“Collateral damage” grows in Mexico’s army-led drug war
I heard the bursts of gunfire near my house in Monterrey as I was showering this morning. Then the ambulance sirens started wailing, and as I drove my kids to school about 20 minutes later, a convoy of green-clad soldiers, their assault rifles at the ready, sped by us. In northern Mexico, where I cover the drug war, it has become a part of life to read about, hear and even witness shootouts, but today I shuddered at the thought: what if those soldiers accidentally ever shot at me?
It was in February 2007 that Amnesty International raised concerns over Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s decision, two months earlier, to send thousands of troops across the country to control Mexico’s spiraling drug violence. Echoing worries voiced by the United Nations, the rights group warned that sending the army onto Mexican streets to do the job of the police was a bad idea. Even individual soldiers have commented to Reuters, off the record of course, that they feel very uncomfortable about their new role.
Back then, when there was still plenty of optimism about winning the war against drug cartels, many Mexicans brushed off concerns of rights abuses and the possible deaths of innocent bystanders. Washington praised Calderon for his bold move.
But almost four years on, it would seem Amnesty, the U.N. and a host of other rights groups were right. For the family of slain architect Fernando Osorio, who was shot dead by soldiers who mistook him for a hitman late last month, they were certainly right. Fernando, 34, was killed on the outskirts of Monterrey, Mexico’s richest city, as he worked on a piece of land soon due to become a housing development. “The army is committing atrocities, they destroyed my family today,” Fernando’s father Oswaldo Osorio told reporters on Oct. 28.
In another tragedy a month before, four soldiers opened fire on a family traveling in their SUV along a highway outside of Monterrey, killing a 15-year-old boy and his father. Two students at Monterrey’s prestigious Tecnologico university were killed just outside the campus by soldiers earlier this year. Sadly, the list goes on.
The army occasionally apologizes. But for the Osorio family, little has been made clear. The army at first tried to justify their actions by saying Fernando was a drug hitman. The family found out what was going on from local media and from those working with Fernando on site. “It made the whole thing so much more painful,” his brother David told Reuters at the family home in suburban Monterrey. “If the army had come to us and said they were sorry and clarified things, well we might be able to understand that they are fighting a difficult battle. But right now, we don’t even know how to get Fernando’s belongings back (from the crime scene),” he said.
The government last month proposed a bill to force soldiers to face civilian trials for some offenses. The only problem is that it will not apply to killings by soldiers.
Calderon has always said the army’s role is temporary, a tactic to buy time while he reforms Mexico’s municipal, state and federal police forces. The army is generally seen as less corrupt than Mexico’s police, although they are not immune to bribes from drug gangs.
Police officers are ill-equipped, sometimes lacking even patrol car radios and gasoline. They are ill-paid, sometimes earning as little at $320 a month, and prone to corruption and infiltration by the drug cartels who use them as freelance hitmen, lookouts and bodyguards. The United States is offering help, training agents both in Mexico and north of the border. The federal police has grown to more than 30,000 agents under Calderon, from just a few thousand when he took office.
But little real progress has been made in modernizing Mexico’s police as a whole, and politicians at all levels of government seem incapable of bringing about change. Promises to improve police pay in wealthy Monterrey, for instance, have come to nothing. Calderon’s initiative to create a national police force was knocked down by political rivals. His latest plan to unify thousands of municipal cops under the command of state governors, rather than local mayors, is again been watered down by Congress, risking a confusion in which no one knows who is in control.
Calderon put the army on the streets was when the drug war death toll stood at 2,000 in 2006. Now it has reached more than 31,000 dead. The “collateral deaths” of civilians will continue until the army is back in their barracks.