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Human Rights Challenges in Mexico, Part 3: Military Jurisdiction

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Since 2006, the deterioration of Mexico’s security situation due to the Mexican government’s “war on organized crime” has made international headlines. The violence has affected tens of thousands of citizens and exacerbated long-standing issues of corruption and institutional weakness. During the administration of former President Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) saw a five-fold increase in complaints of human rights violations by Mexican soldiers and federal police, including torture, rape, extrajudicial execution, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearance.  At the same time, human rights defenders have found it increasingly difficult to carry out their work due to threats to their safety. Recently elected president Enrique Peña Nieto has firmly expressed his commitment to making sure that “rights established on paper become reality,” but his government has yet to make concrete changes that would reflect this commitment.
 

During the “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico” event, co-hosted by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and Just AssociatesCristina Hardaga Fernández of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, Guerrero, Mexico discussed the militarization of public security and the need for reform of the military justice code in Mexico. The following is a translation.

“One of the historical themes on the human rights agenda is military jurisdiction and the impacts of militarization in the country. Since the nineties, the United Nations and the Inter-American System have issued warnings on several occasions: first, that the use of the armed forces in public safety has consequences; second, that they should not be used; and third, that in the legislative context of the country, the use of military jurisdiction creates impunity and permissibility for elements of the armed forces to conduct themselves outside of the established order.

I work in the Human Rights Center of the Mountain Tlachinollan, an organization located in Guerrero State in the south of Mexico. Guerrero is a state historically impacted by the army since the 1960s, where execution and enforced disappearance cases remain in impunity. Over the years, such cases continue to be registered while the military makes no internal changes and civil institutions allow [their human rights abuses] to continue.

One question that always arises when we talk about the importance of reforming military jurisdiction is, ‘Why, if the civilian judicial system does not work? Why do you want human rights violations committed by the military to be judged in civilian courts?’ Unfortunately, we have found that the military judicial system is even worse [than the civilian court system]. Beyond obstructing investigations, military jurisdiction generates worse conditions for victims of human rights violations and their families. Military behavior in the most recent extrajudicial cases for which we have accompanied the relatives of victims, have exemplified the problems. [The military’s] protection, impunity, and distance from any accountability or civilian control allow them to act as they please. Normally they alter the evidence at the scene where the human rights violation occurred and make up stories that twist the facts so that the civilian system cannot get involved. In the best case scenario, the victims of human rights violations can eventually approach public or human rights organizations that can begin to help them, but that is only in the minority of cases.

This is a bit of the general context. For many years we have been petitioning for reform of the military justice code. From civil society’s perspective, the Mexican constitution ensures that cases of human rights violations committed by military personnel be tried in civilian courts. However, the military justice code has broadly established the possibility for [the military] to define and decide when they will be judged. Usually, cases of human rights violations by the military are processed under military jurisdiction.

The work of many people has brought this issue to the attention of the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which has ordered Mexico to concretely reform its military justice code. There have been four sentences since 2009 reiterating the Mexican state’s obligation to said reform. Civil society organizations have been pushing for military justice code reform particularly in the last four years and we always encounter the same obstacle: there is a fear in Congress to confront the military. With this new administration, it remains unclear what their position is regarding the military. Yesterday [during the Inter-American Human Rights Commission hearings], we heard that a certain distrust and fear of directly confronting the military institution still exists. Despite the fact that there is a series of recommendations, about fifteen initiatives presented in the last six or seven years that establish clear standards for how to reform the military justice code to ensure that they do not continue remitting these investigations, [the Mexican government] continues having discussions with the military. That is the clearest evidence that government officials are still afraid of how to attempt to control the military.

In reality, we do not see a decrease in the participation of the military in public security tasks, but rather a change in uniform. During the last six years [of Calderón’s presidency], it was evident that the military was the institution upon which the administration relied for tasks of public safety. This was one of the worst decisions made because there weren´t any controls in place over the military and the military were not prepared to carry out said responsibilities. Now, the new administration is trying to change the model from obvious reliance on the military for public safety tasks to the reliance on other public safety institutions it is creating.

One moment that convinced us that reforming the military justice code and ending military impunity must be a priority on the human rights agenda in Mexico was a meeting we had with an army general on the mountain [in Guerrero]. He wanted to meet with civil society organizations to tell us about all the human rights workshops they had been doing and thus explain that the military had improved, that they were not the army of the seventies or nineties, and that there was a willingness to respond to all the human rights recommendations. He told us that he was a military person educated in public civilian institutions, in which he had to take all kinds of human rights courses- short courses, diploma courses, short diploma courses with a focus on gender- but in the end he realized that in a troubled area such as Guerrero, particularly in the mountain, when someone needed to execute someone else, it just had to happen. This was the decision they faced. When [the armed forces] are present in the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime and they have to kill someone, that is their only mission. Whatever human rights courses they took no longer matter; they are trained to carry out a different type of activities. It was very clear that the military does not have to operate [by the same standards as civil society], and while they are only performing this type of military work, our country cannot function.

We are in an important year during which the organizations [in Mexico], as well as organizations in the U.S. like WOLA, LAWG and the RFK Center, are pushing for military justice code reform to be a priority in the Mexican Senate. We are also promoting the reform in various other agendas, and we hope that it happens this year, as we have said for the last two years. We are sure that the change we have been demanding must start with reform of the military justice code and not simply the transfer of responsibility [from the military to new government institutions].

Click here to read, “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico, Part 1: The Use of Torture.”

Click here to read, “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico, Part 2: Attacks on Human Rights Defenders.”