Human rights advocates in Mexico today are celebrating a big win: On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that members of the armed forces who are implicated in abuses during their duty will have to face trial in civilian (not military) courts. That might seem a detail in any other context, but in the ongoing conflict, it’s increasingly believed that the armed forces are implicated in at least some of the deadly violence sweeping this country. Now, victims’ families can take their cases to court.
One of the most troubling aspects of this conflict, as I wrote yesterday in The Atlantic, is that the victims and the perpetrators are often anonymous. Homicides are rarely investigated seriously, nor are kidnappings or disappearances. But many victims’ families, including several I spoke with personally, had gathered their own evidence to support the idea that their loved ones were killed or kidnapped by the military or police. The country’s Human Rights Commission, for example, has noted some 5,000 pending complaints against members of the armed forces lodged since 2006.
Yet during the last five years of this conflict -- as well as in previous period of political violence in Mexico’s history -- crimes committed by members of the military were tried in the privacy of military tribunals, where human rights advocates argue that offenders were either judged too leniently or were simply never taken to trial at all. Victims’ families had no power to push a case forward; the decision to launch proceedings depended entirely on the armed forces.
When I met with numerous human rights groups in the country last month, they all named ending military jurisdiction as one of their major demand of the government. “We have to eliminate the extensive use of military justice,” argued Silvano Cantú, researchers at the Mexican Center for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.
In fact, human rights groups have been pushing for this literally for decades – since 1974 to be exact, when an activist named Rosendo Radilla Pacheco disappeared at the hands of the military. The disappearance was one of countless more like it that took place during the country’s guerra sucia. Radilla’s family has worked ever since to demand justice—and also ensure that this case became a precedent for accountability within the Mexican armed forces. In 2009, when the case came before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the justices ruled that the Mexican state should undertake a full investigation and prosecution, provide compensation to the family, and amend its military code to ensure that future abuses were dealt with effectively.
The ruling on Tuesday comes from that same case, which made its way up to the Supreme Court. Justices voted unanimously that, “in situations involving the violation of the human rights of civilians, under no circumstances may a process be undertaken under military jurisdiction.”
For victims’ families, that opens a new door to finding justice for their losses.