June 22, 2007

Mexican Army Drug War Role Debated

Hauled out as the shock troops of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s declared offensive against drug trafficking, the Mexican army is under increasing criticism for alleged human rights violations in its recent campaigns. As charges swirl around multiple incidents involving soldiers across the country, controversy simmers over possible, new troop deployments.

In Ciudad Juarez, Ernesto Anaya, the head of the Copar-mex and CCE business organizations, recently petitioned for the deployment of the army on the border city’s streets. Anaya’s appeal, which sparked a polemic across the political spectrum, came after shadowy, armed groups linked to organized crime re-appeared and killed or kidnapped victims with impunity.

Taking issue with Anaya’s proposal was Cipriana Jurado, director of the non-governmental Center for Research and Worker Solidarity, who pointed to previous cases of soldiers implicated in human rights violations while manning checkpoints. In a criticism frequently voiced by other opponents of drug war militarization, Jurado contended that soldiers were not trained or prepared to interact with civilians in law enforcement functions.

Instead, Jurado urged greater coordination between the three existing levels of law enforcement, which she insisted was very weak. The labor activist criticized the Office of the Federal Attorney General (PGR), the primary agency responsible for tackling organized criminal activity, for not “taking over cases” in which individuals are suspected of violating federal laws like firearms possession.

Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza and Chihuahua State Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez both staked out a middle ground in the debate, endorsing the continued deployment of the army in rural areas while disagreeing that soldiers were needed in violence-torn Ciudad Juarez.

“We believe that the events that have happened are matters of a local nature that could be easily controlled by state and local police,” Gonzalez said.

Contrasting opinions about the military’s deployment have emanated from the powerful Roman Catholic Church. Jose Guadalupe Torres, auxiliary bishop of Ciudad Juarez, said circumstances required the military. “Personally, I don’t like it, but if it is for everyone to be more secure, then it is necessary to support (military deployment,)” he said.

Coahuila Bishop Raul Vera, who previously served in Chiapas state, has a different view. Comparing the current national situation with the post-1994 Zapatista uprising atmosphere in the southern state, Bishop Vera warned that militarization threatens to yield further corruption and even dictatorship.

“They send soldiers to pursue corrupt police, but they are focusing on the lower ranks, not on those who manage the cartels, people who are in high positions” Bishop Vera said. “The military is overwhelmed, because somebody always protects drug trafficking from high on up.”

Since ordering more than 24,000 soldiers into the field last December, the Calderon administration’s drug control strategy has become an international issue. Both Amnesty International and the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico strongly question the move, while the European Union’s foreign representative, Javier Solana, backs it. Tacitly, the Bush administration supports the Mexican army’s key role in the drug war.

In its latest report, the Mexico’s Ministry of Defense (SEDENA), takes credit for significant advances against drug production and trafficking since last December. According to SEDENA, soldiers eradicated more than 45,000 acres of marijuana and nearly 20,000 acres of opium poppies, confiscated about 2 million pounds of marijuana, seized more than two tons of cocaine and seventeen tons of heroin, and recovered 2,472 arms. More than 2,000 individuals were detained, according to the tally.

Although the Calderon administration contends that the army’s deployment has wrested back entire zones of the country previously controlled by organized crime, little evidence exists that the increased troop presence has diminished overall violence. In Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, a violence-plagued city where Mexican army patrols were ordered into the streets after a rash of narco-executions this year, a state legislator from the PRI party, Mario Cesar Rios Gutierrez, was slain gangland-style June 12 in broad daylight.

Use of the army as the bulwark in the drug war is nothing new. In addition to human rights and appropriate law enforcement training concerns, militarization critics raise constitutional issues about the legality of the Mexican army enforcing civilian law, and warn of the exposure of military personnel to the temptations of corruption, an issue which has already rocked the armed forces.

General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, a former Mexican drug czar, and General Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro, an officer linked to numerous forced disappearances in Guerrero state during Mexico’s Dirty War of the 1970s, were jailed in 1997 and 2000, respectively, for their alleged ties to the Juarez drug cartel. Nonetheless, the army is still widely perceived by public opinion and politicians as less vulnerable to the vices that have stained civilian police forces.

Joining in the drug war debate have been factions of Mexico’s small but increasingly vocal leftist guerrilla movement. Many of the groups operate in the same zones where illegal drug cultivation and trafficking are rife. In a June 11 statement circulated in the Mexican media, the Clandestine Revolutionary Committee of the Poor/June 28 Justice Commando, an offshoot of the Popular Revolutionary Army, declared its members were “inconvenient witnesses” to the complete “failure” of the Calderon Administration’s “supposed struggle against drug trafficking.”

The group contended, “In hundreds of small farm communities of Guerrero, the narco continues planting, cultivating and harvesting opium poppies and marijuana without any problem. The only thing that the ‘anti-crime’ campaign has achieved is to restructure and strengthen the structures that it is supposedly combating… today, the Mexican state vainly confronts the metastasis of the narco within its own body.”

A Return to Dirty War Tactics?

Overshadowing the military’s deployment are mounting accounts of scandalous behavior, human rights violations and possible criminal activity by soldiers assigned to the drug war. A group of soldiers near the El Millon Ranch in the Juarez Valley reportedly engaged in a drunken brawl June 10 that ended with shots fired and the whereabouts of one soldier in doubt.

Several incidents in Tamaulipas state have prompted popular indignation and led to a formal request from the Governor’s office for the intervention of the official National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). In a pair of separate shootings blamed on soldiers, the first one on April 29 and the second on June 3, two young men were killed while possibly speeding past army checkpoints on Tamaulipas border highways. Earlier, on May 11, Mother’s Day, soldiers were accused of shooting up an auditorium during a community festival in the municipality of Miguel Aleman. Two women were reported injured, and 400 residents staged a protest outside the local military garrison days later.

In a still-mysterious episode, two sisters employed by the police were forcibly disappeared from their Nuevo Laredo home by armed men on June 4. Claudia Ivette and Laura Esther Gonzalez, who both worked in key positions in the C-4 command and control center, were carted off along with two male visitors. Witnesses described the culprits as men dressed in military uniforms, but it wasn’t immediately clear if the kidnappers were genuine soldiers or imposters wearing stolen or counterfeit army uniforms.

Grave accusations against the Mexican army have been documented in Sinaloa and Michoacan states, the scenes of bloody fighting between different drug organizations. Nineteen soldiers have been jailed in a military prison for allegedly shooting to death five members of a family in the Sinaloa countryside on June 2. The soldiers face charges for the killings of 25-year-old Griselda Galaviz and her 19-year-old sister-in-law, Alicia Esparza, as well as the Galaviz woman’s three young children: Edwin, 2; Leonel, 4, and Juanadiomirely, 6. Again, alleged checkpoint running surfaced as an issue.

By mid-May, the CNDH had received 52 complaints of illegal searches, arbitrary detentions and torture in four Michoacan municipalities. Ten people were allegedly injured and at least two tortured by Mexican army units in the Tierra Caliente region of the state. In the town of Nocupet-aro, four teenage waitresses at the La Estrellita restaurant, together with the female owner of the business, were supposedly accosted May 2 by soldiers who accused the women of working for the Zetas drug gang. The women charged that they were then raped by the soldiers.

Some accounts report that the young women, aged 16 to 17, were beaten on helicopter flights during which soldiers threatened to toss the detainees into the sea, a common practice in the Dirty War against guerrilla suspects and dissidents during the 1970s. Ironically known as “the cradle” of the Mexican army, Nocupetaro, is historically connected to Jose Maria Morelos’ uprising against Spain in 1810.

“We are for strengthening policing institutions and taking the army off the streets as soon as possible,” said CNDH President Jose Luis Soberanes, who insisted that the army should be defending national independence and not chasing criminals.

On June 14, Soberanes confirmed that at least two of the young women from Nocupetaro had been raped. The Michoacan scandal erupted even as 8 soldiers faced trial for the gang rape of 14 dancers in Coahuila state last year, and controversy brewed about the alleged rape and murder of an elderly indigenous women, Ernestina Ascencio, by another group of soldiers in Veracruz state on February 26 of this year. In a widely denounced decision, the CNDH claimed that the woman’s death stemmed from natural causes.

Reportedly, events in Sinaloa and Michoacan have encouraged an internal government review of the military’s current drug war strategy and could lead to redeployments, though it is not expected that soldiers will be withdrawn from the front. True to form, the army itself has largely remained tight-lipped about most of the controversial events involving its troops.

Support for the Army against Narco Towns

Despite the scandals, large sectors of the public continue supporting the army’s leading role in the drug war. In a recent column, Mexico City journalist Raymundo Riva Palacio quoted an e-mail he said that he received from a writer who claimed to be from the narco-dominated town of Apatzingan, Michoacan. According to Riva Palacio, the writer supported the army taking firmer actions against narcos who are committing massive human rights violations.

“You speak about the CNDH having 8 complaints of violations,” Riva Palacio quoted the cyber messenger. “As you will see, we could have 500 in one day.” The purported Michoacan resident charged that criminal gangs in the Tierra Caliente region operate curfews, erect illegal checkpoints, levy taxes on honest merchants, and murder opponents.

According to Riva Palacio, the e-mail contained the following statement: “If you were out and about Coalcoman at 9 in the evening, armed groups (narcos), arrested you, asked you what you were doing, gave you a little kick and hit you. They let you if you convinced them that you were only an idiot who didn’t know the local laws.”

Quoted in the column, the e-mail writer accused the municipal president, town officials, local and federal police, taxi drivers, auto parts dealers, journalists, and numerous other residents of Apatzingan of being in cahoots with the narco.

While debate rages over the army’s participation in the drug war, Mexican soldiers continue seeing action in the field. On June 6, soldiers took control of the Mexicali international airport in Baja California after 18 members of the Federal Preventive Police, which itself is largely made up of military personnel, were busted in Mexicali and Tijuana for alleged complicity with drug traffickers. In another section of the Mexico-US border region, soldiers reportedly clashed with narcos in the Chihuahua border town of Palomas across from New Mexico on June 12. No injuries were reported.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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