Pubdate: Fri, 27 May 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Authors: Azam Ahmed and Eric Schmitt


MEXICO CITY - In the history of modern war, fighters are much more 
likely to injure their enemies than kill them.

But in Mexico, the opposite is true.

According to the government's own figures, Mexico's armed forces are 
exceptionally efficient killers - stacking up bodies at extraordinary rates.

The Mexican authorities say the nation's soldiers are simply better 
trained and more skilled than the cartels they battle.

But experts who study the issue say Mexico's kill rate is practically 
unheard-of, arguing that the numbers reveal something more ominous.

"They are summary executions," said Paul Chevigny, a retired New York 
University professor who pioneered the study of lethality among armed forces.

In many forms of combat between armed groups, about four people are 
injured for each person killed, according to an assessment of wars 
since the late 1970s by the International Committee of the Red Cross. 
Sometimes, the number of wounded is even higher.

But the body count in Mexico is reversed. The Mexican Army kills 
eight enemies for every one it wounds.

For the nation's elite marine forces, the discrepancy is even more 
pronounced: The data they provide says they kill roughly 30 
combatants for each one they injure.

The statistics, which the government stopped reporting in early 2014, 
offer a rare, unguarded glimpse into the role the Mexican military 
has assumed in the war against organized crime. In the last decade, 
as the nation's soldiers and marines have been forced onto the front 
lines, human rights abuses surged.

And yet the military remains largely untouched, protected by a 
government loath to crack down on the only force able to take on the 
fight. Little has been done to investigate the thousands of 
accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial 
killings that have mounted since former President Felipe Calderon 
began his nation's drug war a decade ago.

Of the 4,000 complaints of torture that the attorney general's office 
has reviewed since 2006, only 15 have resulted in convictions.

"Not only is torture generalized in Mexico, but it is also surrounded 
by impunity," said Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations special 
rapporteur on torture. "If the government knows it is frequent and 
you still don't get any prosecutions, and the ones you do prosecute 
usually wind up going nowhere, the blame lies with the state."

The Mexican armed forces did not respond to interview requests. But 
Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, the defense secretary, has publicly 
defended the military, saying it is the only institution confronting 
organized crime - and winning.

"We are in the streets because society is demanding us to be there," 
General Cienfuegos told the Mexican newspaper Milenio this month.

About 3,000 people were killed by the military between 2007 and 2012, 
while 158 soldiers died. Some critics call the killings a form of 
pragmatism: In Mexico, where fewer than 2 percent of murder cases are 
successfully prosecuted, the armed forces kill their enemies because 
they cannot rely on the shaky legal system.

Waves of pressure have crashed over the government. In March, the 
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned Mexico's human 
rights record, including extrajudicial executions, building on an 
earlier United Nations report that described torture as widespread.

In recent weeks, a videotape of a soldier beating a woman while a 
police officer squeezed a plastic bag over her head went viral, 
forcing a rare public apology.

Even in the case of 43 college students who disappeared in 2014, the 
role of the military, and the protection it enjoys, have become 
polarizing issues.

Several soldiers were present the night of the disappearances in 
Guerrero State, according to international experts asked to help 
determine the students' fate. But the military did not grant 
interviews to the experts, and the government did not require it.

The government says it takes human rights seriously, passing 
legislation to counter abuse, protect victims and allow soldiers to 
be tried in civilian courts. It says it has a new human rights 
program within the military and notes that under the current 
president, complaints against the military have dropped sharply.

"Every report of a human rights violation is worrisome," the 
government said. "But also these isolated cases do not reflect the 
general state of human rights in the country."

But while complaints of torture against the armed forces have fallen 
since 2011 - coinciding with an overall reduction in the number of 
troops deployed across Mexico - the lethality of their encounters did 
not decline, according to the data released through early 2014.

The unique relationship between the military and the government dates 
back more than 70 years, to the period after the country emerged from 
civil war. To maintain stability, historians say, the governing 
Institutional Revolutionary Party reached a pact with the armed 
forces: In exchange for near total autonomy, the military would not 
interfere in politics.

Unlike many Latin American nations, Mexico has never suffered a coup. 
And though the government long starved its armed forces of funding, 
they were protected from scrutiny.

That protection became vital after 2006, when the military entered 
the streets to battle the cartels and violence soared. As complaints 
of abuses emerged in record numbers, the government did little to 
take the military to task.

Then the military stopped publishing its statistics on killings two 
years ago. Without such data, experts say, it is hard to know how 
violent the war against organized crime has become.

Some episodes surface in court, like a confrontation in Tlatlaya, 
just outside Mexico City, where the army killed 22 people in June 
2014. The army boasted that during the confrontation, only one 
soldier was injured.

The case quickly became a scandal when Mexico's human rights 
commission determined that as many as 15 of the people were executed, 
and that soldiers had altered the scene to make it appear as if there 
had been a battle.

Even so, the final three soldiers charged were acquitted last week, 
joining four others previously acquitted. The only soldier convicted 
in the case, for the crime of disobedience, has already served his sentence.

The impunity comes despite growing ties with the United States 
military through exercises, training and military hardware sales 
meant to improve the professionalism and, by extension, the human 
rights record of Mexico's armed forces.

Two years ago, the United States agreed to sell Black Hawk 
helicopters to Mexico in a pact that Army officials said could total 
more than $1 billion over 25 years and bring the Mexican Army closer 
to American military standards.

"We didn't sell them just helicopters," said Todd M. Rosenblum, the 
Pentagon's former top official on Mexico policy. "We sold them 15 
years of working intimately together that we would not otherwise have."

The closer ties have done little to assuage critics in Congress. "All 
the training in the world won't work if you don't have people at the 
top who believe in the importance of transparency and 
accountability," said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. 
He wrote a law barring the United States from providing training or 
equipment to foreign troops who commit "gross human rights 
violations" like murder or torture.

Some abuse cases have made their way to international bodies, causing 
concern for the Mexican government.

Three people in Chihuahua State were whisked away on Dec. 29, 2009, 
and never heard from again. After seeking recourse from the state, 
federal and military authorities, the families took their case to the 
Inter-American Commission in 2011.

Five years later, the commission has delivered its confidential 
findings, according to two people familiar with the case. If the 
commission finds the military responsible for the disappearances, as 
expected, the ruling could become binding.

Another case has been brought to the International Criminal Court. A 
nonprofit group in Baja California collected more than 90 examples of 
what it calls torture by the Mexican military from 2006 to 2013. The 
international court has not responded to the petition.

The case includes Ramiro Lopez, who was arrested with three others 
and tortured by the military in June 2009. The men were nearly 
suffocated with plastic bags and had their genitals shocked with 
electric current before being presented as confessed kidnappers. They 
were convicted.

But in 2015, after a rare examination by the United Nations, the men 
were found not guilty. The government acquitted them, but declined to 
pursue those responsible for the forced confessions.

"They should not try to justify their work by obtaining confessions 
under torture," said Mayra Lopez, the sister of Ramiro Lopez. "But it 
does not appear as if this will change anytime soon."

Correction: May 26, 2016

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a photo caption 
with this article gave the wrong year for a shootout in Yurecuaro 
between Mexican soldiers and members of a drug gang. The shootout was 
in 2011, not 2001.

Azam Ahmed reported from Mexico City, and Eric Schmitt from 
Washington. Paulina Villegas contributed reporting from Mexico City.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom