Mexico military personnel get long terms in civilian killings

Human rights activists Friday welcomed a rare prison sentence for Mexican military personnel in the killing of civilians but said they continued to mistrust the army to prosecute its own.

The 14 soldiers and army officers were sentenced to long prison terms for the shooting deaths of five women and children at a checkpoint in the state of Sinaloa four years ago.

The Defense Ministry, in a statement on the verdict, described the shootings as “a regrettable error.” Nevertheless, a military court handed out punishments ranging from 16 to 40 years in prison plus monetary fines.

This may be the first time such stiff sentences have been imposed on military personnel in a civilian-death case, said Jose Rosario Marroquin, director of Mexico’s Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center.


“Our data indicate there have never been firm sentences,” he said. “But this is still not cause to celebrate. We persist in our demand that this type of case be heard in civilian courts.”

The number of human rights atrocities blamed on the military — including killings, torture and the forced disappearance of civilians — has soared since the start of President Felipe Calderon’s war against drug cartels five years ago. But few cases have been prosecuted.

Most are relegated to military courts where they tend to languish without resolution. Mexico’s military has been under intense pressure to show that it can mete out justice when it comes to abuses committed by its personnel.

International human rights groups, as well as the regional Inter-American Court of Human Rights, have long demanded that cases involving abuse by the military of civilians be prosecuted by civilians. In July, the Mexican Supreme Court concurred, ordering all such cases be transferred to civilian courts. But it is a slow process.

In the Sinaloa case, the family of Adan Abel Esparza was traveling in a pickup truck in June 2007 when, according to the army, they failed to stop at a military checkpoint. Soldiers opened fire on the vehicle, killing three children aged 2, 4 and 7 and two women.

It was a period when the army’s role in the drug war was still a relatively new phenomenon, and military roadblocks were often established in unexpected places.

The Defense Ministry, in its statement, said a military tribunal sentenced the officer in charge that day to 40 years in prison for homicide and related crimes; another officer received a 38-year term, while 12 soldiers were each sentenced to 16 years.

The statement was made public Thursday night and said the sentences had been handed down last week. It did not identify the military personnel by name or rank.

An estimated 45,000 troops are deployed across the country to combat powerful drug-trafficking cartels.