights Watch requested a meeting with the military to discuss details of this and other cases, but the meeting was not granted.

The Nuevo Leon disappearances documented by Human Rights Watch include:

  • Jehú Abraham Sepulveda Garza

Sepulveda was sitting in a pick-up truck outside of a store in San Pedro Garza García at approximately 6:15 p.m. on November 12, 2010 when he was approached by the transit police. As he did not have his license or registration with him, the police detained him and took him to the local police station, according to a record provided by the transit police. Within the hour, and without an arrest warrant, investigative police from Monterrey arrived at the police station, took custody of Sepulveda, and drove him away.

His wife told Human Rights Watch that she called his cell phone at 7:30 p.m., shortly after he had been transferred to the investigative police. He answered, and told her he had not been allowed to make any calls and that the investigative police were taking him to their headquarters, but that he had been told he would be released shortly. When she called again an hour later, his phone had been turned off. In response, his family immediately made inquiries about his whereabouts with police stations, military bases, and various state offices. All said they did not have Sepulveda in their custody. 

In the days following his detention, investigative police gave conflicting accounts about the case. They initially told the family they had not detained him, then told his family and their lawyer that Sepulveda was safe in their custody. Later, they said he had been transferred to the Navy's custody on the night he was detained. The state prosecutor's office has opened an investigation into his disappearance.

Sepulveda's  wife, who was allowed to review his case file, told Human Rights Watch that two naval officers testified before the prosecutor's office that they had briefly taken custody of Sepulveda the night he was detained night, for reasons unspecified, and released him after a brief interrogation. Ranking officials from the navy continue to deny that he was ever in their custody. His family has not seen or heard from him since the night he was detained.

  •  José Guadalupe Bernal Orzúa

The 22 year-old from Monterrey was detained by soldiers at approximately 10 p.m. on May 23, 2010 as he left the home of his mother-in-law, who witnessed his detention. When Bernal's mother, Isabel Orzúa García, heard nothing from him for days, she went to the army, navy, state and municipal police, but all denied having detained her son. She lodged a formal complaint with the civilian prosecutor's office.

The week after her complaint, security forces searched Bernal's house twice. Two weeks after Orzúa had lodged her complaint, a plainclothes official who said he was from the prosecutor's office visited her home and asked, "Are you sure you don't want to retract your complaint?" which she interpreted as a threat.

Orzua told Human Rights Watch she did not know whether either civilian or military authorities had opened an investigation into her son's disappearance. Bernal's mother-in-law has never been interviewed by investigators. His whereabouts remain unknown.

Mexico has been a party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance since March 2008. Under its treaty obligations Mexico has specific duties to record and provide details of any individual's detention; to promptly, impartially, and effectively investigate any alleged disappearance; and to hold criminally responsible anyone involved. The failure of the authorities in Nuevo Leon to respect even the most basic of safeguards in the Convention calls into question to the extent to which the Mexican government is implementing the Convention, Human Rights Watch said.

In most of the cases involving alleged human rights violations by members of the army and navy, civilian prosecutors have relinquished their jurisdiction over the investigation to military prosecutors. Federal prosecutors told Human Rights Watch there were "two or three" cases of alleged human rights abuses in Nuevo Leon in which they had opened investigations that remained ongoing.

On December 20, the Inter-American Court issued a binding judgment to Mexico that all human rights violations should be investigated and prosecuted in the civilian justice system. It was the fourth judgment by the court dealing with military abuses against civilians since 2008, all of which have established that under no circumstances should military jurisdiction apply to human rights violations committed by the armed forces against civilians. 

Research by Human Rights Watch - including a 2009 report, "Uniform Impunity" - has shown that Mexico's military justice system lacks the independence and impartiality necessary to provide victims with an effective remedy through meaningful investigation and prosecution of officers who commit human rights violations. The defense secretary holds both executive and judicial power over the armed forces, civilian review of military court decisions is very limited, and there is virtually no public scrutiny of military investigations and trials.

"Governor Medina needs to make sure state prosecutors conduct robust, thorough and impartial investigations into these killings and disappearances, and send a clear message that neither violations nor lackluster investigations will be tolerated during his administration," Vivanco said. "With a military justice system that has proven it is more concerned with protecting its own than ensuring justice for victims, it is critically important for civilian authorities to investigate abuses by the army and navy."

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