Mexico Must Implement Justice System Reforms

During her visit to Mexico last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hit the nail on the head when she stated that Mexico's offensive against drug-related violence must include reform of the country's judicial system. A key aspect of that reform, she emphasized, must be empowering civilian tribunals in cases of military abuses of human rights: "We need to make sure any human rights violations committed by the military against civilians are tried in civilian courts," she remarked. Clinton's statements indicate a new, and much-needed, focus by the Obama administration on protecting human rights in Mexico through institution building. Now, the Mexican government must follow through.

Since the election of President Felipe Calderón, the Mexican government has taken a hard-line approach to combating the country's drug-cartels and the epidemic of violence they have unleashed. With U.S. assistance, provided through the U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative, Calderón deployed 50,000 troops across the country. However, absent adequate civilian control over the military, the result has been a sharp increase in the number of human rights abuses committed against civilians.

Today, the environment in Mexico is one in which military abuses, including rape, robbery, and extrajudicial killings, go largely unaddressed. The failure to investigate and prosecute threats and attacks against victims and the organizations that accompany them in denouncing these abuses, is translating into fewer crimes being reported. Given the widespread deployment of the military, this has an enormous impact on the rule of law, on public trust of the government, and ultimately, on Mexico's security.

Recognizing the importance of civilian controls over the military, the U.S. and Mexico agreed that 15% of funding for Merida, and its successor, Beyond Merida, would be conditioned on the Mexican government ensuring that investigations and prosecutions of military abuses against civilians would be transferred away from military jurisdiction and carried out by civilian authorities, among other human rights requirements. This has not occurred, and yet U.S. aid continues to flow.

In 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued historic rulings in four cases that, like the Merida Initiative, require that human rights violations committed by the military in Mexico be resolved by civilian institutions. Two widely publicized decisions concerned the cases of Inés Fernández Ortega and Valentina Rosendo Cantú, two indigenous Me'Phaa women who were raped and tortured by members of the Mexican military in 2002.

These rulings, which are legally binding on the Mexican government, have not yet been implemented. Abuses against civilians continue to be investigated by the military, and rarely, if ever, are perpetrators actually prosecuted in military courts. Notably, throughout the four years of the Calderón administration, military trials have resulted in only one successful prosecution, despite thousands of complaints.

Meanwhile, threats and attacks against survivors and their defenders go on. Late last year, renewed threats were made against leaders of the Me'Phaa Peoples' Indigenous Organization (OPIM), which together with the Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights of the Montaña, has accompanied Inés and Valentina throughout their ordeal.

The United States' costly aid efforts will be greatly hampered unless the Calderón administration follows through with its international commitments to protect and promote human rights and the rule of law. Secretary Clinton's statements are encouraging, but Merida's human rights requirements must now be actively enforced. Ensuring that President Calderón removes all cases of human rights abuses against civilians from military jurisdiction is a necessary first step. No amount of money will make Mexico safe until institutional structures are in place to guarantee that there is civilian control over the military and that abuses of process and power are properly investigated and sanctioned.