| THE HAGUE/MEXICO CITY
THE HAGUE/MEXICO CITY Mexican human rights activists want the International Criminal Court to investigate President Felipe Calderon, top officials and the country's most-wanted drug trafficker, accusing them of allowing subordinates to kill, torture and kidnap civilians.
Netzai Sandoval, a Mexican human rights lawyer, filed a complaint with the ICC in The Hague on Friday, requesting an investigation into the deaths of hundreds of civilians at the hands of the military and drug traffickers in Mexico, where more than 45,000 have died in drug-related violence since 2006.
"The violence in Mexico is bigger than the violence in Afghanistan, the violence in Mexico is bigger than in Colombia," Sandoval said.
"We want the prosecutor to tell us if war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in Mexico, and if the president and other top officials are responsible."
Signed by 23,000 Mexican citizens, the complaint names Sinaloa drug cartel boss Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, who has a $5 million bounty on his head, as well as Public Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna and the commanders of Mexico's army and navy.
The lawyers asked the ICC, the world's first permanent war crimes court, to open a formal investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mexico.
A decision by ICC prosecutors on whether to launch an investigation could take months or even years, legal experts say. The ICC has investigated crimes including genocide, murder, conscription of child soldiers and rape, mostly in Africa.
The Mexican government has denied the accusations and said security policy cannot constitute an international crime.
"In our country, society is not the victim of an authoritarian government or of systematic abuses by the armed forces," the foreign ministry said in a statement in October, when the petition was made public.
"In Mexico, there is a rule of law in which crime and impunity are fought without exception," the statement said.
TICKING THE BOXES
The office of the prosecutor said in a statement to Reuters that it had received the request, would study it, and "make a decision in due course."
The ICC tries cases of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity in states that are unwilling or unable to prosecute these crimes on their own.
"There are a large number of boxes that the prosecutor would need to check off before he could actually open an investigation," said Richard Dicker, an international justice expert with Human Rights Watch.
"It's possible ... but I think you want to be clear on what the challenges and obstacles are."
Several of those requirements have been met: Mexico has signed up to the ICC, the crimes fall within the ICC's time frame, and the case is not already being prosecuted in Mexico.
But in considering the case, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo will have to decide if the crimes presented in the activists' complaint, such as the torture of criminal suspects, qualify as crimes against humanity.
"The crimes would have to be widespread or systematic, carried out by a state or organization in attacks on a civilian population," Dicker said.
"It's certainly very arguable," said William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University.
"The prosecutor has been very focused on Africa. The pattern is, he stays within the comfort zone of the United States. Going after Mexicans for the war on drugs falls outside that comfort zone."
Activists claim that Calderon has systematically allowed Mexican troops to commit abuses against the civilian population since the military was deployed to fight Mexican drug traffickers in 2006.
More than 50,000 troops are currently battling drug cartels around the country, while the ranks of federal police have swelled from 6,000 to 35,000 under Calderon's watch.
Human rights activists say that Mexican troops and police are regularly violating the rights of citizens in their crackdown on the cartels.
A Human Rights Watch report has found evidence that Mexican police and armed forces were involved in 170 cases of torture, 24 extrajudicial killings and 39 forced disappearances in five Mexican states.
"We have known for five years that the Mexican army is committing sexual abuse, executing people, torturing people and kidnapping, and there have been no sanctions," Sandoval said, adding that he, like many other Mexicans, knows people who have lost family members in the drug-related violence.
Mexico's national human rights commission received more than 4,000 complaints of abuses by the army from 2006 to 2010. In the same period it issued detailed reports on 65 cases involving army abuse, according to Human Rights Watch.
(Editing by Rosalind Russell)