Mexican General, 29 Soldiers On Trial For Homicide

Published February 1, 2012 1:36AM (EST)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — A Mexican army general and 29 soldiers under his command in a town on the border with Texas are being tried on charges of torture, homicide, drug trafficking and other crimes, a top government official confirmed Tuesday.

Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire said that the crimes charged in the case are "deplorable and reprehensible" and that the troops are being tried in a military court.

Details about Gen. Manuel Moreno Avina and his subordinates' alleged reign of terror in the town of Ojinaga, across from Presidio, Texas, were first reported by the newspaper Reforma, which had access to some of the soldiers' testimony.

Shortly after Moreno arrived in Ojinaga in spring 2008, the troops under his command began kidnapping, torturing and killing suspects and stealing cars, computers, TV sets and even mattresses during raids on suspects' homes, according to the testimony reported by Reforma. They allegedly resold the stolen items as well as marijuana and cocaine they seized.

Poire did not confirm the allegations contained in Reforma's story, and the Defense Department didn't respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

According to the newspaper, prosecutors say at least 10 civilians were killed by soldiers or by hit men under the orders of Moreno in 2008 and 2009.

At least three of those slain were described as suspects in the custody of soldiers, including a man in his 20s who was detained in July 2008 and taken to the military garrison and given electroshocks until he died of a heart attack. His body allegedly was taken to a ranch, soaked in diesel and burned.

Seven other people were killed on the orders of Moreno by two hit men working for La Linea, a gang of assassins and corrupt police officers who act as enforcers for the Juarez Cartel, according to the testimony reported by Reforma.

Among the alleged victims were a secretary at the federal prosecutors' office in Ojinaga, a state police officer, a local police officer who stopped Moreno for speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol, and a businessman who filed a complaint with federal prosecutors and human rights officials after soldiers raided his house and stole money.

Soldiers also reportedly testified that Moreno often kept cars seized in legal and illegal raids and had them painted in military green.

Poire said the general and other soldiers are being tried in a military court in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa and are all being held at a military prison in the state of Jalisco, it said.

Military investigators were first alerted to the soldiers' crimes in August 2009 by an anonymous complaint that they were collaborating with a criminal group, Defense Department officials told Reforma.

President Felipe Calderon deployed 50,000 soldiers and other military personnel to fight organized crime shortly after taking office in December 2006. More than 47,000 people have been killed in drug violence since Calderon launched his offensive, according to government figures.

The Inter-American Court on Human Rights and Mexico's own Supreme Court have ruled that soldiers who commit human rights violations against civilians should be tried in civilian courts. Calderon has said his government will comply with rulings, but so far it has not made the transition or agreed to give civilian courts military cases of murder.

A Human Rights Watch report on Mexico released in November said only 15 soldiers had been convicted following 3,671 investigations by military prosecutors into alleged human rights violations by soldiers against civilians from 2007 to June 2011. No soldier or state official had been convicted in any of more than 200 cases that the New York-based rights group documented in the report.

By Salon Staff

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