Mexico closer to banning military trials of human rights abuse

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional a section of military law that allowed soldiers accused of abusing civilians to be tried in front of military tribunals, a practice opposed by human rights advocates.

In an 8-2 decision Tuesday, the court cited an article of the Mexican Constitution that states that military courts should “in no case and for no reason” have jurisdiction over civilians. Judge Arturo Zaldivar stated that military courts should be “restricted to offenses committed by military personnel who threaten the military order — that is, against military discipline.”

The ruling brings Mexico a significant step closer to ensuring that human rights abuse cases against soldiers are no longer tried in a military system that critics describe as a kind of judicial black hole with little civilian oversight, court observers and human rights advocates said. The ruling does not set a binding precedent: The court will need to issue similar rulings in four other cases for that to happen.


The issue is of paramount importance in Mexico, where the military has been called upon to prosecute the war against the nation’s powerful criminal drug cartels. One unsettling result has been a deluge of abuse allegations, although few suspect soldiers have been prosecuted. A recent Human Rights Watch investigation found that of 5,000 civilian abuse investigations opened by the military prosecutor’s office between 2007 and April 2012, only 38 military personnel have been sentenced.

The high court’s decision is one of a series of recent rulings that appear to indicate the court is moving in the direction of civilian court jurisdiction of human rights cases — although the Mexican civilian courts hardly offer a guarantee that justice will be served. About 2% of reported crimes in the country lead to a conviction.

The ruling stemmed from a complaint brought by the family of a man in Guerrero state who was fatally shot at a military checkpoint in 2009 while riding in a bus. Military authorities originally said the bus refused to stop for the soldiers and that they fired warning shots in the air. But four soldiers at the checkpoint later said the bus had indeed stopped and that soldiers had, in fact, fired on the bus.

The case was handed over to a military court, which charged one soldier with manslaughter. In June 2011, the family of the dead man, 29-year-old Bonfilio Rubio Villegas, filed a complaint challenging the military’s jurisdiction of the case, which, like others, was kicked to the military court system under a section of the military code, which asserts, in essence, that disciplinary matters involving the armed forces should be handled internally.

Victims’ advocates like Santiago A. Canton of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights say the court decisions “are putting an end to Mexico’s military justice system that has served to conceal wrongdoing and protect perpetrators of grave abuses, including cases of rape, torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.”

Nik Steinberg, Mexico researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that despite the flaws in the civilian system, the court’s direction “does offer victims hope that they could have a process where the military will be held accountable for abuses — which in the military justice system is almost impossible.”