Widely praised Mexico marines commit abuses, rights group says

It was after midnight when Mexican marines burst into the Acosta home and, according to survivors, opened fire. Gustavo Acosta Jr., 30, implored the troops not to shoot; there were children in the home. He then fell dead, a shot to the head.

Later, when they had roped off the scene, the marines planted guns and drugs to justify their actions, the family contends.

The Sept. 1 shooting death of Acosta appears to be part of a growing pattern of abuse by naval special forces, a branch of the Mexican military that has won wide praise from U.S. and other officials.

Although human rights violations by the army, including the torture and killing of captives, have been well documented by numerous human rights organizations and the media, the naval forces have been held in higher esteem. With ample U.S. training, they have been regarded as an elite, more professional body that acts with the best possible intelligence.


But increasingly, marines are being hit with the same kinds of allegations that have long dogged other forces.

“These are supposedly the best prepared of the Mexican armed forces, and what we saw was exactly the opposite,” Maria Eva Lujan, Gustavo’s mother, said in a tearful interview last week.

“My son fell at my feet,” said his father, Gustavo Sr.

The Acosta shooting in this suburb of Monterrey, Mexico’s wealthiest city, is just one of scores of cases reported in recent months to human rights investigators. Many of the incidents have been concentrated in Nuevo Leon state, of which Monterrey is the capital. The city was once a refuge from the kind of violence devastating other parts of Mexico but is now a center of cartel attacks and military response.

In a comprehensive report released Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch documented 234 cases which the group says represent serious abuse by marines and other security forces in Nuevo Leon and four other Mexican states.

The 220-page report, more than a year in the making, paints a tableau of the killing, torture and sexual assault of detainees; “forced disappearances” (i.e., kidnappings where the victim never appears again); efforts by armed forces to hide their crimes by tampering with evidence; intimidation of families of victims if they complain or speak out; and virtually no serious investigations by civilian or military authorities of the allegations.

The decision by President Felipe Calderon in December 2006 to deploy troops, now numbering more than 50,000, against powerful drug cartels has not succeeded in reducing violence but instead has led to a “dramatic increase” in human rights atrocities, Human Rights Watch concludes.

The behavior by authorities has “only exacerbated the climate of violence, lawlessness, and fear that exists in many parts of the country,” the report says.

After a 2 1/2 -hour meeting with representatives of the human rights group, Calderon’s office issued a statement saying the biggest threat to Mexicans is not the government troops, but the criminals. Troops are being trained in human rights and working closely with state human rights officials, the statement said.

Representatives of the human rights group said that Calderon, in the sometimes tense meeting, agreed to examine the cases presented.

“We made him see the statistics,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the organization’s Americas section, said at a news conference Wednesday.

The Acosta family, meanwhile, has filed a formal complaint with federal authorities.

According to the family’s account, six members of the family, including a 14-year-old girl, were home that night. Most were sleeping. Gustavo Sr. had recently been operated on and could not climb stairs. He was in the tiny, first-floor living room, with Gustavo Jr., who had come from his home in Nuevo Laredo to spend a few months helping out his recovering dad.

They heard gunfire, then the marines came pounding on the door demanding to be let in and shouting about having been shot at. As Gustavo Jr. started to unlock the door, explaining that no one inside the house was armed, the marines pushed through and killed him.

“Why? Why?” moaned his father.

“Shut up!” the troops responded.

Younger brother Daniel, 20, was rushing down the stairs when he heard the shooting, just in time to see Gustavo crumple in blood. The marines seized Daniel, took him away and forced him to grasp a gun, possibly to build a case against the family by having his fingerprints on a weapon.

“They threw me to the ground and kicked me in the head,” Daniel, a student, recounted. “They kept yelling, ‘Where are the weapons?’ I kept saying, ‘What guns? We were asleep!’

“Later they said if I said anything about what happened, they would hurt my parents.”

The navy issued a short statement after the killing, saying its forces, acting on an anonymous tip, had gone to the neighborhood and come under fire.

In another case documented by Human Rights Watch, a team of naval special forces dragged Rene Jasso Maldonado, a 26-year-old taxi driver, from his home in the town of Sabinas, also in Nuevo Leon, on June 28 at about 4 a.m. He has not been seen since. His family has filed complaints in numerous government offices and searched for him in an endless chain of detention centers and military bases, to no avail.

In still another case, 26-year-old Jose Humberto Marquez was seen, and photographed by news cameras, being detained and taken away by marines who loaded him onto a helicopter in March of last year, near the Monterrey suburb of Santa Catarina. The next day, his body, wearing the same clothes seen in the news footage, showed up at the side of a road about 1 1/2 miles from the region’s main naval base.

According to an autopsy report cited by human rights investigators, he had been tortured to death, including asphyxiation, severe head contusions and “multiple trauma with diverse instruments.”

“Many people just don’t know who to fear more,” Daniel Acosta said, referring to the way both cartel henchmen and troops act in the Monterrey region and elsewhere.

After the killing of Gustavo Jr., the Acosta family moved in with nearby relatives. Their home on Daisies Street is a bullet-riddled mess, dozens of holes in the facade, through the refrigerator and in the ceiling of the second-floor bedroom.

Gustavo Sr. and Daniel return periodically, to check on things and feed their dog. Each time they go back, they light two candles on the floor where Gustavo Jr. was killed.

Gustavo’s mother has yet to go back for anything.