Civilian Victims in Mexico's Drug War

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El Debate de Sinaloa / EPA

Mexican police examine a crime scene in Novolato, Sinaloa State, Mexico. Five victims were found.

This past March, Brenda Maldonado was locking up her store in this ramshackle mountain community when machine gun fire rattled out from a nearby military checkpoint, forcing her to dive for cover. When the smoke finally cleared, the 40-year-old ventured out to view the carnage; the bodies of four young men lay lifeless in a white Hummer while the corpses of two soldiers were scattered across the road. But when troops searched the civilian victims, they found they were unarmed. The soldiers had apparently panicked at the speeding Hummer and attacked it from two sides, killing both the civilians and their own troops in the cross fire.

"These soldiers are idiots. What protection do they give us?" Maldonado asked, staring at the dirt road where the killings had taken place. "They should get out of our communities and back to their barracks."

The debacle in Santiago in Sinaloa state, a stronghold of drug traffickers, is one of a series of blunders by Mexican soldiers waging a bloody campaign against narcotics cartels — a crackdown that the U.S. Congress is looking at supporting with up to $1.6 billion. Since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and sent out 25,000 troops to take on the mafias, soldiers have killed at least 13 unarmed civilians. In the latest incident this month, soldiers shot dead two men speeding through a checkpoint in Chihuahua state along with another motorist who was unfortunate enough to be driving behind them. The public was also shocked when troops shot dead two women and three children traveling to a funeral in Sinaloa in 2007.

The outcry over the military botches comes as Mexico suffers from what could turn out to be the worst year of drug-related violence in its history. Drug gangs wielding high-powered rifles, grenade launchers and bazookas are blamed for more than 1,800 execution-style killings and beheadings since Jan. 1, including hundreds of police officers. Amid this level of bloodshed, Calderon says it would be suicide to take the soldiers away from the worst-hit areas, a position backed by the government's human rights commissioner, Jose Luis Soberanes, among others.

But Soberanes concedes there does need to be better control of the armed forces. His office has recorded hundreds of accusations of soldiers and federal police beating and torturing people in their mission to fight the cartels. In one of the most gruesome incidents, soldiers are accused of detaining four teenage girls in Michoacan state, taking them to a military base with bags over their heads and then beating and raping them for three days until they were released along with threats not to go to the authorities.

Mexico's Defense Department says it will investigate all military personnel accused of wrongdoing and has arrested 24 soldiers in civilian shootings, including five for the Santiago slayings. Those arrested are being held in military prisons waiting to be court-martialed on homicide charges. "The military will not tolerate any actions that hurt the civil population and will abide strictly by the law and respect for human rights," it said in a recent statement.

A group of U.S. lawmakers, moreover, asked that $1.6 billion aid package to help Mexico fight drug gangs be tied to guarantees by Mexico's government to work against corruption and human rights abuses. The package, called the Merida Initiative, is currently working its way through Congress and includes funding and high-tech military equipment. However, the legislators backed off after cries from Mexican officials that the demands on human rights constituted meddling by the United States, a position that has won widespread support in a nation that is especially sensitive of its sovereignty vis-a-vis its powerful northern neighbor. Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino said the conditions were "unacceptable" and that Mexico would not accept the American money if they were part of the deal. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff also chimed in, accusing the mostly Democratic lawmakers supporting the human-rights provisions of trying to scupper the initiative.

Not all Mexicans, however, have rallied round this defense of their military from the interfering gringos. Several human rights groups south of the border applauded the call for better control of the armed forces. Mercedes Murillo, a prominent human rights activist in Sinaloa, said an important first step would be for the accused soldiers to be tried in civilian courts rather than by military magistrates. "This idea that the army is cleaning out its own house is a joke," Murillo said. "Do you think there can be justice inside these same armed forces that are carrying out the atrocities?"