Supreme Court Rules That Civilian Courts Must Have Jurisdiction in Cases Involving Military Violations of Human Rights

Article excerpt

Mexico's high court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nacion, SCJN) made what many consider a historic decision by ruling that civilian courts must have jurisdiction in trials of military personnel charged with torture, extra-judicial killings, and other serious human rights violations. The court's decision is compatible with similar efforts by the executive and legislative branches. In November 2010, President Felipe Calderon sent an initiative to the Senate to amend Mexico's military code to allow civilian courts to judge military personnel in cases of human rights violations SourceMex, Nov. 3, 2010.

The SCJN's unanimous decision, handed down on July 12, represents a radical change in the legal treatment of military personnel. For decades, Mexico allowed its armed forces to act with impunity, and any human rights violations were either swept under the rug or did not come to light because the victims were afraid of retribution or did not think their complaints would be heard. In many cases, active or retired members of the armed forces or the police acted as enforcers for local bosses or politicians, employing torture and other brutal methods to suppress dissent SourceMex, Aug. 7, 1991, Aug. 13, 1997 and Oct. 16, 2006.

The Mexican armed forces already had a bad reputation with the public, with soldiers participating in crackdowns of student demonstrations in Tlatelolco in 1968 SourceMex, Feb. 6, 2002 .

In the face of constant criticism from international human rights organizations, some Mexican leaders like ex-President Vicente Fox pledged to eradicate torture SourceMex, March 7, 2001. And the Mexican Congress made minor changes, such as giving the semi-independent human rights commission (Comision Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) greater powers SourceMex, Oct. 7, 1998 and Nov. 17, 1999. These efforts did not amount to much, as complaints of human rights violations by the military continued SourceMex, Nov. 15, 2006.

Scrutiny of the armed forces increased when Calderon launched his intense effort in 2006 to fight drug traffickers with units from the Army and the Navy SourceMex, Jan. 24, 2007 . In their zeal to go after the drug traffickers, military personnel acted with impunity in the communities where they were assigned, often violating the rights of innocent civilians through torture, rape, arbitrary arrests, and murder SourceMex, Feb. 20, 2008 and July 16, 2008. Some human rights advocates, including the international organization Human Rights Watch (HRW), say complaints about military violations of human rights increased significantly during Calderon's drug-interdiction campaign SourceMex, Aug. 12, 2009.

Calderon is quick to acknowledge that the drug-interdiction war has led to human rights violations by the military, but he also points out that the drug cartels have committed worse offenses. "[Organized crime] has become the main threat to human rights in our country," said the president. "It is these criminals, and not the state, who are attacking journalists, activists, migrants, and honest citizens in Mexico and Latin America."

The SCJN's decision will bring an important change: high-level officials at the Secretaria de la Defensa Nacional (SEDENA) and other entities will no longer be able to interfere with the judicial process. Under established practice, the defense secretary had the prerogative to order the removal of judges deemed not friendly to the military. Or in some cases, the judges surrendered their independence to remain in the good graces of the political powerbrokers.

"Eager to remain on good terms with their de facto bosses, judges often appeared to bury cases that would reflect poorly on the military," said The Christian Science Monitor. "As a result, critics say, convictions were exceedingly rare, even in cases that appeared straightforward."

International tribunals influenced SCJN decision

Chief Justice Juan Silva Meza, in his summary of the SCJN's decision, said the ruling would bring Mexico closer to the goal of "becoming a nation where human rights are truly respected. …