THE HAGUE/MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - 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 of the deaths of hundreds of civilians at the hands of the military and traffickers.
More than 45,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico since 2006 as powerful cartels fight security forces and each other for control of smuggling routes into the neighboring United States and other countries.
“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 the Sinaloa 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 the army and navy.
A decision by ICC prosecutors on whether to investigate could take months or even years, legal experts said.
The ICC, the world’s first permanent war crimes court, has investigated crimes including genocide, murder, conscription of child soldiers and rape, mostly in Africa.
The Mexican government denied it is “at war” and said the use of the military in its battle against drug gangs was a temporary measure taken at the request of state governments.
“The established security policy in no way constitutes an international crime. On the contrary, all its actions are focused on stopping criminal organizations and protecting all citizens,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
“Mexico, as never before, has implemented, in a systematic and growing way, a public policy to strengthen the rule of law and promote and respect human rights.”
The office of the ICC prosecutor said in a statement it had 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 say Calderon has systematically allowed Mexican troops to commit abuses against civilians since the military was deployed to fight drug traffickers in 2006.
More than 50,000 soldiers are now battling cartels around the country, while the ranks of federal police have swelled from 6,000 to 35,000 under Calderon’s watch.
A Human Rights Watch report said there was evidence Mexican police and soldiers 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.
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 and John O'Callaghan