MEXICO CITY – The number of civilians killed in the conflict pitting Mexico’s powerful drug cartels against each other and the security forces soared by 172 percent in the last 12 months, capital daily Reforma said Monday, citing official figures.
“Collateral” deaths of civilians increased from 61 in 2009 to 166 last year, according to the report from the Attorney General’s Office.
The drug war has claimed more than 34,000 lives in Mexico since December 2006, when newly inaugurated President Felipe Calderon gave the military the dominant role in fighting the cartels.
That strategy has turned some Mexican cities – notably Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas – into virtual war zones where troops and marines trade fire with cartel gunmen whose arsenals include assault rifles and grenade-launchers.
The Calderon administration has repeatedly asserted that around 90 percent of the drug war fatalities are criminals.
But human rights activists and civic groups accuse authorities of criminalizing innocent citizens in the same manner as the army of Colombia, which has been caught murdering more than 2,700 civilians and falsely presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat.
A high proportion of the civilian fatalities in Mexico have occurred at highway checkpoints.
In most of those cases, the military personnel either try to make it appear the dead civilians were criminals involved in a clash or blame the bystanders’ deaths on the cartel gunmen, even when ballistics evidence points to soldiers as the shooters.
Only in a handful of instances has the military has accepted responsibility and paid compensation to victims’ families.
Indeed, Mexico’s Independent Human Rights Commission said Sunday that the navy has refused to pay damages to the families of two civilians killed in error by marines during crime-fighting operations.
Both incidents took place in December 2009 in Cuernavaca, a resort city near the Mexican capital.
A woman was killed Dec. 11 when marines fired at her car shortly after she left in residence in the Los Limoneros and a man died five days later after marines shot at him in his pickup truck.
Neither victim had any ties to criminal activity.
The marines fired 53 shots at the man’s pickup and more than 60 at the woman’s car, which, according to the commission, “reveals, without room for doubt, an arbitrary use of force.” EFE