High body count in Mexico's war on drugs

Armed forces getting away with torture and summary executions, say critics

MEXICO CITY • In the history of modern war, fighters are much more likely to injure their enemies than kill them. But in Mexico, the opposite is true.

According to the government's own data, Mexico's armed forces are exceptionally efficient killers, stacking up bodies at extraordinary rates.

Experts who study the issue say Mexico's kill rate is practically unheard-of, arguing that the numbers reveal something more ominous.

"They are summary executions," said retired New York University professor Paul Chevigny who pioneered the study of lethality among armed forces.

In many forms of combat between armed groups, about four people are injured for each person killed, according to an assessment of wars since the late 1970s by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Sometimes, the number of wounded is even higher.

But the body count in Mexico is reversed. The army kills eight enemies for every one it wounds. For the nation's elite marine forces, the discrepancy is even more pronounced: They kill roughly 30 combatants for each one they injure.

The statistics, which the government stopped reporting in early 2014, offer a glimpse into the role the military has assumed in the war against organised crime. In the last decade, as soldiers and marines have been forced onto the front lines, human rights abuses surged.

Yet the military remains largely untouched, protected by a government loath to crack down on the only force able to take on the fight.

Little has been done to investigate the thousands of accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that have mounted since former president Felipe Calderon began his nation's drug war a decade ago.

Of the 4,000 complaints of torture that the Attorney-General's Office has reviewed since 2006, only 15 have resulted in convictions.

"Not only is torture generalised in Mexico, but it is also surrounded by impunity," said Mr Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture.

About 3,000 people were killed by the military between 2007 and 2012, while 158 soldiers died. Some critics call the killings a form of pragmatism: In Mexico, where fewer than 2 per cent of murder cases are successfully prosecuted, the armed forces kill their enemies because they cannot rely on the shaky legal system.

But the government says it takes human rights seriously, passing legislation to counter abuse, protect victims and allow soldiers to be tried in civilian courts.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'High body count in Mexico's war on drugs'. Print Edition | Subscribe