MEXICO CITY (AP) — Human rights groups were jubilant Friday after Mexico's Supreme Court moved to turn military human rights violations over to civilian courts, a blow to a military justice system accused of covering up cases of soldiers abusing, torturing and executing citizens during a six-year government offensive against drug cartels.
The ruling goes against President Felipe Calderon, who has staunchly defended the military and whose government proposed moving some military cases to civilian courts — but not homicides.
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday to send the case of Jethro Ramses Sanchez, a 27-year-old auto mechanic who authorities say was tortured and killed by soldiers at a military base last year, to civilian court.
It must issue similar rulings in four other cases in order to establish a precedent that would be followed by courts across Mexico, and will considering those cases in the comings. But in the 8-2 decision Thursday, many justices used language indicating they are already headed in that direction.
"A soldier should never be judged by a military court when the victim is a civilian and their human rights have been violated," Justice Arturo Zaldivar said.
Complaints about mistreatment of civilians skyrocketed since Calderon sent tens of thousands of soldiers and marines to battle drug cartels across Mexico starting in late 2006. Victims' advocates say troops battling heavily armed criminal gangs in Mexican cities and rural areas often show little respect for civil rights, sweeping up innocent people along with legitimate suspects and extracting false confessions with physical abuse.
Government records obtained by Mexican press and rights groups show that military prosecutors opened nearly 5,000 investigations into alleged violations of rights between 2007 and April 2012 but only 38 service members were convicted and sentenced.
Mexico's Defense Department declined to comment on the ruling. The Mexican government's Interior Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
"This is a landmark decision of the Supreme Court," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. "Military jurisdiction plays a fundamental role in covering up human rights atrocities committed by security forces, particularly the army."
The military court system has not changed despite such international pressure and repeated government pledges to shift jurisdiction to civilian courts in many of the cases.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has jurisdiction over members states such as Mexico, ruled in a 2009 case that military jurisdiction could not apply to any case in which civilians' human rights were violated.
Calderon responded with public promises to change the law, and in October 2010, he sent to the Senate a proposal to revise the jurisdiction of military courts, to allow civilian courts to investigate disappearances, torture and rape committed by military personnel against civilians, but not other crimes such as homicide.
The proposal stalled in Congress, a lack of progress many outside observers attributed to the government's unwillingness to anger the army by truly pushing for the change.
That same year, the U.S. government held back $26 million in aid from its Merida Initiative to fight drug trafficking because of human rights concerns, including the military justice issue.
In the Sanchez case, soldiers posted at the base told investigators they heard him screaming in pain during his detention, after he was arrested by police at a fair in the city of Cuernavaca south of Mexico City.
One of the soldiers' commanders, Col. Jose Guadalupe Arias Agredano, was charged with covering up the crime by telling soldiers not to talk about it and ordering several to dump his body on empty land in the neighboring state of Puebla. Sanchez was found two months later.
Local military and civilian courts disagreed over which of them should handle the case, with both trying not to get involved. Sanchez's family and lawyers from human rights groups took the case to the Supreme Court along with 29 other cases involving questions of civilian or military jurisdiction over soldiers accused of violating the rights of civilians.
Sanchez's relatives are hopeful that the Supreme Court decision will lead to significant change, said their lawyer, Octavio Amezcua of the nongovernmental Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.
"What they want is for what happened to Jethro not to happen to other young people," Amezcua said. "If this can be a way for the same thing not to happen again, they see it as something positive.
"This decision provides guarantees that victims of human rights violations can obtain justice from an impartial and transparent court."
Other experts, however, say that Mexico's civilian justice system has done little to prevent similar abuses by the police officers who fall under its jurisdiction.
"The civil system of penal justice in Mexico doesn't work either," said Alejandro Anaya Muñoz, an analyst at the Center for Economic Research and Instruction, an independent think tank. "They are better in terms that they are more transparent and more accessible to human rights lawyers and activists, but they don't work in practice."