Monday, April 4, 2011

Military and human rights abuses

El Universal is reporting that Mexico's Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has received 3 complaints against the military per day in 2011, bringing the total during the Calderon administration to 4,772 (as ganchoblog points out, 3 a day is not a major upsurge; still, it's too many.)

Complaints against the military are common in Mexico. Sometimes, the complaints are legitimate. Sometimes, locals are paid or coerced into making them, by the narcos themselves. The CNDH, to its credit, files every complaint as required.

Here's a bit of reporting for my book regarding human rights abuses and the tension in Sinaloa. Hopefully it will lend itself to better understanding of the situation everyone is in.

The air of calm in Badiraguato felt precariously temporary. The Sierra of Sinaloa was not what it once was. For several years now, the region had been what one resident called a ‘marked zone’. The military was ever-present, but so were the narcos. By and large, the military was avoiding conflict, but that didn’t mean the narcos weren’t duking it out among themselves.

Homicide had become so common in Sinaloa that it cost a mere $35 to have a rival murdered.

The military’s hands were covered in blood, too. One Friday night, a group of teachers and their children had been driving back to La Joya de los Martinez, in the Sinaloan hills, from a meeting in a nearby village. A unit of soldiers was returning from a long day of burning marijuana in the fields. As the car approached, the soldiers waved it down.

The driver was caught off guard. Were they really soldiers? In this part of the country, assaults on vehicles by bandits are all too common. He slowed the car, but kept it moving. The car got closer. The soldiers opened fire. A hail of bullets swept through the car.

Alicia Esparza Parra, nineteen, was dead. Griselda Martinez, twenty-five, was dead, too. So were her children. Edwin, age seven. Grisel, age four. Juana Diosminey, age two.

On another occasion, in Santiago de los Caballeros, Badiraguato, four youths in a car were heading to a party. The military stopped them as they rounded a bend on the country road. Tensions were high; an argument ensued. A shot was fired. The army peppered the car with bullets, killing everyone inside. Investigations would prove the soldiers were at fault – there was no gun inside the car, nor was there evidence of bullets having been fired from that direction. There was a tense atmosphere in Badiraguato. The people staged protests, at one point walking several hours to Culiacan in a large procession to demonstrate outside the governor’s office.

Gen. Noe Sandoval and his men continued to maintain pressure throughout Sinaloa. On Aug. 8, 2009, they received a tip that Chapo was paying his respects to his dead son Edgar at his tomb, which had been erected in Jesus Maria, the town outside Culiacan where the boy was born.

Since Edgar's death the year before, residents of Jesus Maria had been left alone, both out of respect for the dead and on account that no one prominent would likely risk a visit. But on Aug. 8, Gen. Sandoval had deployed his men to the area around the tomb, which was still under construction. They would guard it for 24 hours; Chapo wouldn't get away this time. He never showed.

Undeterred – and trusting of his information – Sandoval sent in two helicopters to survey the area, and scrambled his men throughout the tiny town. They searched from house to house, but found no one suspicious.

From the helicopters, Sandoval's men spotted two suspicious vehicles. The cars were driving around the town; around and around. As they were leaving Jesus Maria, the helicopters blocked the road, and soldiers surrounded the vehicles. They yanked out three young men, and began to question them. Was Chapo in town? Had he come? What did they know?

According to local media reports, the soldiers repeatedly beat the suspects, accusing them of being Chapo's gunmen.

Frustrated, and still without answers, the soldiers left the scene; the three young men lay there, bruised and bleeding. When a group of local reporters turned up, the soldiers returned to haul the suspects off to an undisclosed location.

Back in Culiacan, the frustration was also getting to Gen. Sandoval's men. A young soldier returned to the barracks after an evening of letting off steam. He was drunk; the soldiers at the entrance were on their guard.

They began to argue, the drunk soldier pulled out his gun. So did the other, and bullets flew. One soldier died, three were injured. The drunk grunt who started it all committed suicide.

The Army had no comment about the incident.

It was a tough time for Gen. Sandoval, who was making more enemies by the day. Acting on his orders, five soldiers banged on the door of the house of Mercedes Murillo, an elderly human activist with good standing in the community. We want to check up on the house, the soldiers told her. She refused to let them in, telling them they could come back in the morning.

A military convoy turned up. The soldiers were apparently searching for a vehicle registered to that residence – back when the previous owners lived there.

Murillo, who has long documented military violations in Sinaloa, was furious. "The military authorities are teaching their members to violate the law; there is nothing to justify their midnight arrival at your house," she said. "Whether it's the general, Saint Peter or the president of the Republic who has sent them, it's illegal for them to be there, for them not to go."

Around the same time, Gen. Sandoval's men conducted another controversial raid on a personal residence, searching for guns and explosives. This time, it was the home of a supposed fisherman, who they believed was a narco. They raided the place.

Unfortunately, he turned out to be exactly what he was said to be – a fisherman.

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