Image: Mexican Army soldiers patrol the streets of Ojinaga, Mexico
Guillermo Arias  /  AP
Mexican Army soldiers patrol the streets of Ojinaga, on Mexico's border with U.S., Wednesday, July 24. Ojinaga's citizens protested a day earlier against abuses by Mexican soldiers sent to crack down drug trafficking.
updated 7/26/2008 12:41:27 AM ET 2008-07-26T04:41:27

This hardscrabble Mexican border town welcomed 400 soldiers when they arrived four months ago to stop a wave of drug violence that brought daytime gunbattles to its main street.

But then the soldiers themselves turned violent, townspeople say, ransacking homes and even torturing people.

The frustration boiled over this week. More than 1,000 people marched through the streets carrying signs begging President Felipe Calderon for protection from his own troops.

Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande from Presidio, Texas, is not alone. People in cities on the front lines of Mexico's battle against trafficking say they are increasingly frustrated with military tactics — a shift in opinion that threatens to undermine Calderon's nationwide crackdown.

Reports of abuse
Mexico's National Human Rights Commission says it has documented more than 600 cases of abuse since Calderon sent 20,000 soldiers across the nation to take back territory controlled by drug lords.

Mexico's attorney general argues the cases are isolated incidents. The army says it investigates all allegations and punishes those found to have to violated the law.

But many people say the soldiers have become part of the problem.

A poll published June 30 by the newspaper El Diario of Ciudad Juarez found that only 18 percent of those living in Juarez completely approved of the army's presence. Two months earlier, the number was 65 percent. The poll, by Confirme, had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

"These guys don't care about anything," said Lalo Lucero, 44, as he watched soldiers in the city detain a neighborhood youth recently. "They came into my house without a warrant, searched through everything and told me to sit on a couch and not say anything."

Battles between rival drug cartels killed 4,000 people nationwide in the first 18 months of Calderon's presidency. At least 10 people have been gunned down this year in Ojinaga, a town of 20,000.

"I'm sure that the army has come here to fight a war against the drug traffickers, and we are very much in agreement with that," said Mayor Cesar Carrasco. "But we also hope that all the authorities will respect the individual rights of every Ojinaga citizen."

Sharing stories
At Wednesday's march, protesters swapped stories of masked soldiers breaking down doors and ransacking homes.

"I'm not against what they do. I'm against how they do it," said Martha Leyva, 44. She said her family was awakened one night in May when soldiers with machine guns but no warrant broke down her door. They said an anonymous call had directed them to her house.

Janeth Lopez, a 28-year-old hairdresser, said she came home last month to find eight masked soldiers rifling through her belongings.

"If they come and knock on the door of your house and you have nothing to fear, you're going to open the door and tell them, 'Come in and look around,'" Lopez said. "But if you're up to no good, you're going to run away."

Case of 'suffering'
Roberto, a 25-year-old man who didn't want his last name used for fear of retribution, said he, five other men and a teenage boy were returning from a nearby town recently when they were stopped by soldiers.

Roberto said they were beaten, bound, blindfolded and taken to a military camp.

He said soldiers wrapped their heads in plastic bags, beat and kicked them, and hung some of the members of the group upside down. Soldiers also forced some of them — including Roberto's 20-year-old cousin — to drop their pants, and then applied pliers to one man's testicles, Roberto said.

"It was always the same question: 'Where did you hide the drugs? Where did you hide the drugs?'" Roberto said. "I told them, 'If I knew, I would say instead of suffering through all this.' "

He said he and his friends were released without charge and reported their detention to human rights officials.

Congress OK's $400 million
Military officials at the Ojinaga base told an AP reporter that no one was available to comment on the case. A request for comment from the Defense Department in Mexico City was not immediately answered.

Workers at the human rights office in Chihuahua state said no one was available to comment on the cases.

A $400 million drug-war aid package just approved by the U.S. Congress does not require the U.S. to verify that Mexico's military is respecting human rights, as many American lawmakers and Mexican human rights groups had insisted.

The requirement was dropped at the insistence of Mexican officials, who said it would violate the country's sovereignty.

And many Mexicans argue that the soldiers have to be tough. Arturo Huitzil, a federal government employee in Mexico City, said crime is out of control. He was robbed at an automatic teller machine on Father's Day.

"If the criminal is guilty, you have to use a strong hand," Huitzil said. "You can't coddle them."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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