A Supreme Court ruling that Mexican soldiers accused of human rights abuses should be tried in civilian courts could improve the way the armed forces conduct domestic security operations.
The move has long been sought by human rights activists, and long opposed by the armed forces. It changes the established practice of trying soldiers accused of rights violations in military courts, where judges can be removed at the behest of the defense secretary. Eager to remain on good terms with their de facto bosses, judges often appeared to bury cases that would reflect poorly on the military. As a result, critics say, convictions were exceedingly rare, even in cases that appeared straightforward.
The issue of military abuses, and the government’s response to them, has taken on new importance over the past few years, as the Mexican army and marines have expanded their participation in combating organized criminal groups. Critics of Calderon’s militarized security strategy have argued that the deployment of the army has provoked a sharp increase in abuses against the civilian population.
In 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting more than a dozen allegations of military abuse, from extrajudicial executions to the rape of suspects. Anecdotes about summary executions by the military increasingly circulate in Mexico, reflecting a widely-held belief that the armed forces are often abusive, and are not usually held to account for their actions.
Calderon’s response has been to point out that such incidents are rare, and that they pale in comparison to the abuses carried out by the criminal groups. While the second claim is undeniable, it is an apples-to-oranges comparison that is irrelevant to the issue. Defending the army's record by comparing it to criminals ignores the fact that it is in the military’s own interest to rein in abuses, and anything that pushes the brass to do so will help to make the armed forces more effective.
Following the Supreme Court decision, some commentators have expressed concern that the armed forces will no longer be as effective in their growing domestic role. Carlos Marin, the editorial director of Milenio media group, worried in a Wednesday column that the military will now feel obliged to avoid risky operations, “like the one from last week, in which a military venture managed the rescue of 20 kidnapped people in Monterrey.”
This seems unlikely, given that most of the cases of abuse stem not from risky rescues but rather interrogations that went too far, or are premeditated disappearances. Marin’s logic runs backwards; the military top brass may not be comfortable with embarrassing prosecutions playing out in the public eye, but if this decision results in fewer cases of abuse, it will make for a more effective military able to play a more constructive role in public security.
One thing military apologists often seem to forget is that human rights abuses are not only wrong, but counterproductive. The military obtains no operational benefit from torturing or raping potential witnesses. Indeed, it generally serves only to turn the civilian population against the security forces, and reduce locals’ willingness to cooperate.
Similarly, summary executions of suspected criminals may cut through the red tape and eliminate the possibility that the suspect is released without a conviction, but it also means that that the witness in question cannot be persuaded to inform or work as an undercover agent for the government. In many cases, it seems that the army has put bullets into people who could have provided a wealth of information regarding the Mexico’s criminal threats.
The military is one of the public institutions that enjoys the highest levels of trust in Mexico, and civil prosecutions of soldiers may well undermine that prestige to a certain degree. However, the real long-term threat to the military’s enviable reputation is not the prosecution of a small (and hopefully diminishing) number of bad apples, but rather the steady drumbeat of reported violations coupled with the failure to hold the guilty parties accountable.
It appears that Mexico will continue to employ the military in domestic security for years to come. The recent ruling can only, in the long run, make its performance more effective.