Monday, October 17, 2011

Mexican Civil Society Wants President and Drug Traffickers To Face War Crimes Charges In The International Criminal Court

by Kristin Bricker, SSR Centre

The accused (from left): Public Security Secretary
Genaro García Luna, Defense Secretary Guillermo 
Galván Galván, President Felipe Calderón, and Navy 
Secretary Mariano Francisco Saynez Mendoza. 
A coalition of lawyers, academics, activists, and journalists has announced that it will seek the prosecution of President Felipe Calderón in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from his deployment of the military to battle drug trafficking organizations.  “Our petition is supported by over 20,000 signatures, both handwritten and electronic,” they said in a written statement, “making it the largest citizens’ complaint that the ICC has ever received.”

Netzai Sandoval, the lawyer who is preparing the complaint, argues that the ICC has jurisdiction in this case because Mexico is a signatory to the Rome Statute, and because the country’s drug war constitutes an “armed conflict not of an international nature.” The Rome Statute, which created the court in 2002, defines an “armed conflict not of an international nature” as “armed conflicts that take place in the territory of a State when there is protracted armed conflict between governmental authorities and organized armed groups or between such groups.”

Details of the Complaint

In addition to President Calderón, Sandoval has requested that the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor investigate Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna, Defense Secretary Guillermo Galván Galván, Navy Secretary Francisco Saynez Mendoza, drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, and “other authorities, military officials, and drug traffickers who are responsible for war crimes in Mexico.”

The Office of the Prosecutor is responsible for determining admissibility, defendants, and charges.  However, Sandoval has requested that the Prosecutor investigate both government officials and drug trafficking organizations for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  He argues that both sides of the conflict have committed murders, rape and sexual slavery, forced disappearances, physical mutilations, inhuman treatment and torture, extensive destruction of property, and attacks against the civilian population, all of which are classified as war crimes or crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute.

Sandoval notes that the Army has murdered and tortured innocent civilians at military checkpoints and during military operations.  “It has attempted to cover up these incidents in order to guarantee impunity,” argues Sandoval.  In 2010, for example, the military killed two students at the elite private university Tec de Monterrey. Soldiers planted weapons on the students’ corpses and removed their backpacks and student IDs to make them appear to be cartel gunmen.

The complaint that Sandoval will present to the ICC also details war crimes committed by criminal organizations.  It specifically mentions the massacres perpetuated by unidentified gunmen at drug rehabilitation clinics that are occurring with alarming frequency in various northern states.  Moreover, he accuses drug trafficking organizations of forcibly recruiting children under fifteen years of age, which has been demonstrated by arrests of children such as 13-year-old Edgar Jiménez Lugo, a cartel hitman who says that a drug trafficking organization kidnapped him when he was eleven and ordered him to kill or be killed.

Sandoval argues that both the government and drug trafficking organizations have committed physical mutilations.  Early in the war, drug trafficking organizations began to terrorize the civilian population by dumping tortured and mutilated bodies in public places such as in dance clubs, alongside highways, hanging from overpasses, or in front of government buildings or schools. In late 2009, the government responded in kind: the Marines killed drug kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva in his home, and then employees from the medical examiner’s office stripped him down to his underwear and covered his bullet-ridden corpse with bloody peso notes and U.S. dollar bills.  They took pictures of his semi-nude body and leaked the pictures to the press, presumably to intimidate Beltran Leyva’s criminal organization.

The complaint also accuses officials from the Mexican government’s National Immigration Institute (INM) of collaborating with drug trafficking organizations to kidnap and traffic Central American migrants who pass through Mexico on their way to the United States.  The government has admitted widespread corruption in the INM, where alarming numbers of immigration agents detain migrants and then hand them over to cartels in exchange for a fee.  The cartels themselves frequently kidnap dozens of migrants in a single raid.  The criminals detain the migrants in “safe houses” while theydemand ransoms from the migrants’ families in the United States, or they enslave the kidnapped migrants to work in fields or—in the case of women—the sex industry as prostitutes or in pornographic movies.

The Gravity Threshold

Due to its limited capacity, the ICC declines to investigate some cases in which it has compelling evidence that war crimes have occurred, but do not reach the ICC’s standard for gravity.  “Even where there is a reasonable basis to believe that a crime has been committed, this is not sufficient for the initiation of an investigation by the International Criminal Court,” wrote ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo when he declined to file charges against coalition forces for war crimes committed in Iraq. “While, in a general sense, any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court is ‘grave,’ the [Rome] Statute requires an additional threshold of gravity even where the subject-matter jurisdiction is satisfied. This assessment is necessary as the Court is faced with multiple situations involving hundreds or thousands of crimes and must select situations” in which the commission of said war crimes are “committed as a part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes.”

Migrants’ plight in Mexico might be one of the complaint’s more compelling aspects for the ICC because the crimes committed against them are so widespread.  Germán Guillermo Ramírez Garduaza, who runs the “Santa Faustina Kowalska” Migrante Shelter in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, estimates that 80% of the Centeral American women who pass through his shelter have been raped during their journey.  “They consider rape to be part of the price they pay to migrate,” explains Fermina Rodriguez of the Fray Matias de Cordova Human Rights Center in Chiapas.

The Mexican government’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) documented 214 cases of mass kidnappings of migrants in 2010 alone, with a total of 11,333 victims.  This number does not include unreported mass kidnappings, nor does it include kidnappings of small numbers of migrants, meaning that the total number of Central American migrants kidnapped in Mexico is likely much higher.

Sandoval hopes that the staggering statistics of over 50,000 deadthousands of forced disappearances, at least 230,000 displaced persons, and the appearance of severely mutilated bodies left on public display in various parts of the country on a daily basis will convince the court that high-ranking government officials and drug trafficking organizations are committing war crimes in Mexico “on a massive scale.”

Goals of an ICC Investigation

Unlike the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), which allows victims to sue State parties over a range of human rights violations, the ICC prosecutes individuals—not States—who are allegedly responsible for a very limited range of war crimes and/or crimes against humanity.  Whereas the IACtHR has the power to order States to reform laws or policies that prevent victims from obtaining justice, the ICC only seeks punitive damages, such as imprisonment or indemnity for victims.

Nonetheless, Sandoval believes that an ICC investigation could have important political implications in Mexico.  He hopes that the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor will be able to obtain confidential information regarding the military’s role in the drug war because the Mexican military has denied many Transparency Act requests on the basis of national security.  “On May 9, 2007, [Calderón] published an executive order to create an elite force called the Cuerpo de Fuerzas de Apoyo Federal [Federal Support Forces],” explained Sandoval.  “This elite unit is directly controlled by Felipe Calderón and was involved in the drug war… There is no General or other official between Calderón and those soldiers.”  Sandoval hopes that the Office of the Prosecutor will investigate the secretive Federal Support Forces for any possible human rights abuses, because domestic attempts to obtain information about their actions have been futile.  If the ICC finds that the elite unit is responsible for human rights abuses, Sandoval argues that it can hold Calderón directly responsible for their actions.

Due to the corruption and complicity with organized crime that prevails in Mexico’s security institutions, many victims never report crimes for fear of retaliation.  Mexico’s Census Bureau (INEGI) reports that in 2010, 24 percent of the Mexican population reported being the victim of a crime.  However, only 12.3 percent of them reported the crimes to the police. Of those crimes that were reported to the police, the police only investigated eight percent.

“Mexico is a country of impunity,” argues John Ackerman, a legal scholar with the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Legal Investigations Institute.  Ackerman says that bringing a case before the ICC is a way for citizens “to use legal, peaceful means to demand justice and accountability.”

Sandoval hopes that the ICC will open offices in Mexico to carry out a direct and impartial investigation into possible war crimes. “The ICC should open field offices in different parts of the country so that victims can go there and give direct testimony.”

Even though ICC investigations can drag on for years, Sandoval hopes that the complaint will pressure Mexican politicians to reform the country’s security strategy soon.  “The candidates who will compete in the 2012 presidential election should know that if they continue with a militaristic policy that covers up soldiers’ crimes, they will share Calderón’s fate,” said Sandoval.  “One would hope that they would begin to discuss a plan for the military to return to its barracks, and embark on a new strategy for confronting organized crime.”

Kristin Bricker is a Mexico-based freelance journalist who specializes in militarization, human rights, social movements and the drug war in Latin America.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Policing, Indigenous Style: Guerrero's Community Police

Photo courtesy of the Community Police:
by Kristin Bricker, The Indypendent

While the Mexican state of Guerrero is plagued by both drug war violence and police corruption, it is also home to one of the most innovative criminal justice projects in the country: the community police. In 1995, when indigenous residents of Guerrero’s Sierra Costa region could no longer tolerate the general state of lawlessness in their communities, they turned to traditional indigenous policing methods. Seventy-eight towns replaced government police with unpaid, elected community police and prison terms with community service.

While the community police have been unable to keep cartels from trafficking drugs through their territory, they have been able to minimize the violent crime that is often associated with the industry. The community police claim that over the past 16 years they have reduced crime in their region by 98 percent.

“There’s hardly any robbery, rape, or violence. The criminals fled the area, because they know that the community will sentence them to five, seven, eleven years of community service,” explains Emilio, a community police officer. “With the government, if they arrest you, they’ll let you go the next day if you pay them. We don’t accept bribes. Here, you work hard every day, and every night you return to jail. And you always serve out your sentence. You think [criminals] want to wind up like that? No.”

The community police have an immediate response protocol for kidnappings that involves the entire community, not just the police. “One time the narcos kidnapped two community police officers,” recounts Emilio. The community police mobilized the entire town to save the kidnapped officers. “We organized checkpoints on all of the highways out of town, and we patrolled the city. The narcos got nervous, so the next day they freed them.”

The community police sent a commission to Acapulco with a message to the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity: “We hope that our experience … will be part of your struggle. There is no other way to confront violence than with collective organization.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

Inside Mexico’s Peace Movement

by Kristin Bricker, The Indypendent

Photo by Santiago Navarro F.
On Sept. 10, thousands of people marched through the besieged resort town of Acapulco to greet the Caravan for Peace with Dignity and Justice led by Javier Sicilia, a poet who ignited a nationwide movement against drug war violence this spring after his son was murdered.

In recent years, Acapulco has endured a plague of violence — beheadings, massacres of tourists, kidnapping of schoolchildren and demands from criminal gangs that teachers pay 50 percent of their salaries as protection money. In the vast majority of the cases, no one has been charged with these crimes.

Armed with signs and T-shirts that said “No more violence,” “Stop kidnappings and crime,” and “No more militarization, we want education,” locals faced down their fear of being identified by halcones or cartel spies, and marched for peace.
“They asked me if I was afraid to participate,” said Yuridia Betancourt, whose son Christian Obeth was kidnapped on March 19. “I’m panicked. But I’m more afraid to stay at home with my arms crossed.”

However, moments after the peace march swept by Zaragoza Street, several blocks from the central plaza where the marchers rallied, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Antelmo Petatan Vasquez in his taxi in broad daylight, a fate shared by a growing number of cabbies who are often suspected of working as informants for the cartels or are forced to pay them “quotas” in exchange for the right to work. Petatan Vasquez was one of eight people murdered that day in Acapulco; three were killed during the march.

Petatan Vasquez’s killing marked another in the more than 40,000 deaths that have occurred in Mexico since conservative President Felipe Calderón escalated the government’s war on drug cartels in January 2007. It also underscored the challenges faced by Sicilia and the antiwar movement as it ventured into southern Mexico for the first time, hoping to build on earlier momentum.

Breaking the Fear

Rural and mountainous, southern Mexico is more impoverished and has a much greater percentage of indigenous peoples than the northern part of the country. And while southern Mexico generally has less violent crime than northern states, organized crime and government security forces are victimizing certain sectors of the population at alarming rates.
Located several hundred miles southwest of Mexico City, the state of Guerrero bore the brunt of a government counter-insurgency campaign against leftist guerrillas from the 1960s to 1980s. The Guerra Sucia (or, “Dirty War”) carried out by the army and its paramilitary allies officially ended almost three decades ago. Nowadays, Guerrero residents are suffering some of the worst abuses of the drug war, as, the military remained in Guerrero and a climate of government corruption has assured that crimes committed against locals are almost never punished.

“The Dirty War never ended in Guerrero,” argues Rosario Cabañas, the niece of Guerrero school teacher and guerrilla leader Lucio Cabañas who was killed in 1974. “Unfortunately, thanks to [the Dirty War], peace and justice were lost. For 40 years, there has been impunity and injustice.”

Calderón’s militarized response disrupted drug trafficking routes and the cartels began to battle for control of Guerrero, which includes the coastal enclave of Acapulco. Residents found themselves caught in the middle. Unsurprisingly, the conflation of political and criminal violence gave birth in Guerrero to Mexico’s first narco-paramilitary organization, the “Liberator of the People Army” led by local political boss Rogaciano Alba.

Sharing Stories

Composed of 15 buses carrying more than 700 activists, journalists and family members of victims, the caravan rolled through 19 towns and cities in seven states over 10 days in mid-September. At every stop, caravaneros and locals marched for peace. The marches always ended in rallies where drug war victims from the north shared the stage with local victims to tell the world about how they have suffered in the so-called “war on organized crime.” At each stop, Sicilia’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity collected complaints about violence and human rights abuses, just as they had done in the north.

Mexico’s drug cartels were significantly strengthened in the early 1990s as junior partners to their counterparts in Colombia who were finding it increasingly difficult to ship cocaine to the United States through the Caribbean. In recent years, thanks in large part to the Colombian cartels’ decreased control over shipping routes, the Mexican cartels have become fully diversified organized crime syndicates and have expanded into new areas such as kidnapping, extortion, prostitution and human trafficking.

Approximately 40 Central American migrants traveled with the Peace Caravan, calling attention to how the cartels frequently prey on immigrants.

Mexico’s harsh U.S.-backed immigration laws force the hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants who enter Mexico each year to travel clandestinely, which puts them at great risk of being kidnapped by organized crime, caravan participants explained. When migrants are detained by authorities, they are sometimes handed over to criminal groups for a bribe.

During the caravan, the Central American migrants described how the gangs take people like themselves to safe houses where they are forced to call their families or friends in the United States and hold the telephone in their hands while the criminals torture them into begging their families for ransom money: “I saw them cut off a 14-year-old boy’s finger while his father was listening on the phone,” said one Salvadoran immigrant who says that he, too, was tortured.

Female immigrants are sometimes forced into prostitution or made to perform in pornographic movies. German Guillermo Ramirez Garduaza of the “Santa Faustina Kowalska” migrant shelter in Veracruz estimates that 80 percent of female Central American migrants are raped in Mexico.

Danira Meléndez, a Honduran migrant, recalled how her coyote (paid guide) demanded that she have sex with him. “He told me, ‘Here, I’m just one man. But I work with the Zetas, and if I turn you over to them, it’ll be 15 or 20 men raping you,’” Meléndez recounted. “We know that female migrants are easy sexual merchandise for organized crime.”

A Militant Tradition

Before the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity emerged, drug war victims were terrified, isolated and silent. On the two caravans, victims learned public speaking skills and how to organize protests and press conferences and hold more effective meetings with public officials. Now that the caravans are over, the victims will return to their communities, most of which now have local antiwar committees. Whereas before drug war victims were shunned, now they are in a position to become community leaders.

Citing lower turnouts at Peace Caravan events in the south, the Mexican media have portrayed the antiwar movement as losing support. However, this does not take into account the fact that the south has experienced less drug war violence than the north and in places that have been hard hit — like Guerrero and Veracruz — thousands of people turned out to protest the war. Moreover, the south has a long tradition of militant grassroots organizing (see sidebar) and resistance to military occupation that most of the north lacks. Whereas most northern drug war victims are just beginning to organize and define their politics, southern drug war victims are joining experienced organizations and hitting the ground running.
If southern organizations continue to collaborate with Sicilia’s national movement, they will likely provide a counterweight to Sicilia’s strong focus on engagement with authorities, which has included meeting with leaders of all three branches of a government that is widely seen as being complicit in the drug trade it claims to be fighting.

“We still don’t understand why they dedicate so much energy and effort to dialogue with a political class that long ago lost all will to govern and is nothing more than a gang of criminals,” the Zapatistas’ Subcomandante Marcos recently wrote, reflecting the sentiment of many groups in the south.

Mexico holds presidential and congressional elections next year. It remains to be seen how the budding anti-war movement will affect the electoral process. Ultimately, the country’s future depends on whether Mexico’s civil society can be mobilized to cleanse the state of a culture of corruption and impunity that exists at all levels of government.

Kristin Bricker is a Mexico-based freelance journalist covering militarization, social movements and the drug war in Latin America. She blogs at