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Case of Missing Civilians in Mexico Shines Light on Military’s Role in Drug War

As relatives await the ruling, the country faces one of the deadliest periods in recent history and a newly empowered military in charge of fighting it. Official statistics show that last year the murder rate was the highest on record, surpassing the bloodshed experienced during the peak of the drug war in 2011.

In December, when Mexico passed a security law cementing the military’s role in fighting the drug war, it outraged the United Nations and local and international human rights groups. They warned that the measure would lead to abuses, leave troops on the streets indefinitely and militarize police activities for the foreseeable future.

The armed forces declined to comment, but the secretary of defense, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, has publicly defended the military, saying it is the only institution effectively confronting organized crime. As drug violence rocketed in recent years, he has repeatedly asked the federal government for a legal framework that protects the forces, saying the need for it is greater than ever.

“Today the crimes we are dealing with are of another level and importance, they involve a lot of people, sometimes entire families, and we are acting without a legal frame,” said General Cienfuegos in a public event in March. “Without it our help is impeded.”


Military police officers at a crime scene in Acapulco, Mexico, in February. The role of the army has been expanded to include operations against drug gangs as well as policing duties. At the same time, accusations of torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances have surged. Credit Pedro Pardo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Other supporters of the law, including President Enrique Peña Nieto and federal government officials, have argued that the legislation would guide and regulate military operations offering legal certainty to both the armed forces and the population by clarifying the soldier’s tasks, limits and obligations. Such a framework, they said, had long been absent.

According to government estimates, 32,000 people have been reported missing in Mexico since 2006, disappearances that have caused an indelible wound on families across the country. Members of the security forces are suspected in some of the disappearances, but many more are presumed to be the work of drug gangs.

Mexico’s failure to investigate these cases has left families such as the Alvarados desperate for answers but with nowhere to turn.

The court’s ruling in the Alvarado case, expected later this year, could influence another case being considered by Mexico’s Supreme Court. That case is evaluating challenges to a law that critics say strengthens the military’s role in policing the country’s streets.

Under the past two Mexican administrations, the army’s role has been expanded to include operations against drug gangs as well as policing duties. At the same time, formal complaints filed by civilians with different government agencies about allegations of torture, extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances have surged.

And yet as allegations of serious crimes by soldiers and police officers piled up, the military remained largely untouched, protected by governments keen on enforcing the rule of law through the only force seen as able to stand up to the drug gangs.

The three members of the Alvarado family were snatched from Ejido Benito Juárez, a small town south of El Paso. At the time, the drug war was raging in a particularly fierce way in the northern state of Chihuahua. The state now has one of the highest numbers of missing people in Mexico — more than 2,000 cases opened since 2007.

In the eight years of the investigation, the Mexican authorities have not prosecuted a single person in the Alvarados’ case nor offered any information on where they could be.

During a hearing before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on Friday in San José, Costa Rica, members of the Alvarado family testified that they had been told by at least three investigators from different government agencies that their relatives had been held for questioning in nearby military headquarters after soldiers raided Ejido Benito Juárez in search of criminal suspects. One investigator even assured relatives that by the next day, those held would probably be free.



Ejido Benito


Pacific Ocean

When questioned, all the investigators later denied to the family that they had made such claims, Mexican prosecutors said.


Relatives, helped by Chihuahua State officials, searched in the Juárez Valley last year for signs of missing family members. The state has among the highest numbers of missing people in Mexico: more than 2,000 cases opened since 2007. Credit Hérika Martínez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Feeling the doors of justice were being slammed shut by the Mexican authorities, the family had turned to international courts, where they are represented by the Center for Women’s Human Rights, a Mexican advocacy and legal aid organization.

At the two-day hearing that ended Friday, Mexican prosecutors testifying before the court argued that they were dealing with a “very complex case” that probably involved “several actors.” Lines of investigation are continuing to be followed, they said.

Although the prosecutors asserted that they had investigated the role of the military, they said they did not find enough evidence to confirm it was responsible. Instead, noting that it was common for criminals to dress in military uniforms to trick the authorities, they suggested that the Alvarados might have been targeted by drug gangs.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, one of the two legal arms, along with the court, that police human rights in the Americas as part of the Organization of American States, first urged the Mexican authorities in 2010 to find the Alvarados and ensure protection for the rest of the family. Six years later, the commission concluded that the military was responsible for the disappearances, based on evidence, including witnesses’ testimony and reports by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission and other experts who analyzed the context of violence in the area.

In its report, the commission refers to a context of chaos during military operations around the time the Alvarados where taken. People were snatched from their houses regularly and taken to military headquarters for illegal questioning. The Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission, the report says, had gathered hundreds of allegations of torture, illegal searches, cruel and degrading treatment, threats, intimidation and forced disappearance.

If that is also the ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, it could push Mexico to further investigate the armed forces’ role and prosecute members of the military, pay the family reparations, issue a public apology or take further measures to ensure such disappearances do not happen again.

Mitzi Alvarado and her twin, Nitza, were only 14 years old when their mother was taken away. For the past eight years, they and their younger sister, Daisy, have moved from one city to another. They lived with one set of relatives and then another, fearing that the agents they believed took their mother would come after them.

Heightening their anxiety, soon after the disappearances another relative received phone calls warning the entire family to leave the state of Chihuahua within 24 hours or they would all be killed. Eventually, most did flee.

The three sisters are now studying at El Paso Community College in Texas, where they live after being granted political asylum. Eight other family members are still awaiting word on their applications for political asylum in the United States.

“The state orphaned us and that’s not fair,” said Mitzi Alvarado, weeping.

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Supreme Court to Hear Cases on Death Penalty and Class Actions

The case joins a second death penalty case on the court’s docket, Madison v. Alabama, No. 17-7505, which will consider whether Alabama may execute an inmate who has dementia and cannot remember the crime that sent him to death row. Both cases will be argued in the fall.

Class-Action Settlements

In 2013, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. expressed concerns about judges who use class-action settlements to dole out money to charities rather than to compensate the members of the class. He appeared to invite a challenge to the practice.

It took five years, but on Monday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on the practice, Frank v. Gaos, No. 17-961. It arose from an $8.5 million settlement between Google and class-action lawyers who said the company had violated its users’ privacy rights. Under the settlement, the lawyers were paid more than $2 million, but members of the class they represented received no money. Instead, the company agreed to make contributions to institutions concerned with privacy on the internet, including centers at Harvard and Stanford.


Lawyers for Russell Bucklew, a death row inmate in Missouri, said his condition, cavernous hemangioma, would make him choke on his own blood during his execution. Credit Jeremy Weis, via Associated Press

Theodore H. Frank and Melissa Ann Holyoak objected to the settlement, saying it provided members of the class with “no money, no alteration of the defendant’s allegedly injurious conduct, not even coupons.”

A divided three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, upheld the settlement, with all three judges agreeing that trying to pay compensation to the class would be inefficient, as the individual payouts would be about 4 cents.

In dissent, Judge J. Clifford Wallace expressed misgivings about the groups to which the payments were to be made. He said he was uneasy about the fact that a substantial portion of the money would go to law schools that the plaintiffs’ lawyers had attended.

In urging the Supreme Court not to hear the case, lawyers for Google said the plaintiffs’ claims were weak, “making any direct payment, however modest, a windfall rather than compensation.” Distributing money to them would be inefficient, the company said, and the institutional recipients would put it to good use.

Class Arbitration

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that arbitration agreements require disputes to be resolved one by one unless the parties agree to class arbitration. On Monday, the court agreed to decide whether workers at a California business could band together in an arbitration proceeding to seek compensation for what they said was their employer’s failure to protect their data.

A divided three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled that the arbitration agreement between the company and its employees allowed the workers to pursue their claims as a class. The agreement said that “arbitration shall be in lieu of any and all lawsuits or other civil legal proceedings relating to my employment.”

In an unsigned opinion, the majority said that language allowed the workers to band together. “A reasonable — and perhaps the most reasonable — interpretation of this expansive language is that it authorizes class arbitration,” the majority said.

In dissent, Judge Ferdinand F. Fernandez said the majority had engaged in a “palpable evasion” of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision.

The Supreme Court has generally upheld arbitration agreements that bar class actions, whether in court or in arbitration.

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