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Calderon’s Drug War Fails to Keep Civilians Safe

New America Media, News Analysis, NAM contributor Posted: Apr 07, 2009

Editor’s Note: Pres. Felipe Calderon’s war against drug cartels has increased incidents of violence against civilians and failed to keep them safe, reports a NAM contributor, who has chosen to remain anonymous because of safety concerns.

On Dec. 12, 2008, Sayra Guadalupe Contreras made a fatal mistake. She didn’t stop her car at an army checkpoint on a Chihuahua highway near the town of Aldama because she was afraid. Contreras, who was four months pregnant, was shot to death by soldiers.

Just two days later, on a Nuevo León highway, Sanjuana Hernández Salinas, 38, was shot by soldiers at a checkpoint when she didn’t stop her car. She was fortunate, however, and was able to drive away and get help from local police who took her to a hospital.

While U.S. media attention has been focused on the violence generated by Mexico’s drug cartels and the military’s war with them, the Mexican newspapers have been reporting on incidents of violence visited on Mexican civilians by the military. Criticisms of Pres. Felipe Calderon’s military campaign are growing from human rights organizations.

The National Human Rights Commission of Mexico in March released a report that revealed that complaints about violations by the military grew from 182 in 2006—the start of Calderon’s drug war—to 1,230 in 2008. Among those complaints were 28 civilian deaths, like Contreras.

The Mexican government promotes the idea that Mexicans have embraced the increased presence of the military in their communities. There was some support early on, but that is no longer true. A TV news anchor at Channel 44 in Ciudad Juarez, hosting a call-in show, fielded many calls about military abuses and commented that “We are not living in a military dictatorship, but it seems to be that way.” Calderon’s administration decided to use the military and Federal Special Police, dispatching 45,000 military troops and 5,000 federales. In so doing, he ignored the recommendations of several experts in Mexico who argued against the use of the army in a civilian context. A 2007 report by the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center titled, “Commander in Chief? The absence of civil control over the army in the beginning of Felipe Calderon’s term” made that point strongly.

The U.S. government seems to support Calderon’s strategy. When Sec. of State Hillary Clinton visited Mexico last month, she cheered Calderon’s war on drugs, and announced that the United States would continue the Merida Initiative begun under the Bush administration, giving $300 million for Mexico’s drug war.

With Pres. Barack Obama making a strong statement about human rights by closing the prison at Guantánamo, it doesn’t make sense that his administration would ignore the Mexican military’s record on human rights abuses. The military’s history of violence, unfortunately, predates the recent war on drugs. But in the last few years, the increase in reported incidents is shocking.

During the administration of former President Vicente Fox, between 2000 and 2006, military inspector general government opened 172 investigations of reported aggression, violence and murder by the Mexican military against civilians. In just two years of Calderon’s administration, between 2007 and 2008, 200 such investigations were opened. None of them has been resolved.

Among the cases are terrible stories. One is the rape and murder last year of Ernestina Asencion, 73, an indigenous woman in Zongolica, Veracruz. Another case involves the rape of 13 prostitutes by soldiers in Castaños, Coahuila, also in 2008.

In June 2008, members of the Mexican army shot and killed two children and three adults, including an elementary school teacher, in the state of Sinaloa. Like Hernandez and Contreras, they didn’t stop at the army checkpoint.

A dramatic video on YouTube shows a funeral of a young man killed by the Mexican army in Badirahuato, Sinaloa, about a year ago. In a traditional Mexican northwestern ceremony, a banda singer sings a corrido in memory of the victim, Edgar Jeovany Araujo Alarcón. Some of the lyrics are: “Soldiers without conscience, you are more dangerous than a lion/ we see this happening again and again all over the press and the radio/ we just ask for justice, assassins without conscience / No more laughs and parties, they took your life “the bad way.”

The Federal Police, known in Mexico as the “President´s Police,” also has an abuse record. Local newspapers have reported the testimonies of women in Sinaloa who allege that they were sexually and verbally molested by them. Another news account reported that a physician, Francisco Rodriguez Parra, from Culiacán, Sinaloa, was robbed by the Federal Police, who broke into his house and took more than 20,000 Mexican pesos (around $13,000). Such reports of misconduct are frequent.

But civilians are reporting other types of abuse by the police, like harassment of journalists and threats against civilians who dare to denounce them. In Tamaulipas, journalist Carlos Solis and his driver were accused of organized crime and detained for 36 days. They reported torture that included broken ribs, cigarette burns and simulated suffocation with plastic bags. Solis was identified by his captors as a journalist who had criticized some Federal Police.

Knowing this litany of violence, it’s difficult to judge Calderon’s drug war as a success in reducing violence. In fact, it seems the Mexican government’s war on drug cartels is creating more violence and failing to keep civilians safe.

Some observers are recommending that Calderon use intelligence, not force, in combating the drug lords. But politics might be the motivating force in how he approaches the drug war. As National Autonomous University of Mexico Prof. John Ackerman told the Boston Globe, “Calderón systematically looks to militaristic posturing as a way to artificially inflate his flagging political legitimacy. This is especially the case at the moment, since the sitting government faces the possibility of a sweeping defeat in the polls during the midterm elections in July. Public opinion polls place Calderón's party 10 points behind.”

Related Articles:

When U.S. Says 'Insatiable,' Mexico Hears '12-Step Program'

White House Announces New Border Plan to Combat Drug Cartels

Border Militarization Deepens

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