Rights Protesters Target Drug-War Funds

By Ken Ellingwood
Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY -- Citing alleged rights abuses by Mexican soldiers assigned to the drug war, Human Rights Watch urged the Obama administration Monday to not release tens of millions of dollars in withheld security aid unless Mexico allows such cases to be tried in civilian courts.

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Washington-based group said Mexico's military courts have failed to bring to justice troops Human Rights Watch holds responsible for a "rapidly growing number of serious abuses."

Under the $1.4 billion multiyear aid package known as the Merida initiative, the U.S. government is to withhold a 15 percent portion until the secretary of State reports that Mexico is meeting human-rights conditions. One condition is that civilian authorities are investigating and prosecuting alleged abuses by troops and federal police "in accordance with Mexican and international law."

The withheld funds so far amount to more than $100 million.

"The Merida initiative provides the Obama administration with an important opportunity to strengthen U.S.-Mexican drug enforcement and human rights cooperation," the group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, said. "To capitalize on this opportunity, however, the Obama administration should vigorously enforce the human rights requirements included in the aid package."

The conduct of Mexico's soldiers has attracted growing scrutiny since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led crackdown on drug traffickers two and a half years ago. He has dispatched 45,000 soldiers to the country's most violent trafficking zones. In places such as Ciudad Juarez, they carry out basic police duties.

Rights advocates accuse soldiers of torture, rape, illegal arrest and, in some cases, killings. In Ciudad Juarez and other places, residents complain that soldiers have burst into their homes without warrants, made arrests without cause and even stolen appliances and food.

Activists say military authorities weigh cases behind close doors and are reluctant to prosecute. Human Rights Watch say Mexican military courts have not convicted any soldier of a serious abuse during the past decade.

Mexico says it takes allegations against soldiers seriously but it has insisted that, under Mexican law, only military courts can try soldiers.

Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont said last week that military tribunals afford victims the same rights available in civilian courts and are capable of punishing wrong-doers.

In 2008, Mexican leaders reacted angrily when congressional Democrats attached human-rights conditions to the three-year Merida package, which provides equipment and training. The requirements were softened before the final package was approved.


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