Pubdate: Wed, 25 Apr 2018
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2018 Los Angeles Times
Author: Kate Linthicum


The soldiers took them in the night.

First they came for Nitza Alvarado Espinoza and Jose Alvarado Herrera.
The 31-year-old cousins were sitting in a van outside a family
member's house when troops forced them into a military truck.

Minutes later, soldiers arrived at the house of another Alvarado
cousin, 18-year-old Rocio Alvarado Reyes. She was carried away
screaming at gunpoint in front of her young brothers and baby daughter.

It was Dec. 29, 2009 -- the last time the cousins were seen alive.

Exactly what happened to the working-class family from Ejido Benito
Juarez, a dusty town in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, is
the subject of a historic case that will be heard beginning Thursday
by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

It is the first case related to Mexico's drug war to come before the
court, part of the human rights protection arm of the Organization of
American States. The court is expected to rule that Mexico is guilty
of human rights violations for failing to bring justice in the case
and require the government to make reparations to the victims' family.

Legal analysts say it is not only Mexico's government that will be on
trial, but also the country's broader strategy of using soldiers to
fight domestic crime -- a controversial tactic that is gaining
popularity across Latin America, notably in Brazil, Honduras, El
Salvador and Venezuela.

In the more than 11 years since Mexico sent tens of thousands of army
and navy personnel into the streets to battle increasingly powerful
drug cartels, the armed forces have faced repeated accusations of
torture, illegal arrests and extrajudicial killings. They have
operated with near impunity: Between 2012 and 2016, just 3% of
investigations into crimes allegedly committed by soldiers resulted in
convictions, according to an analysis by the think tank Washington
Office on Latin America, or WOLA.

Despite international objections, Mexico's Congress recently passed a
measure, known as the Internal Security Law, that further cements the
role of the armed forces in preserving public security and expands
their powers of surveillance.

As Mexico's Supreme Court weighs challenges to the constitutionality
of that law, human rights advocates are hoping that the Inter-American
Court will use the Alvarado case to demand justice for the family and
deliver a strong rebuke of the security law. Rulings issued by the
Inter-American Court, based in Costa Rica, are legally binding in
Mexico, and the court's opinion on the law could influence the Supreme

Rosalia Castro, 61, whose son disappeared in 2011, is overcome with
emotion while helping to excavate a clandestine grave in Mexico's
Veracruz state. (Liliana Nieto del Rio / For The Times)

"The Alvarado case provokes discussion about what is wrong about the
armed forces being in charge of public security," said Alberto Abad
Suarez, with the Legal Research Institute at the National Autonomous
University of Mexico. "There is a lot of concern across the region
that the Mexico model could spread, so [the court] might want to try
to stop it."

Proponents of deploying the armed forces to do work traditionally
reserved for police say the move was a necessary response to rising
crime and undertrained and corrupt local law enforcement agencies.
Critics say this militarized approach has come at the expense of
strengthening civilian institutions, such as the police and the
Mexican attorney general's office, and has led to increased violence.

"Soldiers are not trained as policemen, they are trained to
participate in armed conflicts," Abad said.

Homicides have more than doubled since former President Felipe
Calderon launched Mexico's war on drugs in late 2006, sending 6,500
troops into his home state of Michoacan. That year, Mexican
prosecutors opened 11,806 homicide investigations, according to
government data. Last year, they opened 25,340.

Disappearances -- abductions of individuals by criminals, state agents
or others -- are also up. The number of people "disappeared"
nationwide was more than 30,000 last year, up from 26,000 in 2013,
according to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission. The victims
are found, either dead or alive, less than 25% of the time, leaving
grieving mothers and fathers to comb the Earth for the remains of
their loved ones in hidden graves.

The government blames criminal groups for the vast majority of
Mexico's disappearances. But an analysis of 548 disappearances between
2005 and 2015 by the Observatory on Enforced Disappearance and
Impunity in Mexico found that federal, state and municipal authorities
were the perpetrators 47% of the time. The observatory is an effort
launched by Oxford University, the University of Minnesota and the
Latin American Social Sciences Institute.

Relatives of the missing Alvarado cousins brought their case to the
Inter-American Human Rights Commission in 2011, saying they had
exhausted remedies in Mexico's judicial system. In 2014, the
commission found that the army was responsible and instructed Mexico
to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Two years later, the commission referred the case to the
Inter-American Court after it determined that Mexico had not complied
with its recommendations. A merits report submitted to the court by
the commission spells out what is known about what happened to the
cousins that chilly night in 2009.

After a federal police officer was killed in Ejido Benito Juarez and
several other law enforcement officials went missing, about 500
federal troops were dispatched to investigate. What resulted was a
reign of terror. Soldiers kidnapped and tortured residents for
information, the report says. Most were then set free.

Family members of the cousins say they have been given no explanation
about why the three disappeared. The only sign that they might still
be alive came in February 2010, when the family received a phone call
believed to be from a penitentiary in Mexico City. It was Nitza
Alvarado Espinoza.

"Help me, get me out of here," she pleaded, according to the family.
"I'm alive and I'm scared."

Officials failed to track the call, and investigations stalled. The
cousins' relatives said they received threats from the army because
they refused to give up on the case. Several of them eventually sought
political asylum in the United States. In El Paso, Nitza Alvarado's
three daughters formed an advocacy group called "Children of the

The Mexican army did not respond to requests for comment. In its
report, the human rights commission said Mexican officials insist they
are making an effort to find the victims and punish the perpetrators.
The government has obtained testimony from more than 100 law
enforcement officials and others and believes "it can't be concluded
that state actors were involved," the report said.

Mexico's armed forces are facing increasing outside scrutiny. Hundreds
of human rights groups implored lawmakers to reject the Internal
Security Law, with the United Nations high commissioner for human
rights warning that the measure gives too much power to the military
without the necessary civilian checks and balances.

Mexico's military has used the media to defend its role in fighting
crime, and the effort appears to be succeeding. In polls, Mexicans say
they trust the army more than police to protect civilians. The armed
forces spent about $28 million on television, radio and other
publicity campaigns between between 2013 and 2017, according to an
analysis by Fundar, a transparency group.

How the Mexican government reacts to the court ruling "will
demonstrate its level of commitment to bring justice to the victims
after failing to do so for almost a decade," said Maureen Meyer, an
expert at WOLA. There are few ways to enforce compliance with the
court's judgments, she said.

Stephanie Brewer, an attorney who helped bring another case against
the Mexican government before the Inter-American Court, and who was
targeted by the government in a high-profile spying scandal, said
there is at least one clear outcome of court proceedings: Relatives of
victims are given a chance to be heard.

"When you're being criminalized and stigmatized at home, that's also
an important element," she said. "For victims, it's the first time
they have their day in court."
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