08/15/12 (written by cmolzahn) – Mexico’s Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, SCJN) voted on August 10 to greatly limit the use of the military justice system for trying cases involving alleged human rights abuses. In a 7-3 vote, the justices ruled that cases of alleged human rights violations by military personnel in which civilians are involved–either as victims or accomplices–will now be tried in federal courts, seemingly resolving one of the more controversial aspects of the military-led anti-cartel campaign President Calderón began in late 2006 when he took office.
Since then, the Mexican armed forces, particularly the Army (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, SEDENA), have taken on an unprecedented role in public security operations, coming into increased contact with civilians and resulting in allegations of human rights abuses, such as arbitrary detentions, illegal home searches, forced disappearances, torture, and rape. Before the decision on August 10, such cases were handled in Mexico’s military justice system, which groups including Mexico’s Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) have accused of protecting military personnel guilty of abuses. According to the Associated Press, military prosecutors have opened nearly 5,000 investigations into allegations of human rights violations by military personnel, resulting in only 38 convictions. The use of military courts to try soldiers accused of abuses against civilians has been a lightning rod for criticism from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both of which applauded the SCJN’s recent ruling. Concerns over the use of military jurisdiction were also at the forefront of the U.S. government’s decision in 2010 to withhold $26 million (USD) in funds from the Mérida Initiative, an aid program designed to assist Mexico in fighting organized crime and strengthening its justice system.
In 2011, the Court made a similar ruling, upholding a decision by the Inter-American Human Rights Court that alleged human rights abuses by soldiers and involving civilians must be handled in civilian courts, but it was unable to establish a legal precedent for moving forward as the ruling did not involve a specific case. In this more recent ruling, the Court took on the case of Colonel José Guadalupe Arias Agredano, accused of covering up the torture and murder of 27-year-old auto mechanic Jethro Ramsés Sánchez, who authorities say was killed at an Army base last year. Soldiers at the military installation reportedly told investigators that they heard screams coming from Ramsés, who was held at the base after police arrested him during a raid at a fair in Cuernavaca, Morelos, suspecting him of involvement in a criminal organization. Justice José Ramón Cossio dissented, but not in defense of the military justice system. Cossio argued that Ramsés’ case does not belong in a federal court, but rather in a lower civilian court, because he was not on duty when he allegedly ordered the secret burial of Ramsés Sánchez. The majority, however, determined that this point was irrelevant to the crime, since Ramsés was active in the military at the time. Justices Margarita Luna and Sergio Aguirre Angulano were the only justices to dissent defending the use of the military justice system for cases of alleged human rights abuses by military personnel, even involving civilians. Justice Sergio Valls was absent. According to the ruling, Arias Agredano, who has been incarcerated since 2011 awaiting trial, will be tried in a civilian court. In order to establish precedent required for a full transition to civilian courts, the Court must rule similarly on four more cases, but the justices have reportedly indicated that the Court will move in that direction. There are 27 cases involving military jurisdiction pending, including the case of Otilio Cantú, allegedly killed by soldiers commissioned by the Nuevo León state police in April 2011; and Bonfilio Rubio Villegas, an indigenous man who died at a military checkpoint in Guerrero in June 2009. Moreover, the SCJN has moved toward further limiting the reach of military jurisdiction, with pending cases involving military personnel charged with altering crime scenes, transporting drugs, and involvement in robberies and homicides.
On August 14, the Court made its second ruling restricting military jurisdiction in an 8-2 decision determining that military personnel charged with issuing false statements to implicate civilians in a crime will also be tried in civilian courts. The ruling stemmed from a 2010 incident in which three Mexican Army officers made statements to the Morelia, Michoacán public prosecutor’s office accusing a civilian of possessing marijuana. In a preliminary investigation, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) found inconsistencies in the officers’ statements, and referred the case to a military prosecutor. When the prosecutor requested an arrest warrant for the three officers, the military judge refused, saying that it was a matter for the civilian courts, since a civilian was implicated in the alleged marijuana possession.
Following a 2009 ruling in the Inter-American Human Rights Court that military jurisdiction could not be applied in cases of alleged human rights abuses committed against civilians, President Calderón sent a proposal to the Mexican Senate that charges of disappearances, torture, and rape committed by soldiers against civilians be handled in civilian courts. However, cases of alleged homicide, as well as other abuses such as arbitrary detentions, were not included in his proposal. The Mexican Congress, amidst pressure from senior military officials to maintain the status quo, has been unable to agree that the Mexican constitution will supersede the Military Justice Code in cases of alleged rights violations of civilians by soldiers. Article 13 of the Mexican constitution states that “When in a crime or lack of military order a citizen [paisano] is involved, the corresponding civilian authority will try the case.” Senator Felipe González underscored this point, arguing that the Supreme Court’s decision wouldn’t have been necessary had the Mexican Congress resolved the matter during debate over the National Security Law, which died in 2011 due to a lack of political will to reach consensus on military jurisdiction, among other issues. González, of the National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional, PAN), placed blame on the Chamber of Deputies, which he said refused the Senate’s proposal to eliminate military jurisdiction for cases involving alleged abuses of civilians. He added that Congress still must pass legislation regarding military jurisdiction, citing concerns that with the changes resulting from the Supreme Court ruling many cases involving military personnel will languish for years in the inefficient federal courts.
The Trans-Border Institute recently published a report on the topic of military human rights violations, detailing the cases involved in CNDH recommendations issued specifically to armed forces (SEDENA) and the Navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR), and providing context, analysis, and recommendations. The full report can be found here: Armed with Impunity: Curbing Military Human Rights Abuses in Mexico.