Mexico: Arrival of UN Special Rapporteur puts spotlight on torture and impunity

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 20 April to 26 April 2014.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Torture, Juan Méndez, arrived in Mexico to begin an investigation into the country’s penal reforms and other aspects of the country’s law enforcement and justice systems. His visit is expected to last until May 2.

Despite thousands of reports of torture committed by Mexican security forces over the past decade, not a single person has been found guilty of the crime. A report presented to Méndez claimed that “despite [the Attorney General’s office] having found evidence of torture in 128 cases, there were no convictions.” The Attorney General’s office confirmed that from 2002 to 2012 there were only 39 preliminary investigations into torture and that no criminal proceedings or warrants were issued.

Earlier this month, Enrique Hernández, the leader of an autodefensa in Yrécaro, Michoacán was arrested along with 18 others on suspicion of involvement in the murder of Gustavo Garibay, the Mayor of Tanhuato. The State Human Rights Commission in Michoacán said that Hernández had sustained injuries consistent with his claims that he was tortured by the police.

Mexico’s Senate unanimously approved legislation that would allow military personnel accused of crimes against civilians to be tried in civilian rather than military courts. The legislation still has to be approved by the lower house, but it is widely considered a step in the right direction. A study from the Wilson Center released last month concluded that 90% of Mexican citizens feel they cannot trust the police. This lack of trust likely contributed to the rise of vigilante self-defense groups known as autodefensas, which are proving to be a major security challenge for the government.

Michoacán Federal Safety Commissioner Alfredo Castillo said that 44 “pseudoautodefensas” were arrested. Those who were detained were allegedly linked to organized crime groups, but were attempting to pass themselves off as members of the self-defense forces.

Federal police and military intelligence documents obtained by Proceso show that the government believes many autodefensas are infiltrated by criminal groups, something a number of observers have long suspected. Documents the magazine reported on last week indicated that the low-profile leader of a self-defense force in Michoacán, Miguel Ángel Gallegos Godoy (alias “El Migueladas”), is “the real boss” of the Knights Templar organization.

Following an agreement reached by leaders of the self-defense groups and the government last week, Castillo announced that the process of disarming unregistered autodefensas in Michoacán will begin on Monday. For more on the agreement, see our previous post.


97 police in Michoacán were fired this week for failing confidence exams.

Mexico’s public safety agency reported a continuation in an upward trend of serious crimes, including homicides, kidnappings and violent robberies. A new report from the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security modified homicide statistics from Veracruz state to account for 299 previously-unreported murders. The report also noted that kidnappings in Veracruz increased by 51% over the first quarter of 2013.

According to business groups in Monterrey, extortion in the area rose by 49% year-over-year in the first quarter of 2014.

Mexico has experienced a dramatic increase in domestic heroin consumption, likely due to increased production of the drug in that country. Farmers who previously grew marijuana appear to be replacing cannabis crops with opium poppies, potentially in response to a price drop in the marijuana market.

The Director General of Mexico’s National System for the Comprehensive Development of the Family, Laura Vargas, said that according to a study by the UN, nearly 70,000 children in Mexico have been victims of sex trafficking.

The government closed a saw mill and a steel plant in Michoacán that allegedly belonged to organized criminal groups.

The arrests of the two highest-level members of the Los Rojos gang, Antonio Reina Castillo and Ismael Castillo Marino, earlier this month probably won’t ameliorate the ongoing violence in Guerrero state, where the group is based. Los Rojos are one of several groups that grew out of the Beltran Leyva Organization and have been vying for dominance in an increasingly bloody turf war.

An attack by armed civilians on security forces in Mier, Tamaulipas left one civilian dead. Government troops seized various weapons and tactical gear and arrested two people in connection with the attack.

Federal and regional forces, working off of an anonymous tip, rescued 60 migrants who were captured by organized crime groups in Tamaulipas, near the Texas border. According to the National Commission on Human Rights, some 10,000 migrants have been kidnapped in Mexico over the last six months.

Seven people were killed in separate shootouts between police and armed gunmen in Tamaulipas.

Arturo Gallegos Castrellón, alias “El Farmero,” was handed 10 life sentences by an El Paso court for his role in the murders of three people associated with the US consulate in Juarez in 2010.

According to the Institute of Social Security for the Mexican Armed Forces, the government spent roughly $110,000,000 on life insurance for military personnel between 2008 and 2012, putting a strain on finances.

The Gulf Cartel launched a campaign in the streets of Mexico City to recruit youths to join their group.

To Watch:

Mexico’s National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia said that the newly formed Gendarmerie will not be infiltrated by organized crime groups, claiming that the selection process for cadets was “very careful.”

In the wake of anti-censorship protests, Mexico’s ruling party appears to be stepping back from proposed legislation that would have given authorities the power to “temporarily block, inhibit or annul telecommunications signals at events and places deemed critical for the public safety.”

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed a desire to expand defense cooperation between the US and Mexico during a visit to the later country. The US  State Department announced the planned sale of 18 Black Hawk transport helicopters to Mexico.

The Council of the European Union is mulling an agreement between the European police agency Europol and Mexican authorities to cooperate on issues of organized crime and violent radical groups. However, the European Parliament recently rejected such a proposal due to concerns about the security of information that would potentially be shared with Mexican law enforcement, which has a reputation for corruption and infiltration by criminal elements.


Two articles this week highlighted the dangers facing migrants traveling on “La Bestia” (“The Beast”), a freight train that many migrants from Mexico and Central America ride illegally in an attempt to reach the United States. Fusion and Vocativ both take a look at some of the migrants’ stories, which often include injury, kidnapping, robbery, rape and even death. Migrants from Central America marched to the presidential residence in Mexico this week and requested a meeting with President Peñã Nieto to demand that the government “ensure the right to free passage across the country without humiliation or violence, on our way to the northern border.”

Colombia: Vitriol, violence and threats of strikes as election approaches

Cross-posted with Conflict Journal

This is a weekly roundup of events from 13 April to 19 April 2014.

report from the Washington Office on Latin America entitled “Ending 50 Years of Conflict” expressed confidence in the potential of ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the FARC to realize a final deal by the end of this year. The report also called on the US to increase financial and diplomatic support to ensure that Colombia can meet post-conflict challenges, such as “bringing government into lawless areas; demobilizing and reintegrating combatants; assisting displaced populations’ return; protecting rights defenders; helping to fulfill accords on land, political participation, and victims.” US aid to Colombia has been declining by an average of 10-15% per year for the past few years.

Colombia’s military spending rose by 13% in 2013, one of the largest increases in the region. Military spending throughout all of Latin America increased by 2.2% in 2013, bringing the total regional increase since 2004 to 61%. Colombia spends more than any other country in the region on its military as a percentage of GDP, and is second only to Brazil – the largest country in the region – in total expenditures. The majority of Colombia’s military spending is directed at fighting armed groups like the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as violent organized crime groups.

President Santos reaffirmed his commitment to the peace negotiations with the FARC in an interview with W Radio. He criticized the FARC for ongoing attacks during the negotiations, saying “What objective are you seeking? What military advantage does it give you? None, it only undermines the confidence of the people in the peace process.” The FARC were suspected of bombing another section of the Panamerican highway this week after a similar attack on April 1. Last week, three policemen were killed in an ambush by FARC forces.

Santos also criticized opponents of the peace process as “lords of fear,” perhaps referring to one of his main rivals in the upcoming presidential election, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who (along with his highest-profile supporter, former President and senator-elect Alvaro Uribe) has been critical of the negotiations.

In an interview with a Colombian news outlet, the leader of the ELN, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (alias “Gabino”), said that his group is seeking peace talks with the government. The ELN is not party to the ongoing negotiations between the government and the FARC. Gabino slammed the Santos administration and Colombia’s “oligarchy” saying that they have “no desire” for peace, “they are thirsty for blood and violence” and they “get rich with war…They are selfish, arrogant, warmongering. They despise the humble and only look at them as a work force that enriches [the powerful].”

Two policemen were killed in the northeastern department of Arauca. RCN Radio attributed the attack to the ELN, which is known to be active in the area, but neither that group, nor the FARC have claimed responsibility for the killings. An unidentified group intimidated a work crew making repairs to an oil pipeline in the northeastern region of the country and torched their truck. Last week, repeated ELN attacks on an oil field in that area forced roughly 500 employees to be put on leave.

In the interview, Gabino also expressed outrage over the political dismissals of former Senator Piedad Cordoba and former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro and admitted that there were minors associated with his group. Colombia’s Ombudsman’s office demanded that the ELN disclose the number of minors in their ranks.

The ELN is Colombia’s second-largest armed group after the FARC, with about 2,000 troops. President Santos has indicated his willingness to begin a peace dialogue with the ELN in the past.


According to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Colombia has the 10th highest murder rate in the world, even though the country’s homicide rate has dropped by nearly half since 2002.

Colombia is the eighth-worst country in the world for impunity in attacks on the press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Members of the U’wa indigenous group met with Colombia’s ministers of mines and energy, the interior and the environment after refusing to allow repairs to the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline following attacks from rebel guerrillas that had damaged it.

Four members of the Colombian military were sentenced to decades in prison for killing civilians and presenting them as combat fatalities in order to boost their “body count” in the country’s armed conflict. The ongoing “false positives” scandal has involved hundreds of members of Colombia’s military. In an July 2013 report, the Prosecutor General’s Office said it had found that the armed forces and civilian collaborators had killed 3,896 civilians since 1986.

Two young men were found dismembered in Buenaventura, the port city considered to be one of the most dangerous areas of Colombia. The deaths were the first murders reported since the army took over security operations in the city in late March. For more on the situation in Buenaventura see our previous post.

Seven members of the Urabeños gang were killed in an army operation in the department of Antioquia.

Colombian miners said they will join with farmers in a nationwide strike planned for April 28, less than a month before the country’s presidential elections. For more on the planned strike, see our previous post.

Colombian authorities arrested 15 members of the criminal group known as “La Línea” who were accused of assassinating a businessman last year for failing to make a $50,000 extortion payment.

Colombian police arrested 5 men wanted for extradition to the United States to face charges of cocaine trafficking.

Members of a neo-Nazi group known as Tercero Fuerza (“Third Force”) allegedly vandalized a Bogotá graffiti mural honoring the thousands of victims of violence committed against the Union Patriótica (Patriotic Union or “UP”), the political party co-founded by the FARC in the 1980s. The UP performed better during the 1986 elections than any other leftist party in Colombian history. However, after the election, a brutal campaign of assassination and murder by right-wing paramilitaries brought about the massacre of 4,000-6,000 UP members, including the party’s leader, Jaime Pardo.

To Watch:

Colombia’s success in combating the production of cocaine within its borders is likely pushing drug traffickers to use product sourced from Peru. “We are seeing the same phenomenon as 30 years ago, when coca base arrived from [Peru and Bolivia] and they produced [cocaine] hydrochloride here,” said the chief of the Anti-Narcotics Police General Ricardo Restrepo. Restrepo said that the port of Cartegena is particularly affected because of its status as a major point of departure for containers, especially those destined for European markets.

One of the oldest crime syndicates in Medellín, the Oficina de Envigado, apparently wants to lay down its weapons. According to two of the group’s self-proclaimed leaders, the demobilization “won’t happen overnight” but their desire to dismantle the gang is fueled by the feeling that “those who have been victimized most are [their] own families.”

The FARC may be selling coca plantations and cocaine labs to the Mexico-based Sinaloa Cartel in anticipation of a peace deal with the Colombian government. The FARC are estimated to control a majority of the country’s cocaine trade.


Acid attacks against women in Colombia are receiving increased attention after a wealthy woman was victimized. According to Colombian officials, more than 900 cases of acid attacks have been recorded in the last 10 years.

Criminals in the US, Central America and even Colombia appear to be using homemade guns more often. As Fusion puts it, these weapons are “unserialized, unregistered and totally legal – and they’re being used to kill people.”

World-renowned Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away this week. President Santos declared three days of national mourning for the “most loved and most admired compatriot of all times.”

Are Drone Strikes Legal and Are They Effective?

The use of drones to hunt down and execute alleged terrorists and their accomplices has caused much controversy, both at home and abroad, especially in recent years. US drone strikes have killed thousands in Pakistan, hundreds in Yemen and dozens in Somalia, including children and civilians as well as militants. By one estimate, less than 2% of the more than 3,000 casualties in Pakistan were “high-profile targets,” while more than 20% were children or civilians. Many observers have questioned the legality and effectiveness of the use of drones in the fight against terrorism. Here is an explanation of the issues and arguments.

Are Drone Strikes Legal?

The United States law cited as the basis for the use of drone strikes is known as the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF. The law, passed a week after the 9/11 attacks, authorizes the President “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

“All necessary and appropriate force against…persons [the President] determines” to pose a threat to the US is very broad language, so it seems fairly clear that under United States law, the use of drones is legal. In fact, in a 2010 speech State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh specifically cited the AUMF as the Obama administration’s justification for the drone program (emphasis added):

“It is the considered view of this Administration … that U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war … the United States is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks, and may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defense under international law. As a matter of domestic law, Congress authorized the use of all necessary and appropriate force through the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). These domestic and international legal authorities continue to this day.”

Can Drones be Used Against Americans?

Four Americans have already been killed in drone strikes abroad and recent reports indicate that the administration is considering a strike on a fifth. In September 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both American citizens, were killed by a drone strike in Yemen. Weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman (also a US citizen), was killed in another drone strike in Yemen. Jude Kenan Mohammed, a 20 year-old American was killed by a drone in Pakistan in late 2011.

Many observers denounced these killings as a violation of the citizens’ constitutional rights, especially the protections afforded by the Fifth Amendment, which states that no citizen may “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees citizens ” a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury” in “all criminal prosecutions.”

Asked about his decision to target and kill Anwar al-Awlaki, President Obama (formerly a constitutional law professor) called it “an easy one.” In response to a question about the death of Abdulrahman, senior White House advisor Robert Gibbs infamously replied that he “should have [had] a far more responsible father.” For well over a year after these strikes, the administration resisted disclosing the legal justification for targeting American citizens. However, in February 2013, an undated, 16-page “white paper” from the Department of Justice leaked to the media that informally outlined the administration’s legal reasoning.

According to the memo, “a U.S. operation using lethal force in a foreign country against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force would be lawful” if:

1) An “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government determines that the target has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is  no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.”

2) Capturing the target is “infeasible” or would pose an “undue risk” to U.S. personnel involved in such an operation.

3) The strike is carried out according to “law of war principles.”

The document also cites the AUMF and the president’s constitutional obligation to protect the nation’s security as components of the legal reasoning, concluding that “a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense.” The implication seems to be that the protections afforded to accused criminals do not apply to citizens deemed to be engaged in adversarial military operations.

What About International Law?

The UN charter guarantees all states the inherent right to self-defense. Considering that al-Qaeda has attacked the United States and continues to plot attacks against it, some scholars have concluded that the US has a right to conduct military operations against al-Qaeda and its affiliates under a legal doctrine known as jus ad bellum (“right to war”). However, the case that the drone program satisfies the companion doctrine of jus in bello (“justice in war”) is much weaker. Jus in bello typically incorporates the notions of proportionality and protection of civilians.  Considering the high civilian death toll and the low percentage of high-profile targets eliminated by the drones, there is little evidence that the drone program meets this standard.

Another important question arises from the fact that the drone program is conducted largely by the CIA rather than the military – namely, can an intelligence agency shield itself behind laws of war meant to apply to military forces? As Ross Newland, who was a senior official at the C.I.A. when the agency was given authority over the program, told the New York Times, “This is not an intelligence mission.” While the Obama administration tried to shift responsibility for the drone program to the Defense Department last year, Congress has proved a stumbling block in that respect.

UN officials and prominent human rights groups have concluded that at least some US drone strikes have contravened international laws and may have even constituted war crimes. Even if this is true, there is virtually no way any Americans will ever be prosecuted for violations of international law. The United States is not a participant in the International Criminal Court, where such crimes are tried, and in addition to its veto power on the UN Security Counsel, there is a US law on the books that allows the country to use “all means necessary and appropriate” to bring about the release of any US or allied personnel detained or imprisoned by the court.


Are Drones Effective?

This is where the pro-drone camp is on its shakiest ground. Drones can cost millions to manufacture and thousands of dollars per flight-hour to operate, but the return on that investment is likely negative. Robert Grenier, who headed the CIA’s counter-terrorism center from 2004 to 2006 and was previously a CIA station chief in Pakistan, told the Guardian in 2012 that the drone program “needs to be targeted much more finely…We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield. ”

In a 2013 article for the Cairo Review, Nabeel Khoury, the State Department’s deputy chief of mission in Yemen from 2004 to 2007, wrote that “the U.S. generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] operative killed by drones.”

Considering that even killing actual terrorists may create sympathy for their cause, the high ratio of civilian deaths (estimated to be as high as 10 civilians for each militant in some areas) can only be expected to engender further anger and resentment.

In a recent interview with The Intercept, one former drone operator describes the drone program as “death by unreliable metadata,” noting “We’re not going after people – we’re going after their phones, in the hopes that the person on the other end of that missile is the bad guy.” While drone strikes are often referred to with the euphemism “targeted killings,” there is substantial evidence that they’re often not targeted very well.


Whatever one thinks of the morality of using drones, it is probably legal under both domestic and international law to target and kill foreign militants if they can be reasonably suspected of posing an imminent threat to US national security. However, the extremely vague definitions of suspicion and imminence seriously call into question whether targets are receiving adequate due process to determine if they actually meet these criteria.

The Justice Department’s “white paper” cited above suggests that active intelligence about a specific attack may not be needed in order to justify a targeted strike. Rather, the standard seems to be the determination by an “informed, high-level” official that the target “recently” engaged in “activities” that could pose a threat at some future time. Again, these terms are not specifically defined.

There really is no convincing argument that the targeting of American citizens does not violate the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the US constitution. Similarly, it is difficult to argue that the extremely high civilian death toll is proportionate to the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other militants, especially when one considers that it may actually be exacerbating the problem.

Basically, the program itself is probably legal, but the way it has been executed almost certainly breaches both American and international laws. More importantly it is expensive, inaccurate and ineffective. It should be dramatically scaled back and made much more transparent.  As President Obama himself once said, “Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.”