Monday, May 18, 2009
Mexico Must Deal With Purported Abuse by the Military
By Patrick Corcoran
The defining characteristic of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s security strategy has been an unprecedented
reliance on the military to combat organized crime. While police agencies at every level suffer from grave deficiencies, the
army has the sufficient competence and firepower to stand up to the most powerful criminal gangs, or so say supporters of
said characteristic (among whom I count myself).
The response from Calderón’s critics is two-fold: first, deploying the army increases the possibility of
abuse from soldiers who are trained to neutralize enemies rather than move within the contours of a community; and second,
anti-drug operations risk the army’s corruption by the very gangs it confronts.
A new report from Human Rights Watch lends credibility to both those criticisms. Over the course of 80 pages, HRW
details 17 crimes committed by Mexican soldiers that make Abu Ghraib seem like little more than sandbox bullying. Rape and
murder abound. Against the gruesome backdrop of the report, the following excerpt, taken from an episode in Michoacán in 2007,
The following paragraph, from the HRW report, is graphic.)
“Four of the people detained for over 20 hours were girls under 18 years old at the time, who testified before
federal prosecutors that soldiers repeatedly beat, sexually abused, and raped them with the purpose of obtaining information
about their supposed links with armed groups and drug traffickers…. [One girl] stated that they forced her to keep her
skirt up and her underwear down, while soldiers said, ‘[expletives], (…) this is what you like.’ A soldier
took a prayer card of the Virgin Mary that a third girl had with her, made a small ball out of it, and introduced it into
her anus. According to the fourth girl, soldiers told her, ‘Not even the Virgin will get you out of this.’ When
they arrived at the military installations, they were forced to inhale a substance that made them sleepy, and awoke feeling
terrible aches in their bodies, particularly in their lower abdomen. Some of the girls noticed they were spitting foam from
their nose and mouth, and that a liquid was flowing out of their vagina….”
The crimes are made worse by the military’s tendency to shove everything under the rug.
In only one of the cases examined were the offending soldiers punished. The reason is not that soldiers are given
free rein to rape and murder, but that Mexico’s armed forces insist that they, not civilian criminal courts, handle
cases involving soldierly misconduct. As a result, investigations are woefully slow and incomplete, closed to the public,
and presided over by judges who owe their jobs to the Secretary of Defense, who would presumably be inclined to punish any
subordinate who contributes to an embarrassing scandal.
The report is fodder for Calderón’s opponents, but it would be a shame if his allies ignored it. The document
presents an opportunity to address a failing before it becomes a major issue and erodes Mexicans’ confidence in the
military the way it has for the police. According to a recent survey from the Interior Secretariat, the only Mexican institution
that enjoyed a higher level of confidence than the army was the Church.
That’s a valuable asset, but it’s not set in stone. Should abuses like those in the report persist
without punishment, Mexicans will be less willing to support a leader who wants to deploy the army for domestic tasks. That
would leave Mexican leaders without an invaluable resource on security issues.
However, this isn’t just about prestige; the pattern of criminality represents a lack of discipline that
makes the army less effective and more vulnerable to organized crime. Notwithstanding its favorable image and the thousands
upon thousands of soldiers doing heroic work, a significant and alarming criminal element exists in the Mexican army. According
to the Mexican defense secretary, one third of the estimated 500,000 Mexicans earning a living off the drug trade are ex-military
personnel. Some 20,000 soldiers desert each year, many with weapons or aviation training that are highly prized by criminal
gangs. Instilling and enforcing a culture of discipline will weaken the connection between ex-soldiers and criminal activity.
makes a series of recommendations regarding civilian oversight and judicial independence; Calderón should embrace them all,
and make their implementation a priority. Those responsible for sending the army out on the streets have a responsibility
to make sure it is deployed as effectively and humanely as possible. This will necessarily provoke some upsetting episodes
for the military brass, but that’s a small price to pay for a more efficient and less abusive army.
· For the HRW report, see: Uniform Impunity: Mexico's Misuse of Military Justice to Prosecute Abuses in Counternarcotics and Public
Security Operations, Human Rights Watch (posted 05/04/09)
Patrick Corcoran (email@example.com) is a writer who resides in Torreón, Coahuila. He blogs at Gancho (http://www.ganchoblog.blogspot.com/).