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Mexican Military Runs Up Body Count in Drug War

In the history of modern war, fighters are much more likely to injure their enemies than kill them.

But in Mexico, the opposite is true.

According to the government's own figures, Mexico's armed forces are exceptionally efficient killers — stacking up bodies at extraordinary rates.

The Mexican authorities say the nation's soldiers are simply better trained and more skilled than the cartels they battle.

But experts who study the issue say Mexico's kill rate is practically unheard-of, arguing that the numbers reveal something more ominous.

"They are summary executions," said Paul Chevigny, a retired New York University professor who pioneered the study of lethality among armed forces.

In many forms of combat between armed groups, about four people are injured for each person killed, according to an assessment of wars since the late 1970s by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Sometimes, the number of wounded is even higher.

But the body count in Mexico is reversed. The Mexican Army kills eight enemies for every one it wounds.

For the nation's elite marine forces, the discrepancy is even more pronounced: The data they provide says they kill roughly 30 combatants for each one they injure.

The statistics, which the government stopped reporting in early 2014, offer a rare, unguarded glimpse into the role the Mexican military has assumed in the war against organized crime. In the last decade, as the nation's soldiers and marines have been forced onto the front lines, human rights abuses surged.

And yet the military remains largely untouched, protected by a government loath to crack down on the only force able to take on the fight. Little has been done to investigate the thousands of accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that have mounted since former President Felipe Calderón began his nation's drug war a decade ago.

Of the 4,000 complaints of torture that the attorney general's office has reviewed since 2006, only 15 have resulted in convictions.

"Not only is torture generalized in Mexico, but it is also surrounded by impunity," said Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture. "If the government knows it is frequent and you still don't get any prosecutions, and the ones you do prosecute usually wind up going nowhere, the blame lies with the state."

The Mexican armed forces did not respond to interview requests. But Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the defense secretary, has publicly defended the military, saying it is the only institution confronting organized crime — and winning.

"We are in the streets because society is demanding us to be there," General Cienfuegos told the Mexican newspaper Milenio this month.

About 3,000 people were killed by the military between 2007 and 2012, while 158 soldiers died. Some critics call the killings a form of pragmatism: In Mexico, where fewer than 2 percent of murder cases are successfully prosecuted, the armed forces kill their enemies because they cannot rely on the shaky legal system.

Waves of pressure have crashed over the government. In March, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned Mexico's human rights record, including extrajudicial executions, building on an earlier United Nations report that described torture as widespread.

In recent weeks, a videotape of a soldier beating a woman while a police officer squeezed a plastic bag over her head went viral, forcing a rare public apology.

Even in the case of 43 college students who disappeared in 2014, the role of the military, and the protection it enjoys, have become polarizing issues.

Several soldiers were present the night of the disappearances in Guerrero State, according to international experts asked to help determine the students' fate. But the military did not grant interviews to the experts, and the government did not require it.

The government says it takes human rights seriously, passing legislation to counter abuse, protect victims and allow soldiers to be tried in civilian courts. It says it has a new human rights program within the military and notes that under the current president, complaints against the military have dropped sharply.

"Every report of a human rights violation is worrisome," the government said. "But also these isolated cases do not reflect the general state of human rights in the country."

But while complaints of torture against the armed forces have fallen since 2011 — coinciding with an overall reduction in the number of troops deployed across Mexico — the lethality of their encounters did not decline, according to the data released through early 2014.

The unique relationship between the military and the government dates back more than 70 years, to the period after the country emerged from civil war. To maintain stability, historians say, the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party reached a pact with the armed forces: In exchange for near total autonomy, the military would not interfere in politics.

Unlike many Latin American nations, Mexico has never suffered a coup. And though the government long starved its armed forces of funding, they were protected from scrutiny.

That protection became vital after 2006, when the military entered the streets to battle the cartels and violence soared. As complaints of abuses emerged in record numbers, the government did little to take the military to task.

Then the military stopped publishing its statistics on killings two years ago. Without such data, experts say, it is hard to know how violent the war against organized crime has become.

Some episodes surface in court, like a confrontation in Tlatlaya, just outside Mexico City, where the army killed 22 people in June 2014. The army boasted that during the confrontation, only one soldier was injured.

The case quickly became a scandal when Mexico's human rights commission determined that as many as 15 of the people were executed, and that soldiers had altered the scene to make it appear as if there had been a battle.

Even so, the final three soldiers charged were acquitted last week, joining four others previously acquitted. The only soldier convicted in the case, for the crime of disobedience, has already served his sentence.

The impunity comes despite growing ties with the United States military through exercises, training and military hardware sales meant to improve the professionalism and, by extension, the human rights record of Mexico's armed forces.

Two years ago, the United States agreed to sell Black Hawk helicopters to Mexico in a pact that Army officials said could total more than $1 billion over 25 years and bring the Mexican Army closer to American military standards.

"We didn't sell them just helicopters," said Todd M. Rosenblum, the Pentagon's former top official on Mexico policy. "We sold them 15 years of working intimately together that we would not otherwise have."

The closer ties have done little to assuage critics in Congress. "All the training in the world won't work if you don't have people at the top who believe in the importance of transparency and accountability," said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. He wrote a law barring the United States from providing training or equipment to foreign troops who commit "gross human rights violations" like murder or torture.

Some abuse cases have made their way to international bodies, causing concern for the Mexican government.

Three people in Chihuahua State were whisked away on Dec. 29, 2009, and never heard from again. After seeking recourse from the state, federal and military authorities, the families took their case to the Inter-American Commission in 2011.

Five years later, the commission has delivered its confidential findings, according to two people familiar with the case. If the commission finds the military responsible for the disappearances, as expected, the ruling could become binding.

Another case has been brought to the International Criminal Court. A nonprofit group in Baja California collected more than 90 examples of what it calls torture by the Mexican military from 2006 to 2013. The international court has not responded to the petition.

The case includes Ramiro López, who was arrested with three others and tortured by the military in June 2009. The men were nearly suffocated with plastic bags and had their genitals shocked with electric current before being presented as confessed kidnappers. They were convicted.

But in 2015, after a rare examination by the United Nations, the men were found not guilty. The government acquitted them, but declined to pursue those responsible for the forced confessions.

"They should not try to justify their work by obtaining confessions under torture," said Mayra López, the sister of Ramiro López. "But it does not appear as if this will change anytime soon."

[Source: By Azam Ahmed and Eric Schmitt, The New York Times, Mexico City, 26May16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 30May16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.