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Mexico seeks to require civilian trials for troops

President Felipe Calderon proposes civilian trials for troops accused of serious rights abuses. The move would mark an important concession by the military and meet a key requirement of a U.S. security aid package.

October 19, 2010|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mexico City — Mexican President Felipe Calderon on Monday sent Congress a proposal that would require troops to be tried in civilian courts for certain human rights abuses, such as torture.

The proposed change is the Calderon administration's most sweeping response to persistent complaints about excesses by Mexico's military, which has been deployed around the country as part of the government's crackdown against violent drug cartels.

Though the measure was expected, the move represents a significant concession by the military establishment, which has long resisted efforts to allow troops to be tried in civilian courts. Soldiers have been tried in closed-door military tribunals.

Mexican news reports quoted officials as saying the change would apply to soldiers accused of torture, rape or forced disappearances. A presidential spokesman could not immediately confirm the contents, and Calderon made no public comments about the proposal.

More than 4,000 complaints have been filed with the country's human rights ombudsman regarding abuses purportedly committed by soldiers since Calderon began his war against drug traffickers upon taking office in December 2006, according to rights groups.

Since then, about 50,000 troops have been deployed to hunt suspects, raid stash houses and seize drugs, weapons and money.

Rights advocates complain that the hermetic system of military justice makes it difficult to pursue and track prosecutions against soldiers.

Military officials say they prosecute wrongdoers when there is evidence. But allegations against soldiers seldom result in prosecution, and details are generally not made public.

Mexican and international rights groups have long argued for the need to subject Mexican troops to prosecution in civilian courts, where proceedings are more transparent.

The U.S. Congress made civilian investigations and prosecutions of police and military personnel one of four human rights conditions when it approved the three-year, $1.4-billion security aid package for Mexico, known as the Merida Initiative, in 2008.

Calderon's military-led strategy against the cartels has been controversial. Many residents of violence-torn areas say they are comforted by the sight of truckloads of Mexican troops in the streets, since police command little public confidence.

But in places such as the border city of Ciudad Juarez, critics charge that soldiers storm homes without warrants, steal goods and rough people up. Some of the most serious allegations include arbitrary detention, torture, rape and extrajudicial killings.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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