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Is Mexico under attack by its military?

Some drug war troops are accused of human rights abuses, and the U.S. needs to take a stand for justice.

July 24, 2009

Shortly after taking office in December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon mobilized the military to fight a war against drug cartels widely believed to have infiltrated the country's police forces. Since then, 45,000 troops have been deployed to at least seven states, placing some of the most violent areas, such as Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, under a virtual state of siege. More than 11,000 people have been killed and many others wounded in the drug war, and now human rights groups say a relatively small but still disturbing number of those casualties may have been inflicted by soldiers whose crimes have gone unpunished. Because the U.S. government is helping to fund the drug war, that's putting the Obama administration in a quandary.

To be sure, most of the bloodshed has been committed by drug mafias fighting each other for control of the lucrative cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine trade to the United States, as well as battling the military. Their brutality extends to signature beheadings, and their armory includes grenades and antitank rockets. Through threats and payoffs, the multibillion-dollar cartels have successfully infiltrated local and state governments, along with the police, to such a degree that they threaten the stability of Mexico. Given the danger they represent, we don't doubt that the army's help was needed.

And yet, the cartels cannot serve as an excuse for the country's security forces to commit abuses with impunity. A modern and moral state demands the rule of law. And as the Bush administration's war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated, human rights abuses can weaken a country's legal system and the legitimacy of its government. The army is one of the few respected state institutions in Mexico, but the growing list of allegations against it undermines its credibility -- and potentially its success. As in any war, the government cannot win this one without the support of the population, and the people won't support an army they fear.

Mexico's military has not launched coups, and it hasn't been a force for repression as other Latin American armies have been historically. But it does have a checkered human rights record, dating back to its "dirty war" against leftists in the late 1960s and continuing through its battle with the Zapatista guerrillas in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the unwritten agreement to keep the military out of politics and politicians away from what were broadly defined as "military issues" also has meant that the army seldom is held accountable for disappearances, extrajudicial killings or the use of torture.

Against that background, Calderon was taking a gamble when he sent combat forces to fight the drug war, which involves police and intelligence work among civilians -- a role the Mexican military isn't fully trained to play. Now, U.S. and Mexican human rights activists say they have documented the murder, rape and torture by soldiers of scores of Mexicans believed to be innocent civilians, and the country's National Human Rights Commission received 559 complaints against members of the army in the first six months of this year. Although Mexican law calls for the military to prosecute its own criminal abuses, advocacy groups note that there has not been a successful military prosecution of a human rights case in the last decade.

The U.S. government has allocated $1.4 billion to the counter-narcotics effort in Mexico over the last three years under the so-called Merida Initiative. By law, 15% of the funding must be withheld until the U.S. State Department reports that Mexico is meeting certain human rights conditions, including the prosecution of human rights abuses "in accordance with Mexican and international law." With tens of millions of dollars at stake, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is due to issue her judgment on this condition by the end of September. The U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch has urged her to withhold the money unless abuse cases involving the military are turned over to civilian courts. Although it gives us some pause, we agree.

U.S.-Mexican relations have improved enormously since the 1980s and '90s, when the U.S. Congress had to certify Mexican cooperation in fighting drug trafficking annually or the country would face U.S. trade and economic sanctions. That fostered resentment and foot-dragging among Mexicans, who rightly thought it was hypocritical for the U.S. to pass judgment while it was failing to stem the demand for Mexican drugs north of the border. Today, the two sides are working closely in the drug fight, as seen most clearly in the extradition of 222 suspected traffickers from Mexico to the United States in the last 2 1/2 years. We don't want to return to the old adversarial relationship between neighbors.

Mexico's legislature has become more powerful in recent years, and Calderon has begun to reform a judicial system that has been weak and often corrupt. We'd like to see that continue, matched by a more holistic approach to the drug war that includes real training, professionalization and pay for the country's police forces. Ideally, we'd like to see Mexican institutions act on their own to address the abuse cases and hold the Mexican military accountable, without U.S. pressure. No country should have an army that is above the law, a condition that's poisonous to democracy. But until Mexico acts, the United States should make the case for justice by trimming a symbolic 15% from its aid package.

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