The Mexican army, deployed across the nation as part of the government's campaign against drug cartels, has killed prisoners, tortured civilians and captured suspects illegally, Amnesty International said Tuesday.
In a scathing report, the human rights organization was especially critical of Mexico's civilian authorities, saying they had failed or refused to investigate or prosecute military abuses. Complaints against the military are almost entirely handled by military courts, and only a handful of cases, among thousands of denouncements, has been prosecuted.
"The abuses we have seen contribute to the deterioration of the security situation in Mexico," Kerrie Howard, deputy director of Amnesty's Americas Program, said in a statement. "By failing to take action to prevent and punish serious human rights violations the Mexican government could be seen to be complicit in these crimes."
Some human rights advocates have urged the U.S. to hold back part of its drug war aid to Mexico because of alleged abuses, but the Obama administration has declined to do so.
The report highlights five cases involving 35 people, providing what Amnesty International called a representative "panorama" of a bleak human rights record. It cited two factors that impeded a more exhaustive investigation: "unnecessary restrictions" that block publicizing complaints against military personnel or releasing pertinent information, and threats against victims and their families if they denounce abuse.
Cases cited included that of Saul Becerra, whose body was found near the violent border city of Ciudad Juarez in March. He was last seen being taken away by army troops several months earlier. Five men detained with him reported being held in the barracks of a motorized cavalry regiment and beaten and threatened for days.
In another case, 25 municipal police agents from Tijuana said they were seized by the army and held and tortured inside an infantry base for more than a month. Electrical shocks were applied to their feet and genitals, their heads were covered with plastic bags and they were beaten, they said, in an effort to exact false confessions.
In most of the cases, efforts by frantic families to find their missing relatives faced general inaction on the part of authorities, Amnesty International said.
Three men picked up by the army after dinner one night in March in the northern city of Nuevo Laredo were found burned to death about a month later. The families obtained photos and video of soldiers driving around in one of the dead men's cars.
In this case, a rarity, 12 soldiers were arrested by the army, but, Amnesty International said, because of the military's opaque justice system, it has not been possible to find out more about what happened and whether the soldiers were punished.
"Human rights violations by the members of the military are not rare, they are frequent and in some areas routine," Amnesty International said. "The failure of the civilian authorities to effectively oversee military law enforcement operations to ensure respect for human rights is a grave omission."
The government of President Felipe Calderon said it would examine Amnesty International's findings but defended its respect for human rights and noted that the army had received human rights training. The army's role in fighting drug traffickers was necessary but temporary, a government statement said, to "rescue public spaces seized by criminals."
As drug violence and the pace of killings have soared exponentially -- more than 14,000 people have died in drug-related slayings in the last three years -- so has the number of complaints filed against the army with the National Human Rights Commission: 182 in 2006 compared with 1,230 in 2008 and almost 2,000 this year.
The highest number of human rights complaints has been registered in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's deadliest city, triple this year over last, officials say. Thousands of residents of Juarez took to the streets over the weekend in a march demanding protection from both traffickers and the army. It was a rare show of united public protest against the violence engulfing the region.