Reform in Mexico Fails to Deliver for Victims of Military Abuses

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Mounting pressure from rights groups in Mexico and the Obama Administration, and a ticking clock on an order by the Inter-American Court, spurred President Calderón to unveil his long-anticipated proposal to reform Mexico’s military justice code. But while reform is desperately needed to end the historic impunity for members of the Mexican military that have committed human rights abuses, Mexican and international human rights groups agree that President Calderón’s proposal doesn’t do nearly enough.

Clearly something has to be done—and soon. Reports of grisly human rights abuses committed by the military, including torture, rape, and extrajudicial execution, have gone unchecked. Of the over 4,000 complaints of human rights violations that have been filed with Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission during President Calderón’s administration, only one of those cases has been punished in the notoriously opaque military tribunals – and none in civilian jurisdiction. 

Still, the question is: does President Calderón’s long-anticipated proposal go far enough to ensure a real improvement in access to justice for victims?  Regretfully, Mexican and international human rights organizations have responded with a resounding ‘no. A group of highly-respected Mexican organizations with expertise in human rights made the candid assessment that this proposal falls short, a “cosmetic gesture meant to give the appearance of reforming what, in practice, will continue to remain the same, especially considering that the tendency for the military to commit human rights abuses continues unabated.”

The biggest disappointment is that President Calderón’s proposal would carve out only three of the many human rights crimes committed by soldiers against civilians– forced disappearance, rape, and torture– to be tried in civilian courts. Soldiers who commit any other human rights abuses, like extrajudicial executions or arbitrary detention, could continue to rely on the same impunity that they’ve long enjoyed within the military system.

For example, this past spring, a convoy of soldiers shot at the car of an innocent family driving to Easter celebrations, killing 9-year-old Martín and 5-year-old Bryan Almanza Salazar.  According to eyewitness accounts, the soldiers openly fired unprovoked into the family’s vehicle. And to make matters worse, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission investigation found that soldiers had dramatically altered the scene of the crime, planting cars and weapons to bolster their fabricated story that they were shooting in response to gunfire from drug traffickers instead of a family with children.  If President Calderón’s proposal were approved, similar cases in which soldiers open fire on innocent civilians or alter crime scenes to implicate the victims or otherwise subvert criminal investigations would still languish in military courts, thwarting justice for murders like those of Martín and Bryan.  

This is unacceptable. As the Washington Office on Latin America recently noted, “a reform that is truly progressive will require that all human rights violations committed against civilians be tried in civil courts, not in the military system.”

Amnesty International voiced its concern about the “role of the military prosecutor in determining, at the stage of initial investigation, the nature of the criminal offense and therefore whether it will be transferred to the civil justice system.  This mechanism could, in fact, act as a block on the cases reaching the civil courts, even for those offenses that the draft law excludes from the military justice system.”

As we explained in an earlier blog, a State Department report to Congress last month stated that an estimated $26 million of the funds in the 2010 supplemental aid package to Mexico would be withheld until two events took place, one of which is the introduction (but not the passage or implementation) of legislation to reform Mexico’s military justice code.  Since we’ve had the opportunity to review the details, it is clear that more work is needed to transform this proposal into the meaningful reform to ensure that human rights violators aren’t let off the hook. Mexican rights groups are working hard to make sure this happens, but the U.S. needs to do its part too. We must be persistent in reminding Secretary of State Clinton and other officials that long-lasting improvements to public security in Mexico cannot be accomplished without ensuring advances in human rights.