Mexico City - The international courts are the last resort for victims of abuse at the hands of Mexican soldiers, now that the Supreme Court has upheld the jurisdiction of military courts to try troops accused of crimes against civilians.
In a six-to-five vote, Mexico's Supreme Court dismissed an appeal Monday involving the military courts' handling of what is known as the "Santiago de los Caballeros" case, brought by the widow of a man who was allegedly shot by five soldiers.
The legal challenge filed by the widow, Reynalda Morales, was dismissed by the magistrates on the argument that the victim of a crime has no legal right to appeal when a military judge has already accepted a case.
On Mar. 26, 2008, an army unit opened fire on a vehicle carrying six unarmed civilians in Badiraguato, in the northwestern state of Sinaloa. Four of the men died, including Morales's husband, 30-year-old Zenâ€”n Medina.
Mexico's defence ministry reported on Apr. 4, 2008 that the military justice system had assigned the case to a military judge in Sinaloa, who charged five soldiers with "homicide by negligence."
Morales challenged article 57 of the military justice code, in effect since 1933, which establishes military jurisdiction for members of the armed forces charged with crimes.
Luâ€™s Arriaga, director of the Agustâ€™n Pro Juâ€¡rez Human Rights Centre (PRODH), lamented the Court's refusal to hear the case. "The Court did not pronounce itself on the underlying issue of the jurisdiction of military courts, and wasted a historic opportunity to provide victims with an independent tribunal that would try abuses committed against them," he told IPS.
The Supreme Court decision, which closed the door to further challenges against the practice of military courts trying troops accused of crimes against civilians, came in the midst of a heated debate on the role of the army in fighting drug trafficking, prompted by numerous complaints of serious human rights violations allegedly committed by soldiers.
After taking office in December 2006, conservative President Felipe Calderâ€”n ordered the deployment of thousands of soldiers around the country to combat the powerful drug cartels.
The National Human Rights Commission, a state body, registered 1,230 citizen complaints against the military in 2008 - for abuses including unwarranted searches, arbitrary arrests, torture and sexual violence - up from 182 in 2006.
A PRODH report published in January notes that in the last two years, an average of less than one out of 10 soldiers accused of committing crimes against civilians were brought before the military courts. No action was taken against the rest.
The report, "Commander-in-chief? The lack of civilian control over the armed forces at the start of Felipe Calderâ€”n's six-year term," states that 28 people died between 2006 and 2008 as a result of "alleged human rights violations committed by military personnel."
"Legal proceedings in the military courts are affected by a lack of transparency that has not been remedied despite the progress in that respect observed in the federal administration of justice," Miguel Granados wrote in his Tuesday column in the Reforma newspaper.
The military justice code gives the military courts jurisdiction over crimes against military discipline - a category that ranges from insubordination to rape - committed by on-duty armed forces personnel.
But if the offence is committed in complicity with civilians, the military personnel in question are automatically referred to the ordinary courts.
The judges, prosecutors and prisons making up the controversial military justice system respond to the defence ministry and, ultimately, to the president.
The system provides for sentences that are much more lax than those applied by the civilian courts.
The defence ministry's director general of human rights, General Jaime Lâ€”pez, reported on Jul. 23 that since 2006, the army has sentenced 12 members of the military for human rights violations.
But the cases all date back to over a decade ago.
The Calderâ€”n administration has been sensitive to criticism of its strategy of using the army for police work and the impact on human rights.
After meeting Sunday and Monday in a summit in the western Mexican city of Guadalajara with U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Calderâ€”n challenged his critics to reveal "one single case in which the competent authorities have not responded and punished human rights violators."
The answer came just two hours later, from the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which told him he was well-aware that such cases existed.
As a result of the accusations of human rights abuses by the military, the U.S. Senate has blocked 15 percent - equivalent to 100 million dollars - of the funds of the MÅ½rida Initiative, a 1.4-billion-dollar, three-year regional aid package to help address the increasing violence and corruption of drug cartels in Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic, launched in 2008.
The U.S. Congress mandated that 15 percent of the funds to be provided to Mexico should be withheld until the secretary of state had reported that the Mexican government had met several specific human rights conditions - including a requirement that military abuses be investigated and prosecuted by civilian rather than military authorities.
The World Organisation against Torture (OMCT) had asked the Mexican Supreme Court to consider that under international law, violations of the human rights of civilians cannot be tried by military courts, and to clearly define the limits of military jurisdiction with respect to crimes against civilians.
Since 2006, the PRODH and seven other human rights groups have been carrying out a strategy to challenge Mexico's military justice system before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which is studying three specific cases.
"The Court could have ruled in greater alignment with the international conventions signed by Mexico," said Arriaga. "Now international courts are their last resort."