IGUALA, Mexico (Reuters) - Dozens of people were abducted and murdered by Mexican security forces over the past six years during a gruesome war with drug cartels, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday, urging President Enrique Pena Nieto to overhaul the military justice system.
The rights group said that since 2007 it has documented 149 cases of people who were never seen again after falling into the hands of security forces, and that the government failed to properly investigate the "disappearances."
"The result was the most severe crisis of enforced disappearances in Latin America in decades," the U.S.-based group said. (Human Rights Watch report: r.reuters.com/fyk26t)
It recommended reforming Mexico's military justice system and creating a national database to link the missing with the thousands of unidentified bodies that piled up during the military-led crackdown on drug cartels.
The report was a grim reminder of the dark side of the war on drug cartels that killed an estimated 70,000 people during former President Felipe Calderon's six-year presidency.
The report also illustrates the obstacles that President Pena Nieto, who took office in December, faces in trying to stem the violence, restore order over areas of the country controlled by the drug cartels and end abuses by security forces.
For nearly three years, 56-year-old shopkeeper Maria Orozco has sought to discover the fate of her son. She says he was abducted along with five colleagues by soldiers from the nightclub where they worked in Iguala, a parched town south of the Mexican capital.
She says a grainy security video, submitted anonymously, shows the moment in 2010 when local soldiers rounded up the men.
"We used to see the military like Superman or Batman or Robin. Super heroes," said Orozco. "Now the spirit of the whole country has turned against them."
Hers was one of the cases illustrated in the Human Rights Watch report.
Pena Nieto has vowed to take a different tack to his predecessor Calderon and focus on reducing violent crime and extortion rather than on going head to head with drug cartels.
The government last month introduced a long-delayed law to trace victims of the drug war and compensate the families. It says it is moving ahead with plans to roll out a genetic database to track victims and help families locate the disappeared.
"There exists, in theory, a database with more than 27,000 people on it," said Lia Limon, deputy secretary of human rights at Mexico's interior ministry. "It's a job that's beginning."
Still, impunity remains rife. The armed forces opened nearly 5,000 investigations into criminal wrongdoing between 2007 and 2012, but only 38 ended in sentencing, according to Human Rights Watch.
In its report it describes the impact of the disappearances on victims' families, a daily reality for Ixchel Mireles, a 50-year-old librarian from the northern city of Torreon, whose husband Hector Tapia was abducted by men in federal police uniforms.
Neither Mireles nor her daughter has heard from Tapia since that night in June 2010.
"I want him to be alive, but the reality just destroys me," said Mireles. "I just want them to give him back, even if he is dead."
Since her husband's disappearance, Mireles has struggled financially, having lost his 40,000 pesos (2,065 pounds) a month salary. She has moved her daughter to a cheaper university and can barely keep up payments on her house.
"I now travel by foot," she said, noting that Mexico's social security system does not recognize the disappeared.
Some family members of the disappeared have asked for soldiers guilty of rights abuses to be judged like civilians, a move Mexico's Supreme Court has approved.
"To us it just seems that the military is untouchable," said Laura Orozco, 36, who says she witnessed her brother's military-led abduction. "They're bulletproof."
Additional reporting by Michael O'Boyle,; Editing by Simon Gardner, Kieran Murray and Lisa Shumaker