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The executions in Nuevo Laredo must be a watershed moment for ending human rights violations in Mexico

August 28, 2020

Arturo Garza, a 19-year-old engineering student and baseball aficionado, left home to visit his girlfriend on the night of Saturday 27 June. It was the last time his family would see him alive.

The next day they looked for him all over Nuevo Laredo, a border town in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. They reported his disappearance to the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Missing or Abducted Persons, but it was not until 3 July that they learned of a shootout between the Mexican Army and a group of alleged criminals, in which 12 men died. 

A video published by El Universal this week revealed how soldiers relentlessly pursued a pickup truck, hitting it with at least 243 shots. At the end of the video, a soldier approaches the back of the truck and shouts: “He’s alive!” Another responds with the order: “Kill the fucker”. 

Lying in the back of the truck was Arturo, next to Ángel Nuñez, a 27-year-old mechanic who had disappeared on 27 June, and Damián Genovez Tercero, an 18-year-old migrant from Chiapas, who had not been seen since 24 June when he went out to look for work with his cousin Alejandro Tercero, who remains missing.  

All three had been shot dead, but unlike the others killed in the shootout they were not carrying weapons or wearing uniforms and had been bound by their hands and feet. The evidence suggests that they had been abducted by a criminal gang and that the soldiers illegally executed them. 

“My son didn’t deserve this kind of death,” said Hector Garza, Arturo’s father. “I wouldn’t wish this on any other parent, it’s too much pain, it tears at my heart and the truth is I feel betrayed by Mexico.” 

Unfortunately, these were not isolated events. Amnesty International and the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee have been denouncing grave human rights violations in Mexico and in the state of Tamaulipas for decades, often at the hands of the armed forces. 

The militarized public security strategy of successive governments, combined with rampant impunity, has created a lethal environment in which the Army and Navy continue to commit crimes under international law, such as extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, in Tamaulipas and many parts of the country.  

We have seen how the authorities often blame the victims, portraying them as hitmen or members of organized crime. In many cases they treat their families with contempt and tell them they have no right to seek justice. Criminals must be brought to justice in accordance with the law, and victims must be protected, not criminalized, nor have their lives put at risk. 

Impunity is a key factor. The Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee has documented dozens of cases of probable extrajudicial executions in recent years, but the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office has not prosecuted a single one. It seems that no amount of evidence is ever enough to bring about justice. 

In this case, as in all others, the authorities must promptly carry out an independent, impartial and exhaustive investigation to clarify the facts and bring to justice any member of the armed forces suspected of criminal responsibility. They cannot continue to deny the rights of the victims and their families to truth, justice and reparation for the damage done.  

A year ago, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador stated: “No one is authorized to execute, to finish off the wounded, or to massacre. The Army and the Navy are making a great effort and acting with great responsibility, and I would also say with conviction, to regulate the use of force and not to violate human rights.” 

These events suggest the opposite is true. This painful incident must be a watershed moment for the government and the armed forces to reflect deeply and accept their mistakes. Mexico is sick and tired of violence and at this point words are not enough. It is time to act. 

To end the crimes committed by the armed forces, the government must reconsider their role and that of the new de facto military body, the National Guard, and place human rights at the center of its public security strategy. The authorities must carry out a complete overhaul of the protocols for action and the use of force by the armed forces, as well as the treatment of victims and the provision of justice in Mexico.  

We must also consider members of the armed forces’ mental health and the dehumanization and emotional trauma they suffer. They are worn out after years of violent confrontations and years of carrying out public security tasks for which they were not properly trained. This environment is conducive to these grave human rights violations. 

We cannot continue down this path, repeating the same horror stories like that of Arturo, Ángel and Damián. We need a Mexico where the authorities rescue victims, protect the population and respect human rights.  

This op-ed was coauthored by Raymundo Ramos, president of the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee, and was published in El País 

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