Killings in Mexico: Collateral damage or the result of a failed security policy?

By Erika Guevara Rosas, Directora para las Américas de Amnistía Internacional

Early in the morning on 25 March, a young couple were driving with their three daughters and niece to the border town of Nuevo Laredo when a Mexican naval helicopter opened fire on them. Caught in the middle of the hail of bullets unleashed by personnel from the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy (SEMAR), the mother and two of her daughters were killed instantly.

The authorities have deemed these deaths to be “collateral damage” resulting from a conflict that has coincided with more than 200,000 deaths in Mexico since the end of 2006. The connotation of this phrase is that there is logic to armed conflict and that frontal assault is acceptable. To mainstream the notion of collateral damage is to implicitly accept the standpoint that the armed forces play a role in public security.

Sadly, this is not an isolated case.

In the last few weeks alone, SEMAR have been under public scrutiny for their human rights violations, as well as for other irregularities. On 9 April, the national press reported corrupt practices in the payment of naval contractors. On 11 April, the media broadcasted the incident in which a 17-year-old secondary school student was injured by a stray bullet from a clash between the Navy and armed individuals in the city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas. SEMAR declined to comment on the matter. And, in the early hours of 17 April, the Navy mistakenly attacked Jalisco state police officers, once again firing from helicopters.

After the tragedy in Nuevo Laredo, the Navy published two press releases, intending to hide what had happened. First, they failed to mention the deaths of the family members and then they denied any responsibility for the incident, even before the facts had been verified. Such a response is characteristic of the secretive tone upheld by the armed forces in light of their human rights violations and highlights a modus operandi involving the constant use of lethal force and blatant disregard for international standards, with no real accountability mechanisms.

In 2014, in response to a request for public information lodged by academics from the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the Mexican Secretariat of National Defence revealed that they would no longer provide public information relating to the number of persons killed during their operations and claimed that such fact-finding fell to civil authorities, thereby denying the general public their right to information.

This policy violates international human rights standards and the Mexican armed forces’ own manual on the use of force, all of which clearly state the obligation to report the outcomes of operations, particularly if lethal force has been employed.

In addition to their lack of transparency about the events, the Navy launched a smear campaign against the victims’ relatives—something that is becoming increasingly common—and accused them of lying in order to receive financial compensation.

This is not the first time that representatives of the armed forces have discredited victims of human rights abuses, with no evidence whatsoever, solely for the sake of denying their rights to truth, justice and reparation. Over the last few years, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations have documented this recurring pattern in multiple cases.

Against this backdrop, the victims, their families and the organisations that support them have developed resistance strategies to avoid re-victimisation and further abuse of their rights. In the tragic case of Nuevo Laredo, the sheer weight of the evidence uncovered and published in the media has been undeniable, thanks to the efforts of the victims’ families and human rights defenders, especially the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee.

The active mobilisation of victims and civil society organisations has been instrumental in increasing public pressure and forcing the Mexican Office of the Prosecutor General (PGR) to carry out an inquiry into the incidents.

The PGR specialist report published on 6 April recognises that the Navy is responsible for the events that took place, but this is only the first step towards guaranteeing a thorough, independent and impartial investigation while also ensuring the victims’ rights. The investigation must identify those responsible, including officials with command responsibility, and bring them to justice in a fair trial in civil court; otherwise, this will become yet another case to be added to the country’s dismal record of impunity.

For years, Amnesty International has warned of the dire consequences that the militarization of public security policies would have on human rights. In December, Amnesty International directed an open letter to President Enrique Peña Nieto expressing concern following the approval of the Mexican Law on Internal Security (Ley de Seguridad Interior) and requesting that it be vetoed.

Dangerously, the law in question normalises the notion of “collateral damage” and other common practices in Mexico that contravene human rights, such as concealing evidence, secrecy, and even using military techniques and equipment for purposes of public security.

In light of the most recent tragedy in Nuevo Laredo, we at Amnesty International are once again reiterating our appeal to Mexican authorities to withdraw the armed forces from duties involving public security, for which officers have not been trained and for which they are not held accountable. Public security must not be a battlefield upon which, in the words of the Navy, thousands of lives are lost in an “incidental manner”.