10/17/2012 12:34 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

Time to End Impunity in Mexico

Valentina Rosendo was just 17 years old when she was raped by members of the Mexican Army in February 2002 near her home in the Mexican state of Guerrero. A month later, Inés Fernández was raped by soldiers in a nearby community in the same state. Although the women reported the rapes, civilian and military authorities never carried out a full and transparent investigation of the crimes. Ten years later, Valentina and Inés are still waiting for justice.

In December 2009, Shohn Huckabee and Carlos Quijos were arrested by members of the Mexican army in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua state, near the border Mexico shares with the United States. According to Shohn Huckabee, soldiers reportedly planted drugs in their vehicle and took them to a military barracks where they were beaten, given electric shocks and subjected to mock executions in order to obtain information on their supposed links to drug gangs. But the Mexican government never held anyone accountable for the alleged mistreatment of Shohn and Carlos.

These separate incidents are illustrative of a human rights and public security crisis that continues to plague many regions of Mexico. While this situation predates President Felipe Calderón's administration, it has grown more acute on his watch. The next president, Enrique Peña Nieto, will inherit an unenviable security challenge. He has pledged to address it, but he should do so in a way consistent with rule of law and while respecting the basic human dignity of every person in Mexico.

A Crackdown with Consequences

Shortly after taking office in December 2006, President Calderón ordered security forces to conduct large-scale raids on Mexico's drug cartels in response to escalating violence. Over the course of the ensuing six years, Mexican authorities deployed military and police forces on an unmatched scale to combat powerful drug cartels and other criminal networks, especially along the United States-Mexico border.

The crackdown was initially politically popular. But it has also been costly. At least 60,000 people have been killed and more than 160,000 internally displaced by drug trade violence and Mexico's efforts to combat it. And while the government claims credit for reducing the level of violence and restoring order to major cities, too often progress on one aspect of law and order -- drug cartels -- has come at the expense of another: the government's respect for basic human rights.

It's a complicated problem. Reducing drug-related violence is intertwined with the challenge of managing tens of thousands of irregular migrants who attempt to cross Mexico every year en route to the U.S. border. Many thousands of these migrants are kidnapped, raped, beaten and murdered by criminal gangs, sometimes operating in collusion with Mexican public officials. According to the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), 11,000 migrants were kidnapped in a six-month period in 2010, many suffering grave ill treatment -- some by public officials. The fact that police and military officials are sometimes complicit in the drug trade and associated criminal acts, including trafficking in persons, is a major reason that getting a handle on the security challenges has proven such a daunting task. The situation has been so bad at times that Mexican soldiers have been ordered to disarm unreliable local police forces as part of efforts to restore order.

Ending Impunity

Research conducted by Amnesty International has found that members of the military and police who participate in kidnappings, beatings, murders and other human rights abuses tend to avoid punishment. Mexican officials have failed to indict and convict security forces responsible for torture and other mistreatment of those in their custody. The most vulnerable members of society -- women, Indigenous Peoples and migrants -- suffer disproportionately. The impunity enjoyed by military, police and senior government officials has encouraged increasingly severe human rights violations and discouraged victims from coming forward to report abuse. These trends must be reversed.

An Opportunity for Leadership

The cases of Ms. Rosendo, Ms. Fernandez and thousands of others have spurred rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Mexican Supreme Court designed to enhance accountability and ensure that military and police forces do not get a free pass to violate the rights of those in their custody. These two judicial bodies have laid the groundwork for the Mexican government to assert civilian authority over the military when necessary to ensure justice. But Mexico's executive and legislative branches need to pass reforms to ensure that justice will indeed be guaranteed for all.

As Mexico swears in its new president-elect Nieto, he must lead his administration to implement these reforms. Nieto has said he will move decisively to end torture and other human rights abuses, but his words must translate into actions if they are to bring comfort to the victims and their families. There must be accountability for past abuses. Only then will the people of Mexico gain greater confidence in their nation's ability to improve public security while respecting human rights.