In its all-out offensive against the powerful crime syndicates that run the drug trade, Mexico has made some impressive strides, including the capture of the heads of almost every major cartel. But it has also made some mistakes.
In facing down a brutal and ruthless enemy, President Felipe Calderon was justified in taking very strong steps against the cartels. With the local police largely compromised, Mr. Calderon chose to deploy 50,000 soldiers, as well as members of the Navy and federal and state police, to battle the cartels. More than 46,000 people have died of drug-related violence since 2006.
While soldiers are only deployed at the request of the state governments, this strategy has nonetheless had some negative consequences. Some elements within the military now stand accused of a pervasive pattern of human-rights abuses against civilians. A report by Human Rights Watch documents more than 170 cases of torture – including beatings and electric shocks – committed by the military to extract information about organized crime; 39 disappearances that suggest the involvement of security forces; and evidence of 24 extrajudicial killings.
While complaints against the military mount, there have been few credible prosecutions. Of the 1,615 investigations opened in the five states most affected by the drug violence since 2007, not one soldier has been convicted. (Of course, many cases are still ongoing, and may well result in convictions.)
It is naive for HRW not to expect some complaints of abuse, given soldiers are waging pitched battles against organized crime. But to restore public faith in the public security sector, Mr. Calderon must reform the practice of the military investigating complaints against itself. This process has been declared illegal by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as well as by Mexico’s own Supreme Court. All cases of military misconduct should be referred to civilian authorities, to remove the perception that soldiers have impunity.
Mr. Calderon was wise to meet a HRW delegation last week. It shows that the President, who has bravely confronted the narco-terrorists throughout his term, understands the need to temper Mexico’s fight with the protection of human rights. It is to be hoped that reforms to the police and judiciary will follow. Without a proper investigative process, Mexicans will lose faith that public security officials will protect their rights, and come to expect the worst.