Mexican military complains as troops face civilian trials

On the frontlines of Mexico`s drug war for years, the military is pushing back at attempts to put soldiers on trial for civilian charges as serious as murder.

AFP| Updated: Nov 14, 2014, 07:51 AM IST

Mexico City: On the frontlines of Mexico`s drug war for years, the military is pushing back at attempts to put soldiers on trial for civilian charges as serious as murder.

Armed forces in Mexico have faced accusations of abuse, torture and illegal detentions ever since former president Felipe Calderon deployed soldiers against drug cartels in 2006.

Until 2012, they were exempt from civilian justice. But the Supreme Court ruled two years ago that the military trial system was the wrong place for crimes against civilians.

The reform is facing a major test with the recent civilian charges lodged against seven soldiers in connection with the killing of 22 gang suspects in June in Tlatlaya, 240 kilometers (149 miles) south of Mexico City.

In unusually blunt remarks this week that raised eyebrows, Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, an army general, slammed the trials against soldiers.

"We will offer our best efforts at the service of citizens without fear of unfair trials, some of them without a doubt wrong, lacking foundation, malicious," Cienfuegos said.

"The national armed forces don`t deserve it."

President Enrique Pena Nieto has kept the troops on the ground since taking office in December 2012, saying they will stay in the streets until Mexicans feel safe again.

Now, he is confronted with a human rights headache. On top of the alleged army massacre, he faces nation-wide ire over the presumed murder of 43 college students by a gang working with corrupt police officers.

The military has been under fire over its handling of the Tlatlaya case after initially saying that all 22 suspects were killed in a shootout.

But an anonymous witness later contradicted the official version of events, telling Esquire magazine that 21 of the suspects, including her teenage daughter, were killed after they had surrendered.

Officials seem to disagree on exactly what transpired.

Prosecutors have charged seven soldiers with crimes against public service. Three of them face more serious charges of murdering eight of the 22 suspects and altering the crime scene.

The government`s National Human Rights Commission issued a report saying that at least 12 of the suspects were killed after giving themselves up.

Before civilian prosecutors stepped in, the military had arrested eight soldiers over the Tlatlaya case on dereliction of duty charges.Javier Oliva, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the defense minister`s criticism showed that the armed forces feel they lack "political protection from the civilian powers."

Oliva said Calderon deployed tens of thousands of soldiers and marines without a proper legal framework to combat crime -- a job normally held by civilian police.

"Neither the civilian nor the legislative and judicial branches have bothered to give legal certainty" to the armed forces, he said.

Gerardo Rodriguez, a security consultant, said the Congress should set rules for the military deployment and operations.

"Armies throughout the world have never been pleased when other judicial bodies have helped to resolve discipline issues," said Rodriguez, a member of the Security with Democracy Analysis Collective think tank.

He adds that the military`s image suffers from "natural wear and tear" after eight years of street violence.

Some 100,000 people have died or gone missing in turf wars between drug cartels and in gunfights between criminals and security forces since 2006.With Mexico struggling to contain drug violence that threatens national security, the military is unlikely to retreat to its barracks, said Rodriguez.

The military has even come under scrutiny over the case of the 43 missing students because it failed to intervene to protect them even though it has a garrison in the southern city of Iguala.

The attorney general`s office says the army never received the order to come out of its barracks that night of September 26, when police shot at busloads of students, killing six people and abducting 43 young men who they handed to gang members.

Oliva said the criticism against the army has been "inconsistent."

"There are some 40,000 soldiers and marines doing daily chores in the fight against organized crimes" with "minimal" human rights abuses, he said.