Deadly Attack Exposes Growing Threat in Mexico: the Military
Uniformed soldiers shot and killed unarmed civilians, including an American, then blocked medics from providing care, a top government official said. To many Mexicans, such abuse is all too familiar.
A house pockmarked with bullet holes on a street corner in Nuevo Laredo where five young men where killed by the Mexican military.By Maria Abi-Habib and Galia García Palafox
Photographs by Alejandro Cegarra
The reporters traveled to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to meet with the families of several men who were shot and killed by the military.
April 7, 2023Updated 2:17 p.m. ET
Gustavo Ángel Suárez Castillo, an American citizen from San Antonio, piled six friends, including two brothers, into his white pickup truck with Texas plates just before dawn, having spent the night celebrating the news that he was going to be a father. Suddenly, four vehicles filled with armed men began chasing and firing at them.
The pickup truck crashed and as the passengers tumbled out, the armed men threw some to the ground, shooting one in the back, survivors told The New York Times. One recounted how he watched his brother slowly stop breathing while the assailants blocked medics from arriving.
When it ended, five of the men, including Mr. Suárez, were dead and the other two severely injured.
The attackers? Uniformed Mexican soldiers.
The shooting in the city of Nuevo Laredo in the early hours of Feb. 26 has been called a coldblooded execution by the survivors and a top government official. So far, four of the 21 soldiers involved in the encounter have been arrested and the case is under investigation by civilian prosecutors and the military.
The episode has deepened concerns about the growing footprint of Mexico’s armed forces, which has not only been put in charge of domestic security, but has also been given a rapidly expanding portfolio of businesses, like a new international airport and a major rail line.
It underscores what human rights advocates and analysts say is a dangerous flaw in Mexico’s governing system: one of the country’s most powerful institutions operates with little oversight.
Members of the army on patrol last year in Celaya, Mexico.Despite a long history of human rights abuses, the military assumed overall responsibility for civilian security after President Andrés Manuel López Obrador dissolved the federal police, which was widely considered corrupt and unable to stamp out Mexico’s rampant violence.
He created a National Guard to help secure the country and, last year, put it under the military’s control, in a move that some observers called unconstitutional. The National Guard polices streets across Mexico with the military, and often takes a back seat to the army when securing territory.
Homicides have fallen slightly, but disappearances continue to rise and, critics say, residents are at risk of falling victim to heavy-handed tactics.
The Defense Ministry is under the command of an active-duty general, not a civilian leader, is not required to publicly release documents or report on its activities and often refuses to appear before Mexico’s Congress to answer questions.
The military’s strict control over its own affairs has led the Mexican president to consolidate other government projects under the armed forces, limiting their transparency. Cases of civilian deaths at the hands of the army almost never go to trial.
“Given the increasing role of the armed forces in Mexico, it is really crucial and urgent” that they “are regulated with a civilian supervision mechanism, which should be created to control and eventually get accountability,” said Marta Hurtado, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The U.N. has called for an independent investigation into the Nuevo Laredo killings, citing the military’s history of excessive use of force in the city.
An initial military statement implied that the men in the pickup were armed and had not heeded orders from soldiers.
But that claim was contradicted by Alejandro Encinas, a top federal government human rights official.
“It was not a confrontation,’’ Mr. Encinas said. “They were executed.”
Rosa Benitez and Enrique Pérez at the grave of their son Gustavo Pérez Benitez, who was among those killed by the military in Nuevo Laredo. The soldiers fired 117 rounds during the incident even though the victims never brandished a weapon, a preliminary report by the National Commission on Human Rights found.
The Defense Ministry declined to comment on the killings, citing the ongoing investigations.
Asked for comment on Mr. Suárez’s killing, an American official said the U.S. government had issued its highest-level warning for Tamaulipas, the state that includes Nuevo Laredo, and had warned its citizens not to travel there.
Lawyers representing the families of the dead and the survivors say the army has tried to cover up details of what unfolded that morning.
They accuse the soldiers of removing the truck’s license plates to bolster their accusation that the men were behaving suspiciously. A survivor said he was forced at gunpoint to tape a confession that the men had fired on the soldiers first.
A week after the attack, about a dozen soldiers showed up around midnight at one of the survivor’s homes in an attempt to intimidate him into silence, his lawyers say.
“We do not understand why they shot some young people who were not even attacking them,’’ said Raymundo Ramos, the president of the Committee of Human Rights in Tamaulipas, an advocacy group representing the survivors and the families of the dead men.
(An earlier New York Times investigation revealed that Mr. Ramos had been spied on illegally by the military while working on a different case in Nuevo Laredo involving the armed forces and accusations of human rights violations.)
During Mr. López Obrador’s administration, the military has moved well beyond its main security mission into a variety of lucrative businesses.
It built and operates Mexico City’s new airport and is constructing much of the nation’s largest tourism project, a $20 billion, nearly 1,000-mile railroad that it will also manage once completed. The armed forces are also now in charge of the country’s customs, one of Mexico’s biggest income generators, with expected revenues of $59 billion for 2022.
The military built and operates Mexico City’s new airport.Credit…Marian Carrasquero for The New York TimesSuch responsibilities, analysts warn, give the military the ability to raise money on its own and could undermine Mexico’s balance of power.
At the same time, in Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Texas, the military’s long track record of abuses has bred deep resentment.
Mr. Ramos’s organization has documented 18 cases of human rights violations linked to the military since 2018, including executions, rape and torture of civilians. But only one has gone to trial.
In one case, a 4-year-old girl, Heydi Mariana, was shot and killed last August when the car she was riding in came under fire from soldiers. At least 16 bullets ripped through the vehicle.
The military said the girl was killed during a confrontation with criminals, but has not provided evidence. No one has been charged in the case.
“My daughter was going to kindergarten,’’ said the girl’s mother, Cristina Rodríguez, 26, who added that soldiers showed up at Heydi’s funeral, a move the family interpreted as an act of intimidation. » …