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Power and the Army

Created: 30 October, 2009
Updated: 13 September, 2023
4 min read

 Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice rejected a petition to review the constitutionality of the use of the army in public security activities, thereby supporting its activities and covering up the legal implications of the “war immunity” that exempts them from civil court prosecution. The Mexican Congress has hesitated to submit the army to institutional controls. The secretary of Government has lobbied the United Nations and the Supreme Court judges to allow continuance of military impunity. The president is promoting laws to protect the army against criticisms due to excessive violations of human rights. The national human rights ombudsman has been weak in his declarations against military abuses.

 All these developments make it clear that the protection of the army is a core state policy. It is an extreme defense of the military by the centers of power. This is to be expected, since they owe their power in Mexico to the army, not to citizens.

 The government declared war on drugs, implementing a police/military, punitive regime in the country. But there is something that the powers-that-be have ignored. On one hand, the Mexican police and military can still find themselves liable before international tribunals. On the other hand, they need not worry about consequences within the country, because here they are award-ed impunity.

 In 2005, Mexico ratified the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. This is a permanent tribunal of justice whose mission is to try people who have committed genocide; war crimes; crimes against humanity such as slavery, apartheid, extermination, murders, forced disappearances, torture, and kidnapping; and crimes of aggression, among others.

 During the first three years of the present administration, around 15,000 executions were documented; among them 500 members of the security forces and 800 minors were killed in crossfire; in other words, the most reprehensible violations of human rights that a government can carry out against its people. As things stand, by the time Calderon finishes his term in government, the death toll will reach around 40,000.

 According to the Ministry of National Defense —the most prestigious institution in the country— it has received an average of four complaints a day in 2009 alone for human rights violations. This fact forms part of the information that Felipe Calderon presented to the U.S. State Department to draw up its report to Congress on the human rights situation in Mexico. The document notes that of the 934 complaints brought against the army, around half are concentrated in areas where troops operate against organized crime: the states of Chihuahua and Michoacán.

 According to federal authorities, the military report has been included in the final document that the State Department presented to the U.S. Congress, with the objective of releasing 15% of the Merida Initiative resources. These funds can be definitively blocked if Washington deems that the Mexican Army is not respecting human rights, or if cases of human rights violations are treated with impunity, as Senator Patrick Leahy and the human rights community state.

 Despite the reports on scandalous violations that cut deep into even the shallowest of consciences, Calderon said during the summit in Guadalajara that the counternarcotics fight undertaken by the government is carried out with the utmost respect for human rights. He also challenged those who say the opposite to point to a single case where the authorities have violated these rights, whether it involves a victim or a criminal.

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 What Calderon did not say is how he wanted the cases to be presented to him: by last name, roll call, age, sex, state, or in what institution, national or international tribunal they should be presented. The fact is that, like never before, there are countless human rights violations that are ignored within the corridors of power. The government is showing a blatant disrespect for life. To understand this inexplicable situation, we have to adopt the mindset of a cynic.

 It was not by chance that the publication of my essay, “The Needs of a Military Ombudsman in Mexico” in 1993 in Forum 22 coincided with the 25th anniversary of the 1968 Tlat-elolco Massacre. The proposal to introduce institutional controls for the army unleashed the anger of the military command, and led to 27 inquiries, nine criminal proceedings, nine pre-trial detentions, and a sentence of 28 years in prison handed down against me. I was harassed for eight years and there was a publicity boycott of Forum. Felipe Calderon has revived these tactics.

 Notwithstanding human rights violations, the issue of the army is still debated with fear. It is more important than ever for Mexico to establish a military ombudsman.

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