Mexico Army Slayings Raise Doubts About Accountability, Rule of Law.
By Frederick Deknatel, Oct. 9, 2014
The story out of San Pedro Limon keeps changing. First, Mexican soldiers had killed 22 gang members in a late June shootout in a warehouse in the rural town some 95 miles southwest of Mexico City, according to the army’s official account. Then the Associated Press sent reporters to San Pedro Limon, where they found evidence not of a shootout but a massacre. A witness said that all but one of the gang members had actually surrendered before they were executed. Months passed before an official government investigation in mid-September, after which the Mexican Defense Department arrested an army officer and seven of the soldiers. Days later, Mexico’s attorney general announced that three soldiers—all privates—were being charged with homicide.
But that doesn’t settle it: Questions linger over the government’s probe. On Oct. 7, Mexican authorities announced that homicide charges had not yet been filed. Then the government revised its version of events yet again. There were two gun battles in San Pedro Limon, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said, that left the majority of the suspects either wounded or dead. The three soldiers charged with homicide had entered the warehouse and killed “those who were still alive.” A military court will prosecute seven soldiers and a lieutenant for dereliction of duty.
The deaths, and the uncertainty still surrounding them, once again raise questions of accountability for Mexico’s army and security forces over the use of force in their long fight against drug cartels and gangs. And the controversy has quickly shifted attention from President Enrique Pena Nieto’s touted economic reforms back to fundamental doubts about the rule of law in Mexico and how alleged military abuses involving civilian victims are dealt with in the courts.
“It is crystal-clear to me that we have here one of the most serious massacres by the Mexican army in many, many years,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas section of Human Rights Watch, told the Los Angeles Times. “There are two crimes here: a horrific massacre and the usual practice of covering it up.”
The New York Times called the homicide charges “a rare case of prosecution for suspected human rights abuses, though one not likely to satisfy critics.” Given how the government has handled the deaths in San Pedro Limon, are the announced prosecutions enough to mark a shift in accountability for an army that many accuse of acting with impunity?
Hal Brands, an assistant professor at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy who studies Mexican security, says that while the incident will certainly lead to greater public pressure, including from within part of Pena Nieto’s government, “there will likely be some degree of bureaucratic push-back by the military. And some of the problems with accountability and impunity are so entrenched that I am not sure that any single incident can end them.”
For all of Pena Nieto’s structural reforms in the past two years, including taking on monopolies and opening the state energy sector to foreign investment, his vaunted “Pact for Mexico” has left a fundamental issue out: the rule of law. Crime is rising, even if the number of homicides is falling. Will Pena Nieto take on thorny security and legal issues with the same fervor he has the economy?
“In some sense, this incident underscores a point that Pena Nieto made during his campaign: that it was desirable to get the army out of internal security, and empower new institutions like the quasi-gendarmerie he has emphasized,” Brand says. “The problem, though, is that new police institutions tend to quickly pick up all the problems of old police institutions in Mexico. And for all its faults, the military is still the most professional security institution in Mexico, and the most capable, as well.”
Under a 2013 Mexican Supreme Court ruling, military abuses of civilians should be tried in civilian courts, not military ones. Yet that shift has been slow. This could be a test case, given its high-profile media attention.
But parsing the statements of Pena Nieto’s government, full accountability is unlikely. “We are investigating all the elements” of the case, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong told the Mexican Congress, before adding that the soldiers, if found guilty, “would be an exception, because we have a great army.” The message to the military seemed clear: We still support you.
Of course, the government doesn’t really have a choice. As the last line of defense in many states racked by cartel violence, the Mexican military can shield itself from repercussions of alleged abuses. Still the case could, in its best-case scenario, determine how much the judiciary can in fact assert itself over the military in Mexico. But that remains to be seen—and the government and the army’s story could change once more.