Families of Mexico military abuse victims fear new security law

Families of Mexico military abuse victims fear new security law
From Al Jazeera - March 5, 2018

Mexico City - Yolanda Moran was supposed to meet her son, Dan Jeremeel Fernandez Moran, at the bus station in their hometown of Torreon, in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, on December 19, 2008.

But when she arrived, only her daughter-in-law and younger son were waiting, with news that they had not heard from Dan Jeremeel for several hours.

"It was in the time when there was a lot of violence going on in Coahuila, especially in Torreon, so I immediately got very worried," she told Al Jazeera. "We went looking for him right away, and made a report to the police."

A few weeks later, something happened that is somewhat unusual in Mexico, where about 90 percent of crimes go unsolved: an arrest was made.

Coahuila state police had discovered a man in possession of Dan Jeremeel's red Volkswagen Jetta.

The suspect, Ubaldo Gomez Fuentes, was a lieutenant in the Mexican Army, assigned to an anti-drug intelligence unit in Torreon.

He confessed to being part of a kidnapping gang - made up of soldiers and civilians - that abducted Dan Jeremeel.

But he would not say what happened to Moran's son.

More than nine years later, and still without answers, Moran and human rights groups fear that the recently passed Internal Security Law, which formally regulates the use of the military in police roles, will only lead to more cases like that of Dan Jeremeel.

Military deployed in 'war on drugs'

The soldiers who kidnapped Dan Jeremeel had beendeployedto Torreon in January 2007 to fight organised crime in the region, where violence was on the rise as the Zetas Cartel - itself founded by army deserters - tried to wrest control of Torreon from the Sinaloa Cartel, then led by "El Chapo" Guzman.

But the violence only got worse over the next few years as more soldiers were deployed in the Torreon area, according to the magazine Proceso.

Some soldiers were accused of corruption and human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention and extrajudicial executions.

In June 2007, Juan Jose Barrientos Amador, a 35-year-old taxi driver, was found dead after witnesses saw him being arrested by soldiers. The killing led to several protests in front of military installations, but no one was prosecuted, and the military refused to comment on the case.

The deployment of the military to fight crime was part of a strategy of then-President Felipe Calderon, who argued that local police were ineffective and corrupt. But complaints of human rights violations by the military quickly began piling up.

In 2008, there were more than a thousand complaints of human rights violations against the army to the National Human Rights Commission. Cases like that of Dan Jeremeel and Jose Barrientos led many to question the effectiveness of the military strategy in the so-called war on drugs.

'Things can only get worse'

Such questions reemerged late last year with the passage of the Interior Security Law.

"The army has been on the streets for 10 years, and violence has only increased," Moran said. "And now, with this Interior Security Law, which was designed by the army itself, things can only get worse."

The law, signed by President Enrique Pena Nieto last December, formalises and expands the participation of Mexico's armed forces in internal security.

The Mexican military has been fighting crime on a large scale since December 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon ordered it onto the streets to fight drug trafficking.

But until the Interior Security Law was passed, the military was operating in a state of questionable legality.

According to the Mexican Constitution, the military should only be deployed within the country in situations of foreign invasion or rebellion.

The recently-passed law provides a clear legal justification for the military to exercise police powers, the law's proponents argue.

Under the law, the president can make an "interior security declaration" when he considers that interior security is at risk, and send in the military.

The law also expands the military's ability to carry out surveillance of Mexicans and allows the military to administer its own operations, with limited oversight from state and local civilian authorities.

The passage of the law was applauded by military authorities, who had asked Congress for a legal framework for military action in the drug war. After the law was passed, Secretary of National Defence General Salvador Cienfuegosthanked Congress, saying the law will give the military the framework it needs to effectively fight drug cartels.

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