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Army needs oversight, Human Rights Watch says

Crime, Law and JusticeJuvenile DelinquencyMexicoPoliticsCrimeHuman RightsSocial Issues

Gunmen ambush a military patrol pursuing drug traffickers. The soldiers retaliate, rounding up dozens of townspeople. Four girls held for 20 hours later tell prosecutors that soldiers repeatedly raped and abused them.

The case, from exactly two years ago in the state of Michoacan, is one of 17 allegations of serious human rights abuse by the Mexican army, including torture and murder, detailed in a major report released Wednesday by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch that accuses Mexico of failing to hold its soldiers accountable.

As the military is increasingly used in Mexico to fight drug traffickers, placing it in the nontraditional role of enforcing law and order, the number of allegations has soared. But in every case, the military is allowed to investigate its own alleged wrongdoing, and soldiers and officers are never brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said.

"That is obviously a dysfunctional justice system," the group's executive director, Kenneth Roth, said during a news conference at the Diego Rivera Mural Museum. "It is broken."

Roth called on President Felipe Calderon to move such military cases into the civilian justice system as the only way to "end impunity."

The 76-page report described cases involving 70 victims. Most occurred in 2007 and 2008, a period when abuse complaints filed with Mexico's National Human Rights Commission tripled. It was in December 2006 that Calderon, upon taking office, launched the army against powerful and well-armed drug gangs operating throughout the country.

Human Rights Watch said it understood the use of the army and was not challenging that move by the government. It is the employment of the army in civilian functions like law enforcement that bolsters the case for civilian oversight, the group said.

"A military that is not bound by law contributes to a culture of lawlessness," Roth said. "It is impossible to rein in organized crime if those fighting it are also flouting the law."

The Human Rights Watch delegation met with senior Mexican officials, including Atty. Gen. Eduardo Medina Mora and Interior Secretary Fernando Gomez Mont.

In a statement, the government said that it would study the report but that it has "maintained a clear commitment to the promotion of and respect for human rights." Because of existing laws and the constitution, the statement added, "no public servant, including those in the armed forces, enjoys impunity."

wilkinson@latimes.com

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