Editor’s Note: Video footage is disturbing.
MEXICO CITY — The apparent execution of a wounded fuel theft suspect by a Mexican soldier caught on video has provided graphic evidence of a long-suspected practice and put the government in an awkward spot as it tries to pass a security law critics say could shield troops.
Outrage at the surveillance camera video posted by media this week was swift from human rights groups, which claimed it provided rare evidence of an extrajudicial execution by security forces. But President Enrique Peña Nieto has limited his public comments to saying there should be an investigation.
And it remains unclear how the shocking images will affect public perception of the Mexican military’s role in combating organized crime as Congress’ lower chamber debates a law that Peña Nieto has said is needed to give “certainty” to the armed forces in its policing role.
Human rights groups say the proposed law would make it more difficult to hold the military accountable and already some are linking the incident seen in the video to the legislation.
“If the interior security law is approved, it is predictable that this type of situation will continue occurring,” Mexican rights group Security Without War said in a statement Friday.
The video appears to show a soldier shooting a wounded man in the back of his head as he lays on the ground during a May 3 encounter between the army and gunmen defending their fuel theft business in the town of Palmarito in central Puebla state. In total, the day’s combat left six civilians and four soldiers dead.
Mexican officials have defended such military operations as necessary in the face of growing fuel theft by gangs, often linked to organized crime, that tap into gasoline and diesel pipelines. The practice costs the country $780 million to $1 billion each year, Mexico’s treasury secretary has said.
The armed forces have played a prominent role in combating organized crime and drug cartels in Mexico for more than 20 years, and many local police forces were deemed so corrupt that they were disbanded. There is widespread support among Mexicans for the military taking over their duties.
Mexico’s energy resources are considered critical infrastructure, so using federal forces to protect them is considered fair game, said Erubiel Tirado, coordinator of the national security, democracy and human rights program at Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.
Tirado said human rights abuses by soldiers in such situations were foreseeable.
“In a confrontational situation or an operation against criminals or enemies, they aren’t going to look for prisoners,” he said. “They are going to kill. This is what the video shows.”
The apparent killing in Puebla was just the latest such controversy.
A leaked video showing soldiers and federal police torturing a young woman prompted Mexico’s defense secretary to issue an unprecedented public apology in April 2016.
Another, more deadly, incident lacked such video evidence and no apology was forthcoming. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission determined that soldiers executed at least 12 suspects after they surrendered on June 30, 2014, in the town of Tlatlaya in Mexico State.
The military had said that 22 suspects died in a gunfight in which only one soldier was wounded, but The Associated Press found evidence at the scene that contradicted that version.
Seven soldiers were initially charged. A judge dismissed charges against four, and a later ruling cleared the remaining three. A military court dismissed charges against six and convicted one of disobeying orders.
In October 2015, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said Mexico’s defense secretary had told him that troops were not trained for police work, and the military didn’t want the job. Ra’ad Al Hussein said Mexico should return its soldiers to their barracks.
Whether the latest accusations of human rights abuses reverberate with the public is far from certain.
A 2012 survey by polling company Parametria found that 62 percent of respondents said the human rights of drug traffickers needn’t be respected.
Parametria has been measuring the public’s perception of the army for years and found that confidence has ranged between 52 percent and 75 percent since 2002. That has consistently ranked it among the three most respected institutions in Mexico, though always trailing the Roman Catholic Church. The most recent appraisal put it at 58 percent in January. And six out of 10 Mexicans surveyed said they prefer having the army in the streets to having the police.
But the incident in Puebla comes at an inopportune time for Peña Nieto and the armed forces, with human rights groups clamoring against the law. Some criticize proposed provisions that would give the military greater domestic intelligence-gathering powers and say it would make it more difficult for civilian authorities to investigate military abuses.
Others are using the video to bash the military’s role in fighting organized crime.
It is “irrefutable evidence that the militarization of public safety brings with it the excessive use of lethal force and other serious human rights violations,” according to Security Without War.