Human Rights and Civil Society

Mexican Senate committees approve judicial reform to try soldiers in civilian courts

04/30/12 (written by cmolzahn) – Two commissions of the Mexican Senate recently approved long-awaited legislation, which would fundamentally change the way in which soldiers believed to be guilty of violations of common law or even human rights abuses are processed. If passed in the full Senate, Article 58 of the military justice code, as it is known, would establish that military personnel accused of crimes against civilians be tried in federal, civilian courts. The action was approved in both the Senate’s Justice Commission (Comisión de Justicia), and the Primary Commission of Legislative Studies (Comisión de Estudios Legislativos Primera). Under current law, soldiers accused of crimes against civilians or common crimes are tried in military tribunals, if at all. The legislation has moved very slowly; President Calderón sent the initiative to the Mexican Senate in October 2010.

The legislation goes beyond Calderón’s proposal to address in civilian courts all crimes committed by members of the Mexican armed forces against civilians, and not just cases of alleged rape, torture and forced disappearance. It also establishes that federal judges hearing cases of alleged military abuse of civilians would need to be specialists in military discipline and regulations of the military. Moreover, it would eliminate statutes of limitations for crimes of genocide and forced disappearances. The law would also create a Ministerial Military Police (Policía Ministerial Militar), which would be in charge of investigating allegations of military abuse, and would operate under the auspices of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público). Furthermore, defendants standing trial will be subject to the laws existing where the alleged abuses took place–if deemed to fall under local jurisdiction (orden común)–, or the federal criminal code–if deemed to fall under federal jurisdiction (orden federal). In any case, soldiers will be held in military prisons, both for pretrial detention and for serving sentences.

The process has garnered much attention from human rights advocacy groups that have long demanded adherence to international standards, as well as rulings by the Inter-American Human Rights Court (Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos CoDH) finding that soldiers accused of abuses against civilians must be processed in the civil justice system. Prior to the approval of the legislation in commissions, several human rights groups and prominent artists sent a letter to Senators Jesús Murillo Karam and Alejandro González Alcocer, of the Governance (Gobernación) and Justice Committees, respectively, urging them to ensure that the reform adheres to four rulings issued by the CoDH regarding the matter, as well as guidelines set by Mexico’s own Supreme Court for soldiers to be tried in civil courts. Likewise, Human Rights Watch made a similar appeal to both senators on April 11. Aside from a general recommendation that all allegations of military abuses against civilians be referred to civilian tribunals, it rejected a proposal made earlier by President Calderón that such cases be heard by former military attorneys who are familiar with military law. José Antonio Caballero, an expert in constitutional law, was cited in El Universal as saying that Mr. Calderón’s proposal did not make sense. “The idea of taking these issues to the civil jurisdiction is precisely because they are not related to military discipline,” he said, adding that there would be very few federal judges who would fit that narrow criteria. This proposal was eventually ruled out in commissions.

These efforts seek to address a disconnect that has existed since President Felipe Calderón’s decision in 2006 to militarize efforts to counter Mexico’s drug cartels. The military’s operations are held accountable to “el fuero militar” (military law or the military justice system), yet Mexican citizens are held accountable to “el fuero común” or “el fuero civil” (common law, or the civil justice system). In this regard, armed soldiers and civilians simultaneously interact within Mexico’s borders, but they are held accountable to different legal frameworks, an inconsistency that this initiative seeks to alleviate. The bill is currently under discussion in the full Senate.


De la Luz González, María. “FCH busca que ex militares juzguen abusos de soldados.” El Universal. April 12, 2012.

Villamil, Jenaro and Gloria Leticia Díaz. “Avalan en comisiones reformas para acotar fuero militar.” Proceso. April 19, 2012.

Botello, Blanca Estela. “Pasó en comisiones del Senado reforma al fuero militar; soldados autores de violaciones a DH y delitos contra la población serán juzgados en tribunales civiles.” La Crónica de Hoy. April 20, 2012.

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