Mexican army hit by execution finding as Senate mulls new military powers

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican soldiers arbitrarily executed two people after an illegal raid last year, a national rights body said on Tuesday, releasing its findings as protests disrupted a debate in the Senate over a contentious bill to give the military more powers.

REFILE - ADDING INFORMATION Activists hold a protest against a law that militarises crime fighting in the country outside the Senate in Mexico City, Mexico December 5, 2017. Placards read, "No to the Militarization in the Country". REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

The military, deployed in Mexico’s war on drug gangs for over a decade, has been embroiled in several rights scandals including the extrajudicial killings of gang members and the disappearance of 43 students near one of its bases in 2014.

The case reported by the National Human Rights Commission on its website on Tuesday related to a raid on a home in the western state of Jalisco last year.

The Commission, chosen by the Senate and autonomous from Mexico’s federal government and its president, said the soldiers had tortured and sexually abused people they found there.

After arbitrary detention, soldiers killed two of them by breaking their necks, the Commission said. While its rulings are not binding, the Commission’s recommendations are influential and require a response from the institutions it reports on.

The timing is awkward for President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government, as it faces widespread criticism over legislation passed in the lower house and now in the Senate that seeks to enshrine in law the use of the military in crime fighting.

The United Nations human rights chief on Tuesday called on Mexican lawmakers not to pass the bill, saying Mexico needed a stronger police force.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said the law did not contain strong enough controls to protect civilians from abuses in Mexico, where extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances are carried out by both security forces and criminal gangs.

“Adopting a new legal framework to regulate the operations of the armed forces in internal security is not the answer. The current draft law risks weakening incentives for the civilian authorities to fully assume their law enforcement roles,” Zeid said in a statement.

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Protesters successfully blocked discussion of the bill for much of Tuesday, barring access points to the Senate, and laying out placards warning against the militarization of the country while pointing to a massive rise in killings since President Felipe Calderon first put the army on the streets in 2016.

In his presidential campaign, Pena Nieto promised to develop a large new national police force, but has ended up relying on military forces for high-profile operations.

Murders in Mexico in 2017 are on track to be the worst on record, with 20,878 nationwide in the first 10 months.

Lawmakers are expected to push the bill through committees and later put the measure to a full vote on the Senate floor. Lower house lawmakers moved quickly on the bill last week after it had languished in committees for years.

The law has broad support from the ruling party and members of the opposition National Action Party who say it will give clear rules limiting the use of soldiers to fight crime.

“The law is aimed at avoiding the discretional use of the armed forces by the president,” PAN Senator Roberto Gil Zuarth told reporters. “Right now there are no rules. He doesn’t have to tell anybody.”

However, rights campaigners worry the law opens the door to military intervention in protests, as well as expanding military powers to spy on citizens.

It is opposed by the party of leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, which has only a handful of senators, but wants to return soldiers to their barracks over time.

Julia Klug, 65, an activist from Mexico City protesting outside the Senate with “no violence” written on her face, said the law would entrench the role of the armed forces in a struggle with criminals that was not theirs to fight.

“It’s the Navy that’s committing murder, it’s the Army that’s carrying out kidnappings. The police was corrupt, but these guys are criminals,” she said holding up a Mexican flag with the eagle at the centre of it spattered in red.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Michael O’Boyle; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel & Simon Cameron-Moore