Human Rights Abuses in Mexico’s Drug War

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Photographs of missing people are on display at a square in Queretaro (Courtesy Reuters).

Photographs of missing people are on display at a square in Queretaro (Courtesy Reuters).

Last Wednesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its report “Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture and Disappearances in Mexico’s ‘War on Drugs’.” The report is incredibly thorough – based on two years of research in the states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Guerrero, Nuevo León and Tabasco, and incorporating information from over 200 interviews. It charges Mexican security forces with routinely violating citizens’ most basic rights during President Felipe Calderón’s six years in office, and further argues that these horrific tactics are not incidental, but endemic to the government’s drug war strategy.

Some of the most worrisome statistics and findings include:

·       Formal human rights abuse complaints increased seven-fold, from 691 during the 2003-2006 period, to 4,803 from 2007-2010

·       Of some 3,700 military investigations into human rights abuses in the past four years, just 15 — less than one half of one percent — resulted in convictions

·      Formal complaints of “degrading treatment” – read torture — at the hands of security forces more than tripled since 2006

Based on witness testimonies and material evidence in specific cases HRW investigated they find:

·       Law enforcement – including the Army, Navy, Federal Police as well as local and federal judicial investigative police — participated in over 170 specific cases of torture – including beating,    asphyxiating, water boarding, electrically shocking and sexually torturing detainees

·       Others facilitate this torture —  medical examiners fail to document signs of physical abuse on detainees, and judges admit confessions and other evidence acquired through torture, even when the victim protests

·       Law enforcement played a part in 39 “forced disappearances” and 24 extrajudicial killings of civilians

After a meeting with HRW representatives Calderón agreed to investigate the findings, though he did say that the “main threat to the human rights of Mexicans is from criminals”.

Why have human rights violations expanded so drastically?  One explanation lies in the use of the military.  Armed forces are trained to kill the enemy on the battlefield, not police neighborhoods to ensure basic public safety. With some 50,000 soldiers now on the front-lines of the drug war, this disconnect can lead to abuses of the rule of law.

Another reason is the profound weakness of Mexico’s judicial system.  Most crimes – likely 80 plus percent — are never even reported. Of the few complaints filed, the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) investigates only one in every five; even fewer go to trial. In the end, only one to two of every hundred crimes end in a conviction. Once prosecutors do move forward with a case however, the chances of acquittal are slim, as roughly 9 in 10 of all suspects brought to court end up in jail. This has less to do with the stellar cases built around airtight evidence, and more to do with the underlying system, which is stacked against defendants – resulting in few safeguards and a de facto presumption of guilt.

Finally, Mexico doesn’t even have the laws needed in some cases to prosecute bad behavior. For instance, only eight of Mexico’s thirty-two states have laws against forced disappearances and only sixteen have formally criminalized torture. What it does have is opportunities to limit citizen rights – such as the arraigo procedure, which lets prosecutors lock up individuals for up to 80 days if they’re allegedly involved in organized crime, and vaguely defined “flagrancia” rules that dictate when police officers can make arrests without a warrant.

The spike in human rights complaints is worrisome on many levels. First and foremost, it reflects the government’s utter failure to protect thousands of citizens from itself. But more strategically, the abuses described in the report run counter to the state’s long-term aims.  In order to “win” the war on organized crime, Mexico’s government must have society’s support. Egregious human rights violations will just push away the one force the narcos can’t match. To end drug related violence, Mexico must construct a truly democratic rule of law, in which the means to and the ends are one and the same. To do so, the government must track and punish human rights abuses and abusers as fervently as it does those on its Most Wanted lists.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.