MEXICO CITY — Citing alleged rights abuses by Mexican soldiers assigned to the drug war, Human Rights Watch urged the Obama administration Monday to not release tens of millions of dollars in withheld security aid unless Mexico allows such abuse cases to be tried in civilian courts.
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S.-based group said Mexico's military courts had failed to bring to justice troops whom Human Rights Watch holds responsible for a "rapidly growing number of serious abuses."
Under the $1.4-billion multiyear aid package known as the Merida Initiative, the U.S. government is to withhold a 15% portion until the secretary of State reports that Mexico is meeting certain human rights conditions. One condition is that civilian authorities are investigating and prosecuting alleged abuses by troops and federal police "in accordance with Mexican and international law." Withheld funds so far amount to more than $100 million.
The conduct of Mexico's soldiers has attracted growing scrutiny since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led crackdown on drug traffickers 2 1/2 years ago. He has dispatched 45,000 troops to the country's most violent trafficking zones. In places such as Ciudad Juarez, they carry out basic police duties.
Rights advocates accuse soldiers of torture, rape, illegal arrest and even killings. Mexico says it takes allegations against soldiers seriously but it has insisted that, under Mexican law, only military courts can try soldiers.
Mexican leaders reacted angrily last year when congressional Democrats attached human rights conditions to the three-year Merida package, which provides equipment and training. The requirements were softened before the final package was approved.
In the western state of Michoacan on Monday, the bodies of at least 12 men bearing gunshot wounds and signs of torture were found near a highway, authorities said.
Michoacan has been rocked by a turf war between a homegrown gang known as La Familia and the Zetas, the armed wing of the so-called Gulf cartel. Last week, four bodies were found near the same spot.
Over the weekend, gunmen carried out coordinated attacks against police stations around the state, killing five federal officers, after the arrest of a ranking La Familia figure.