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Why Is It So Important for Mexico to Reform Their Military Code of Justice?

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The Mexican Senate recently wrapped up public debates on reforms to the Military Code of Justice. Why have reforms been a long-standing priority for human rights organizations in Mexico? When soldiers commit human rights violations against civilians, they are almost exclusively investigated and prosecuted in the military justice system, a notoriously opaque and unaccountable system that has left thousands of victims of human rights violations by the military without access to justice…

Since 2006, when former President Calderón deployed tens of thousands of soldiers across Mexico to take on public security matters in an effort to combat organized crime, Mexico has seen a significant uptick in the number of reports of human rights violations committed by Mexican armed forces.  Between 2003 and 2006, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) received 691 complaints of human rights violations committed by the armed forces.  This figure surged to 4,803 reports of human rights violations between 2010 and 2012. Human rights violations committed by armed forces range from rape and torture to arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances – and impunity for these abuses is almost universal. 

In August 2012, a significant victory for many victims and their families came when the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in the case of Bonfilio Rubio Villegas, an indigenous man in Guerrero who was shot by soldiers when his bus was stopped at a military checkpoint in 2009. In this case the Supreme Court ruled that the use of military jurisdiction, guided by Article 57 of the Military Code of Justice, to prosecute a human rights violation was unconstitutional under Article 13 of the Mexican Constitution.  While this ruling was a historic step forward, the Mexican Supreme Court must issue the same ruling in five separate cases to set binding precedent.

At an event in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, Cristina Hardaga Fernández then of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center in Guerrero, Mexico described a few ways that military jurisdiction impedes justice:

“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.”

Since 2009, multiple rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Mexico’s Supreme Court have clearly stated that human rights violations committed by the military against civilians must be heard in civilian, not military, courts.  Efforts to advance legislative proposals to reform the Military Code of Justice have been met with a firm resistance that many civil society groups attribute to the fear of policymakers to challenge the demands of the Mexican military.  

However, the Mexican Congress now has a historic opportunity to change this legacy of injustice and make important changes to a code that no longer falls in line with international human rights standards and leaves thousands of Mexicans without access to justice.

A country’s military is trained and equipped to counter external threats, but Mexico blurred this line by deploying the military in massive numbers to carry out domestic law enforcement duties appropriate for the police.  This only increases the urgency that Mexico act to ensure that the security forces responsible for human rights violations are held accountable in civilian institutions.  Justice must be served. The Tlachinollan Human Rights Center said it well in a recent report, “[reforming the military justice code] is about a debt that has yet to be paid by the Mexican State to victims [of these human rights violations].”