Trying Troops in Civilian Courts = Big Step for Human Rights in Mexico

August 4, 2011

Mexican soldiers © Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images

historic Mexican Supreme Court decision to ensure soldiers accused of human rights abuses against civilians be tried in civilian – not military – courts may bring Mexico closer to respecting human rights and fulfilling their Merida Initiative obligations.

In 2008, the Merida Initiative security assistance package was signed by then-US President George W. Bush. This unprecedented partnership between the United States and Mexico aims to fight organized crime and associated violence while respecting human rights.

To date, the US has allocated roughly $1.5 billion to Mexico through the Initiative and is currently debating another round of assistance.

Yet, there is a catch. The US Congress initially required 15% of select Merida funds be withheld until the State Department issues a report to Congress illustrating that Mexico was fully meeting four specific  human rights requirements.

Currently the Mexican government has not fully met these human rights requirements. However, the recent Mexican Supreme Court decision brings Mexico closer to fulfilling these obligations.

The Supreme Court ruling is an important step in the struggle to limit military jurisdiction as well as set a precedent with regard to the obligation to comply with judgements handed down by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) after the enforced disappearance of Rosendo Radilla Pacheco and the denial of due process and justice for him and his family.

Impunity for soldiers committing crimes against civilians is a big problem in Mexico.  In 2010, there were many reports of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention by members of the military. The Mexican National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) registered 1,163 complaints of abuses by the military, and in November reported ongoing investigations into more than 100 complaints of unlawful killings by the armed forces in the 18 months to November 2010.

Over the past few months, Amnesty International has documented several additional cases of enforced disappearance with no follow-up investigation by either the military or civilian authorities.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s attempted to address the lack of justice for military abusers by proposing to modify the Mexican Military Code of Justice in October 2010.  However, his proposal was inadequate because it did not guarantee that all human rights violations would be excluded from a military court’s jurisdiction. It would only remove three violations from military jurisdiction—enforced disappearance, torture, and rape. All other human rights related crimes alleged to have been committed by the military (such as extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment) would still be investigated and prosecuted by military courts.

Additionally under President Calderon’s proposal the initial investigation for determining whether a crime has been committed would remain in the hands of the Military Attorney General’s office. As a result, the majority of alleged human rights violations committed by the Mexican military would remain in the military justice system if President Calderon’s proposal was passed as is.

While the Supreme Court’s decision should be applauded, additional steps are needed to respect, protect and guarantee human rights in Mexico. This must include complying with all requirements of the Merida Initiative including having the Attorney-General’s Office assume it’s responsibility to open and move forward with investigations into reports of violations committed by the armed forces.

Now is also the time for the US to carefully monitor Mexico’s efforts to reform the Military Code of Justice to fully support the Supreme Court’s decision, as well as monitor the fulfillment of the other three human rights requirements of the Merida Initiative that include: Improving transparency and accountability of federal police; enforcing the prohibition on the use of testimony obtained through torture; and establishing a mechanism for regular consultations with human rights and civil society organizations concerning implementation of the Merida Initiative.

While the Mexican government faces a challenging task of maintaining public security, the initiatives and policies they propose should always support the human rights of the Mexican people.