Human Rights and the Mexican Military

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Soldiers stand in formation during the preparation for the Independence Day celebration at the Zocalo in Mexico city (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Soldiers stand in formation during the preparation for the Independence Day celebration at the Zocalo in Mexico City (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Human rights abuses within Mexico’s drug war are garnering increasing attention, both in Mexico as well as in the United States (holding up some 15 percent of Merida money in 2010). A recent Trans-Border Institute report looks systematically at Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission’s (CNDH) filings on human rights violations. Numbering less than 400 in 2007, complaints implicating the Mexican military increased fourfold during Calderón’s presidency (to over 1,600 in 2011).

Under the CNDH system, not all of these allegations result in a formal report to the military. The vast majority are deemed to not involve a human rights violation or are dropped for lack of evidence, while others (considered less serious) are settled through conciliation. The more severe cases (and those backed by strong evidence) go through a thorough investigation, and are passed along to the military in the form of a “recommendation.” Some one hundred such cases have been processed in the past five years.

These stories range from illegal detentions to physical abuse against both Mexican citizens, and, at times, members of other law enforcement bodies (including local police). Physical injury is the most common complaint (found in 81 percent of recommendation cases), followed by a lack of access to justice, verbal/mental abuse, and torture.

The apparent good news is that the number of “recommendations” decreased in early 2012, totaling seven through July 31 (compared to thirty-one for all of 2011). The decline is widely believed to reflect military withdrawals in hyper-violent border states such as Chihuahua (which accounted for many of the past cases). Another explanation is that the military is addressing the problematic issues in its chain of command, therby preventing abuses. A more cynical position is that the military has merely gotten better at hiding the violations.

The report points to a larger problem. Cases alleging military human rights violations have been handled by military rather than civilian courts. Conviction rates by their peers—even in cases with hundreds of pages of documentation—are low. Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that the military prosecutor’s office has completed eighty-nine investigations into civilian deaths since 2007, without a single conviction. (Although another HRW request for information from the army revealed that two soldiers had been convicted on charges of manslaughter and violence resulting in homicide; both received prison sentences of less than two years). This may soon change, as a 2011 Supreme Court ruling required that military officials accused of abuses be tried in civilian courts. But the problem of impunity more broadly still remains.

The challenge of protecting citizens’ rights while combating violent criminal groups now falls to Mexico’s presumptive president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto. During his campaign he assured voters that the military will, at least initially, remain on the streets (reportedly until 2014), and he talked about creating a military gendarme, a pseudo-police force. This means the human rights challenges will not go away on their own. The Transborder Institute report recommends the importance of strengthening the National Human Rights Commission—an undoubtedly useful step. But the larger issue of impunity will require a system-wide solution. If Peña Nieto wants to diminish violence in all its guises, judicial reform is vital.

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