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September 22, 2007 - Houston Chronicle (TX)

Mexican Official Wants Army Out Of Drug War

By Dudley Althaus from Mexico City, and Dane Schiller from Houston

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

MEXICO CITY - Dealing a blow to President Felipe Calderon's campaign against organized crime, the country's top human rights official called Friday for pulling the Mexican army out of the drug war.

Jose Luis Soberanes, head of the government's National Human Rights Commission, said his investigators had confirmed cases of serious abuses by soldiers involved in the campaign, including rapes, tortures, robberies and murders.

He said the army isn't trained for the work and called for a gradual military withdrawal from what he said should be a civilian police action.

There was no immediate response from Calderon's office.

Soberanes' report outlined abuses in four locations in the last year. They include:

* A mass rape of 14 women, one of whom later miscarried, in the border state of Coahuila in retaliation for local police's brief arrest of a soldier.

* A May 2007 incident in central Michoacan state village in which soldiers seeking information about drug traffickers entered houses without warrants, tied up residents and raped two women and sexually assaulted two minors.

* Another incident following a fatal ambush of an army patrol in the same state in May in which soldiers tortured seven civilians and a child.

* A June 1 incident in which soldiers shot and killed three women and two children in a pickup that they said had failed to stop at a nighttime checkpoint on a rural road in the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa.

Soberanes said investigators found no evidence of an actual checkpoint but that the soldiers were simply camping along the road and opened fire on the truck when it passed.

"A policeman is trained to deal daily with citizens," Soberanes said, "and in necessary cases uses gradual and measured force. A soldier, because of the delicate nature of his task, is physically and mentally trained to fight enemies and obey orders."

Soberanes drew sharp criticism last spring for disagreeing with human rights officials and leftist politicians in Veracruz state who claimed that soldiers had raped and murdered a 73-year-old indigenous woman. He said his investigators had found the woman appeared to have died of ulcers.

He did not mention that case Friday.

Despite calling for the army's withdrawal, Soberanes said any pullout should be slow, because troops make up the only effective public security force in many violence-plagued areas.

Faced with underworld violence claiming hundreds of lives a year, Calderon ordered a stepped-up army offensive against drug traffickers last September. Thousands of troops were sent into Michoacan, Sinaloa and other drug producing states as well as to points along the border.

The moves have been met with overwhelmingly popular approval -- some polls report 85 percent of Mexicans favor them. Officials say the offensive has led to a sharp drop in gangland killings in recent months.

Soldiers are thought less susceptible to corruption because they can be shifted quickly from one part of the country to another and because they usually don't have family where they operate, said Pat Ward, deputy director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington.

"If you look at local law enforcement, state law enforcement, federal law enforcement and the military, you are more apt to corruption if you live there," Ward said. "That is where your family lives and where they can pull different levers to either entice you or force you down a particular path."

A study released Thursday by the U.S. General Accountability Office, Congress' audit arm, found that by 2005 as much as 90 percent of the South American cocaine reaching U.S. consumers passed through Mexico.

The amount of cocaine passing through Mexico keeps increasing, from 242 tons seven years ago to 507 tons last year, the report said.

Mexican drug cartels -- mainly four organizations -- have grown more powerful, sophisticated and violent, the report said, and they operate with "relative impunity" along the U.S-Mexico border.

"The sheer volume of this stuff coming across the southwest border is just staggering and even more so is the cash being made by these criminal organizations," said Steve Robertson, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"There is a battle here," Robertson said. "We are fighting it, and a war is only over when one side gives up."

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