Pubdate: Fri, 1 May 2009
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2009 The Washington Post Company
Authors: William Booth and Steve Fainaru, Washington Post Foreign Service


2-Year Battle Also Raises Rights Questions

MEXICO CITY -- Mexican authorities have arrested more than 60,000 
people in connection with drug trafficking over the past two years, 
according to government statistics from a nationwide crackdown that 
has also led to dramatic increases in violence and allegations of 
human rights abuse.

The detention figures, obtained by The Washington Post, represent the 
first public accounting of the government's offensive against 
Mexico's powerful drug cartels. President Felipe Calderon declared 
war against the traffickers shortly after taking office in December 
2006, giving the military unprecedented law enforcement duties.

Drug trafficking in Mexico employs an estimated 150,000 people, 
according to U.S. officials, so 60,000 arrests could represent 
progress in the fight against the cartels.

But the Mexican attorney general's office said it was unable to 
disclose how many of the detainees remain in custody or whether they 
had been charged with crimes related to drug trafficking. In Mexico, 
it is not unusual for suspects to be arrested, paraded before 
television cameras but later quietly released without being charged 
with a crime.

The statistics reveal the expanding reach of the Mexican military in 
the drug war. From December 2006 to March this year, according to the 
Defense Ministry, the army had arrested 12,251 people, nearly 
one-quarter of the drug-related arrests reported by the government. 
Since 2007, monthly detentions by the military rose 129 percent, the 
figures show. The military said it had arrested only those who were 
caught in the act of committing a crime.

"I've never seen numbers that come close to this," said Roderic Ai 
Camp, an expert on the Mexican military at Claremont McKenna College 
in California.

During the Calderon administration, hundreds of active-duty and 
retired military officers have taken command positions in police 
agencies throughout the country. The army and police perform joint 
operations in several zones where trafficking and violence have been 
greatest. In the border city of Juarez, for example, all public 
security is under the military's control.

In a report released this week, Human Rights Watch alleges that the 
military has "committed serious human rights violations" while 
fighting the drug war, "including enforced disappearances, killings, 
torture, rape and arbitrary detentions." The report describes 17 
cases involving what it describes as "egregious crimes" by soldiers 
against more than 70 victims.

The system lacks a process to investigate and, when necessary, bring 
soldiers to trial in open proceedings with full transparency, Human 
Rights Watch said. Allegations of human rights abuses by the military 
currently are judged by the military in proceedings that are mostly 
hidden from public scrutiny. Human Rights Watch called on the 
Calderon administration to prosecute serious abuses by the military 
in civilian courts.

"They can point to the numbers and say they are doing an effective 
job, but you have to ask: 'What do these numbers really mean? Are all 
those arrested back out on the streets?' " said Jose Miguel Vivanco, 
director of the Americas program for Human Rights Watch.

Carlos Flores, a Mexico City-based expert on organized crime, said 
the government's inability to account for the detainees suggests a 
weakness. "Either they are detaining people for whom they cannot 
effectively articulate a legal basis for the crime they allegedly 
committed," Flores said, "or the justice system is so permeated by 
these criminal organizations that even if their members are detained, 
they are able to get them out. Both are equally plausible."

The military detained 3,581 people for drug-related offenses in 2007, 
an average of 298 a month, according to the Defense Ministry. That 
number rose to 6,207, or 517 a month, in 2008. This year through 
March, the military had arrested 2,043 people, or 681 a month.

Official complaints about the army's conduct have surged 576 percent, 
according to the National Human Rights Commission. The largest number 
of complaints allege that the military, which is required to 
immediately turn over suspects to the attorney general, has held 
detainees for a day or longer. In some cases, the complaints allege 
that detainees have been interrogated by the military, beaten or tortured.

In addition to deploying the military in several major cities, 
Calderon has launched the most ambitious law enforcement reform in 
Mexico's history.

Last week, the Calderon administration sent a package of law 
enforcement measures to Congress that would allow the government to 
declare temporary states of emergency in "domestic security zones," 
which would expand the military's powers, giving the army access to 
files kept by the police and civilian courts. The proposals also may 
shield the military as it takes over civilian law enforcement duties.

"The expansion of organized crime poses new challenges for democratic 
societies," the proposal states. "That requires the government to 
bring to bear all the force of the state to confront it."

More than 10,000 people have been killed in the drug violence since 
the crackdown began.
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