Ayulta; Guerrero, Mexico – Last weekend, my 14-year-old daughter, Michaela, and I were en route to Easter Sunday mass in Acapulco. We were stopped, harassed, threatened, and detained by eight soldiers in battle fatigues brandishing automatic weapons.
At first, I was merely concerned; after all, we were travelling with RFK Human Rights Award Laureate Abel Barrera and his legal team, among the brightest lawyers in Mexico. Our attorneys immediately cited four articles of the Mexican constitution that the infantry lieutenant violated.
After establishing that we were an international human rights organisation, the lieutenant responsible for the checkpoint maliciously demanded to inspect our belongings for narcotics. He raged menacingly, “I am the authority, I have the power.” At that moment, my heart stopped.
The day before I had sat in awe at the courage of José Rubio as he told us about his brother, Bonfilio, who was murdered by the Mexican military at another illegal roadblock, not unlike this one. Like tens of thousands of men and women from La Montaña, the poorest region in the poorest state of Mexico, Bonfilio had left his indigenous community intent on landing a job in the United States during the growing season.
Forty minutes after he boarded the bus on Jun. 20, 2009, infantry soldiers stopped the vehicle to search for drugs but found none; when the bus driver confronted them for the stop, they became enraged.
As the bus pulled away, the soldiers opened fire, killing Bonfilio, who had fallen asleep in the last seat. When the driver pulled to a stop, the army, seeing the corpse, decided to conduct a second search. This time, they claimed they “discovered” five bales of marijuana beneath passenger seats. They give no explanation as to how they missed the five shoebox-sized bales on the first inspection.
Over the past three years, José has been harassed and visited at home in the middle of the night by soldiers dressed in civilian clothes. He has been offered bribes, threatened with death, and pressured by family and friends who were threatened and bribed themselves, all in a campaign to get José to drop charges against the military for his brother’s wrongful death.
This is the pattern that those who seek to enforce basic human rights protections can expect in La Montaña. But, because of his extraordinary courage, José Rubio has achieved something extraordinary for his brother and his countrymen: the Rubio case is the first in which a federal court has ruled that a human rights violation committed by the military must be tried by civilian, rather than military, court.
Unfortunately, instead of accepting civilian jurisdiction, the military has appealed.
Today, Mexico faces a turning point. Will the long history of military impunity prevail? Or will the executive, judicial, and legislative branches finally live up to the promises they have made to the international community and their own citizens, and ensure that cases of military abuse of civilians are tried fairly in civilian courts?
In 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in the cases of indigenous human rights defenders Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo, who were raped and tortured by soldiers in retaliation for their community’s activism; the court stated that Mexico must try such cases in civilian court. In response, the Supreme Court of Mexico confirmed the Inter-American Court decision.
On December 9, 2011, President Calderon, along with the Attorney General, publicly stated their support of the measures.
The Rubio case is the first time that the Supreme Court and the President have had their resolve tested, and the military appears determined to maintain the status quo and act above the law.
President Calderon should make a strong and unequivocal public statement clarifying his support for civilian jurisdiction in cases of military abuse of civilians. Furthermore, he should immediately instruct the military prosecutor to stop appealing cases on jurisdictional grounds.
Mexico’s Congress should pass pending legislation that would require all cases of military abuse against civilians to be tried under civilian jurisdiction. And the President should state that he will immediately sign the legislation into law.
The Supreme Court should deny the appeal of the military and establish binding jurisprudence that all cases of military abuse against civilian will be tried in civilian courts.
Through the Mérida Initiative, the United States has supported the Mexican military’s narco-trafficking reform efforts to the tune of $1.6 billion since 2008. We should make clear that we believe that illegal road blocks, harassment, unlawful detention, and other abuses of civilian rights undermine faith in the institution of the military and are unacceptable.
On Sunday, I experienced what few leaders in Mexico’s elite know: the fear of a military that turns its power on the very people it has vowed to protect, the rage engendered when that power is challenged, and the arbitrary nature of its wrath.
The next day, Michaela and I were able to continue with our plans to visit the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Our ordeal lasted about 30 minutes, but for many Mexican human rights defenders, confronting the military does not end so well. It is time to rehabilitate the reputation of the Mexican military. Ending impunity will be the first step.
*Kerry Kenndy is president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Not for publication in México.