7/30/2012 – On Monday, July 30, the Justice in Mexico Project at the Trans-Border Institute released a new report titled Armed with Impunity: Curbing Military Human Rights Abuses in Mexico, which was authored by Catherine Daly, Kimberly Heinle, and David A. Shirk. The report provides documentation and analysis of the pattern of human rights complaints that have been formally registered against the military since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and through mid-2012.
The massive deployment of the Mexican military has increased civilian exposure and vulnerability to military personnel. In this context, there has been a surge of formal complaints (quejas) of military abuses submitted to National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), the ombudsman that generates formal reports or “recommendations” (recomendaciones) for the government agency against which a complaint has been levied. A growing number of complaints against the Mexican army (SEDENA) were recorded since the deployment of troops after Calderón took office: 367 in 2007; 1,230 in 2008; 1,800 in 2009; 1,415 in 2010; 1,626 in 2011. As for the current year, SEDENA reported that there were 479 reports as of May 3, 2012.
Alleged military human rights violations represent a fraction of the total number of complaints in any given year. For example, in 2011, even as SEDENA reportedly held the largest number of complaints for a given agency, it accounted for only 6% of all complaints to CNDH. Still, CNDH reports that during the 12 years that it has been documenting human rights abuses, SEDENA is one of the top three institutions with the most filed complaints against it. In 2011, SEDENA reportedly led the list with 1,626 complaints.
The Mexican government points out that, as of May 3, 2012, only about 100 (less than 2%) of the 6,544 complaints against SEDENA that CNDH received since December 1, 2006 have resulted in CNDH reports of credible abuses. Moreover, SEDENA reports that 5,661 complaints have been resolved, meaning that they have been settled through reconciliation or closed for other seemingly justifiable reasons.
Since Calderón took office in December 2006, CNDH has issued 101 formal reports or “recommendations” to the Mexican army (SEDENA) and 17 to the Mexican marines (SEMAR). The authors analyzed all formal CNDH recommendations to date to gather data on the type and trends in military human rights abuses (see the full dataset available here). The first recommendation filed by CNDH under Calderón was issued on May 23, 2007, and the most recent recommendation came on July 11, 2012, just weeks before this report was filed. While there were 6 recommendations to the military from 2004-2006, all prior Calderón’s inauguration. There were 7 registered in 2007, 15 in 2008, 31 in 2009, 27 in 2010, and 31 in 2011.
Of the 118 CNDH recommendation reports directed to SEDENA and SEMAR since Calderón took office, physical abuse is the most common documented human rights violation, followed by obstruction to access to justice, verbal/mental abuse, excessive or arbitrary use of force or public office, and illegal detention. When broken down by year, the number and type of abuses increased most substantially in 2008 and 2009, at the height of military deployments. While the frequency with which torture occurs has decreased since its initial spike in 2008 cases, it is still involved in just over half of all recommendations CNDH issues to the military.
Abuses documented by CNDH occurred in 21 of Mexico’s 31 states, as well as in the Federal District. 13 states and districts comprised 92% of all violations, and just under two thirds occurred in only six states (61%), and almost half occurred in northern states along the U.S.-Mexico border. Considering Chihuahua and Michoacán, the two states that account for 36% of all human rights abuse cases reported by CNDH (29 and 13 cases, respectively), it is clear that the surge in troop deployment to these areas clearly brought an increase in documented abuses.
Males above the age of 18 constitute the population mostly likely to be abused by the military in its public security efforts. Out of the 516 victims involved in cases recommended to the military, roughly 10% (51) were women and 7% (35) were minors.
Up until June 2011, the military maintained jurisdiction over all criminal cases and alleged human rights violations involving military personnel, and critics also charged that CNDH was ineffective in following up on and ensuring compliance with its recommendations. In 2011, legislative initiatives in the Mexican Senate, as well as a landmark ruling by the Mexican Supreme Court, emphasized the need for binding civilian court judgments regarding confirmed abuses by military personnel and domestic compliance with international human rights treaty obligations. It is believed that these developments will greatly bolster the ability of CNDH to protect against human rights abuses.
It still remains unclear whether recent legislation and court decisions will significantly curb military violations. The crux of the human rights issue hinges on whether the civilian court system will achieve unequivocal jurisdiction over cases of human rights abuse that involve the military and civilians, and supporting legislation to this effect has not yet been passed. Specifically, further legislative efforts are needed to revise Mexico’s code of military justice. As the Calderón administration comes to a close, the prospects of these reforms and what lies ahead under the next administration.
After PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto was declared the victor in Mexico’s July 1 elections, he affirmed the continued role of the military in domestic security operations. Yet, Peña Nieto has professed a commitment to uphold and preserve the human rights of Mexican citizens “first of all, through the real, objective application of [human rights] protocols to agencies that are dedicated to public security.” • When Peña Nieto takes office in December 2012, it will be important to evaluate how the incoming president will handle pending cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. One of the most notable cases involves the 2006 rape of 11 women by police forces in Atenco in the State of Mexico that was brought before the commission in November. Since he was the sitting governor of the State of Mexico when this incident occurred, Peña Nieto’s handling of this case as president will be an important indicator of the new administration’s approach to human rights.
Ongoing concerns about human rights abuses in Mexico raise questions about what can be done to address these issues under the framework of the Mérida Initiative, a multi-year U.S.-Mexico collaboration initiative launched in 2007. The United States is therefore in a powerful position to support Mexico’s efforts to combat drug trafficking organizations, but it also has an obligation to make sure that human rights are respected in the process. If the war on drugs is a joint task, then protecting against human rights violations and other unintended consequences also should be a shared responsibility.
The authors offer several recommendations to strengthen human rights protections in Mexico, including reducing overall reliance on military deployments in Mexican counter-drug efforts, investing in greater human rights training for military and judicial sector personnel, implementing reforms to transfer all military abuse cases to civilian courts, bolstering the CNDH to fulfill its new responsibilities, strengthening civil society to combat abuses and improve security, and reframing U.S.-Mexico security collaboration to better protect human rights.