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The questionable role of the Mexican armed forces

Mexico holds its armed forces in the lowest possible regard, due to the abuse of civilians by soldiers documented for over forty years.

Jesús Rodríguez Montes

The military’s participation in the so-called ‘Dirty War’ of the seventies is often regarded as a key moment in the beginning of the country’s distrust of the military. Incidences of serious violence carried out by the Armed Forces at the time lead to the emergence of social movements from the south of the country.

The Army carried out counter-insurgency operations in indigenous communities and urban areas where it was detected that protection had been given to leaders of the movements.

A report published by Mexico’s Special Prosecutor for Social and Political Movements of the Past (Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasado – FEMOSPP) in the magazine Emmeequis on 4 February 2010 revealed that the Army had unleashed violence in a manner of ways, including torture, kidnappings and murders.

“Facial disfigurements, third degree burns, forced ingestion of petrol, the breaking of bones, stabbing the soles of their feet, electric shocks, tying them up by their testicles and hanging them”.

“Inserting glass bottles into women’s vaginas and subjecting them to humiliation, inserting hoses into the anuses of the men to pump them full of water and then hitting them.”

Over the years the Secretary of Defence and federal governments have sought to clean up the image of the Armed Forces, especially since the events of 2006 during which soldiers took to the streets to combat major drug-trafficking gangs.

However, despite the government’s intentions, in Mexico the Army retains its title as the institution which has received the greatest number of complaints about it over the last five years, as demonstrated in a report by the National Human Rights Commission.

The group states that since 1 December 2006 when President Calderón declared war against the gangs and organised crime) until 31 December 2009, complaints against the Army have gone up some 300%.

Complaints made to the National Defence Secretary regarding serious human rights violations have also gone up 400%.

In the spotlight

This year has seen the launch of campaigns by both civil organisations and ordinary citizens to end the immunity of the Army and promote changes in Mexican law, which would see those who commit crimes against civilians being subject to the justice system of ordinary tribunals.

The month of August has proved important for the campaign. For the first time in the Supreme Court of Justice magistrates are discussing judicial actions for the abuse caused by soldiers

Essentially, they seek to bring members of the Armed Forces in front of civil tribunals and end this culture of their crimes continuing to go unpunished; limiting the jurisdiction the military feels entitled to.

The Bonofilio case

Among the 28 cases brought before the highest court of the country is the story of Bonofilio Rubio Villegas, an indigenous Náuhatl from the southern town of La Montaña de Guerrero who was murdered by a military patrol in Huamuxtitlán on 20 June 2009.

As a reporter I followed the case closely. I spoke with witnesses and the victim’s relatives who told me of how the soldiers, with no clear justification, had opened fire on Bonofilio that day.

On 20 June, at 10.30pm, the bus he was travelling on was pulled over by a patrol of around 30 soldiers on the road between Tlapa and Puebla.

One of the soldiers boarded the bus and informed the passengers that there would be a ‘routine check’. Men were asked to get off the bus, while the women stayed in their seats. All this took some fifteen minutes.

On board, a soldier took charge of a close inspection of all luggages, while on the road side other soldiers checked passengers. The inspection concluded without further incident.

The soldier in charge indicated to the conductor that he could continue, but that passenger Fausto Saavedra Valera, an indigenous man from Metlatónoc, was to stay as the shoes he was wearing were not suitable for civilian use which constitutes a crime in Mexico.

The driver, Francisco Pizano, and the other passengers made it clear they disagreed with the soldiers’ decision. Pizano asked the patrol chief to sign a document confirming that the Army had the indigenous man, in doing so justifying his absence from the company.

The patrol chief refused. Insults were exchanged until another soldier intervened and the conductor decided to return to his bus and drive off, however, not before commenting to the patrol that the detention of the indigenous man was an injustice.

Seconds later, the patrol chief blew his whistle and ordered the bus to turn back. The conductor ignored him. The bus had not gone further than a hundred metres when the sound of machine guns was heard from another patrol further down the road.

The shots were aimed at the bus and caught in the crossfire was Bonfilio Rubio Villegas, who died instantly.

Two days later the Mexican Army offered their official version of the events, underlining the key moments that had lead to Bonfilio’s death: firstly, the reason the soldiers had opened fire was the driver’s direct refusal to stop even when ordered to by the army, and secondly, that on inspection of the bus 10 grams of marijuana had been found.

However, according to the driver-who along with the passenger wearing the incorrect shoes was detained for two days with no justifiable reason- the drugs had been planted on the bus by the soldiers as an excuse for the shooting.

Since then, Bonofilio’s family has been fighting for the soldiers responsible for his death to be brought to justice.

(Translated by Rachel Eadie – Email:

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