Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s most enduring legacy may well turn out to be the death toll from his country’s bloody drug war. Since 2006, some 45,000 civilians have died, and the body count continues to rise. The homicide rate increased by more than 260% between 2007 and 2010. And a new report by Human Rights Watch indicates that drug cartels and organized crime aren’t solely responsible for the bloodletting. The military, deployed to protect civilians, may have caused many of their deaths, according to the group’s study.
The report is just the latest reminder that Calderon’s security strategy, including his decision to deploy more than 50,000 soldiers against the cartels, hasn’t reduced violence, and may in fact be fueling it.
Mexico’s troubles have no easy fix. Poverty, corruption and weak rule of law are all part of the problem. So are extrajudicial killings and other abuses by the government and the military, according to the report. If Calderon intends to push forward with his military strategy — and he shows no sign of changing course — then he ought to, at the very least, implement some safeguards to address the abuses taking place at the hands of authorities. Judicial reforms would be a good place to begin. His administration took a promising step forward earlier this year when it appointed Marisela Morales to serve as attorney general. A former prosecutor who had led a unit dedicated to fighting organized crime, she has since fired dozens of federal prosecutors and moved to clean up corruption in the office.
But much more remains to be done. Most of the constitutional reforms approved on paper in 2008 remain on paper. That includes a call to move away from an “inquisitorial” legal system to an “adversarial” model in which defendants and victims can challenge evidence in open court. And calls for overhauling investigations of alleged human rights abuses have gone unanswered. Currently, only cases of torture, rape and enforced disappearance are handled by civilian prosecutors. Military investigators oversee all other prosecutions of abuse, including those involving extrajudicial killings. That has led to concern that investigations of soldiers accused of shooting civilians won’t be impartial and will lack accountability.
The United States, which has pledged more than $1.6 billion since 2007 to assist Mexico in fighting drug cartels and criminal gangs, can help. The Obama administration ought to urge Calderon to focus on strengthening Mexico’s judicial system and encourage his government to adopt reforms.