Three months after Mexican President Felipe Calderón sent thousands of troops into Ciudad Juárez and other Chihuahua cities and towns to fight drug traffickers in Operation Chihuahua Together, the number of complaints of human rights abuses is increasing and becoming a political issue, according to New Mexico State University's Frontera Norte/Sur (FNS) news service, which monitors Mexican and border press.
The official Chihuahua's State Human Rights Commission (CEDH) reported an additional 28 complaints about the army in May and 32 more so far this month, mainly from the border town of Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande River from Big Bend National Park in remote West Texas.
CEDH investigator Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson said many of the victims of abuses were small-time dealers and addicts who have been beaten and subject to various forms of torture, including electric shocks, simulated suffocations with plastic bags and razor cuts at army installations. It was a "dangerous pattern," he said, drawing a comparison with Mexico's 1970s Dirty War, when the security forces tortured and disappeared dissidents and suspected leftist guerrillas.
In an incident that stirred outrage, soldiers shot three men to death June 8 at a checkpoint near the town of Cuauhtémoc in the center of the state. While details are unclear, the soldiers reportedly opened fire after the victims' vehicle struck and injured a soldier. One reporter on the scene was forced to the ground by soldiers, while the head of the state human rights commission showed up at the scene but was denied access by the military.
According to FNS, the Juárez Valley, just outside the city of the same name, has been a hot spot in recent weeks. Long the domain of drug traffickers and other criminals, the area has been the target of numerous army raids lately. The soldiers have netted arrests and loads of drugs, but they are also garnering an ever-lengthening list of complaints about their behavior.
Last Saturday, angry valley residents staged protests outside the office of the Mexican attorney general in downtown Juarez. A woman from the town of Guadalupe Bravo, Josefina Reyes, complained that soldiers raided her house and destroyed property before stealing her cell phone and other goods. "On that day, there were around 25 more searches in which they made off with various people," Reyes said.
While neither the military nor the attorney general's office has responded publicly to the complaints, local elected officials are beginning to. The state congress earlier this month passed a resolution urging the army to punish soldiers involved in abuses, and the head of the congress, Jorge Alberto Gutiérrez Casas has urged the military to open up about the Cuauhtémoc checkpoint killings.
"We are going to demand from the legislative branch that human rights not be violated in a struggle that is focused on organized crime, because what happened at the checkpoint doesn't justify the response of the army members." Gutiérrez said. "The army is one of the institutions which has more prestige and credibility in the eyes of the citizenry, and because of this we must not permit isolated situations to end up discrediting the confidence that society has in them."
Allegations of human rights abuses by the military as it pursues its war on drug traffickers are by no means
limited to Chihuahua. In fact, they seem to follow the military wherever it is deployed as law enforcers. In February, we reported on human rights violations in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and last month, we reported on human rights violations in Sinaloa.
The issue of human rights threatens to scuttle the Bush administration's Mérida Initiative anti-drug assistance package for Mexican and the Central American countries. Some congressional Democrats want to tie the $1.4 billion aid package to human rights and other conditions, a move firmly opposed by Mexico, which is extremely sensitive about its sovereignty when it comes to its northern neighbor. On Monday, President Bush appealed to lawmakers to approve the package "without many conditions."
Meanwhile, the toll from prohibition-related violence continues to soar in Mexico. Since Calderón unleashed the military at the beginning of last year, about 4,000 people have been killed, including nearly 500 police and soldiers. Even in Ciudad Juárez, where the military has been deployed since March, the killing continues to escalate. From January 1 to March 31, 210 people were murdered. Between April one and now, another 276 have been killed.