Human Rights and Civil Society

Senate approves reform to try soldiers in civilian courts

Soldiers in the Mexican military. Photo: AFP.
Soldiers in the Mexican military. Photo: AFP.

05/01/14 — Long awaited amendments to reform Mexico’s Military Code of Justice (Código de Justicia Militar) were unanimously approved by the Senate on April 24. The reform would require that all cases involving members of the military who commit a crime or violate an individual’s human rights be tried in civilian courts instead of under military jurisdiction. The reform has been slowly making its way through Congress since former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) sent the initiative to the Senate in 2010. In 2011, the Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, SCJN) issued a landmark decision that bolstered civilian oversight of human rights cases involving the military, specifically ruling that alleged human rights abuses by members of the military should indeed be tried in civilian courts. The ruling supported similar recommendations by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights (Comisión de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH), among others. The legislation has since been passed to the lower house of Congress (Cámara de Diputados) for approval.

Pressure on the government to reform the code intensified in the years following President Calderón’s surge of military troops on the ground to combat organized crime and drug related violence. The influx of soldiers led to a dramatic increase in civilian complaints of human rights violations by members of the military. Against the Secretary of National Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional, Sedena), CNDH registered a spike in complaints from 182 in 2006 to 1,626 in 2011, with a decrease to 590 through August of 2013, a monthly average of which would result in an estimated 885 complaints for all of 2013.

Screenshot 2014-04-30 22.23.04As Justice in Mexico explained in the 2012 report “Armed With Impunity: Curbing Military Human Rights Abuses,” the military has historically been able to try such cases under military jurisdiction because of a loose interpretation of the code. The Mexican Military Code of Justice assigns the military jurisdiction over “faults under common or federal law…when committed by military personnel in active service or in connection with acts of service.” The Military Judiciary has interpreted this language to assert jurisdiction over cases such as rape and torture perpetrated by military personnel on civilians. Reliance on military jurisdiction to handle civilian grievances is problematic for a number of reasons. Cases handled by Mexico’s Military Prosecutor (Ministerio Público Militar) are typically handled in court behind closed doors, and military officials frequently fail to disclose details of investigations, charges, and results to victims and their families. Predictably, the redress of abuses by military justice therefore often suffers from a lack of transparency and inadequate investigations, resulting in a high degree of impunity for perpetrators and little justice for victims.

Nevertheless, national and international human rights and legal advocates, and Mexican congressmen across the board have applauded the Senate’s approval of the reform. As cited in El Universal, Congressman Manuel Camacho Solís of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrática, PRD) expressed that the reform “’touches on the essence of the State, which is the relationship between civilians and the military’ referring to the democratization between the two worlds, and the construction of a secure and just policy in accordance with the constitution.” Fernando Yunes Márquez, president of the National Defense Commission (Comisión de Defensa Nacional) and member of the National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional, PAN), said the reform not only modernizes the Military Code of Justice, but also draws a balance between preserving the military’s justice system, while respecting and upholding civilians’ human rights.


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Steinberg, Nik. “Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico’s ‘War on Drugs.’” Human Rights Watch. November 4, 2011. 

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Daly, Catherine et. al. “Armed With Impunity: Curbing Military Human Rights Abuses in Mexico.” Justice in Mexico. July 2012.

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Associated Press. “Mexico Senate: civilian courts for soldiers.” Washington Post. April 24, 2014.

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