Related topics

Mexican Army Under Fire

April 15, 1998

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ He is a brigadier general with 35 years of service, and a plaque in his army apartment sums up what he used to believe: ``Discipline is having the soul of an eagle, but not taking flight because of obedience.″

Now, after 4 1/2 years in a military prison, obedience _ the kind that has helped protect the Mexican army from outside scrutiny for decades _ is his enemy.

``For justice to be done in Mexico, the army must be opened up,″ Gen. Jose Francisco Gallardo told reporters during a phone call Tuesday from his prison cell in Mexico’s First Military Camp.

His family _ his wife, three sons and a 4-year-old daughter conceived during a prison visit _ talks about how other families in the military housing complex here have voiced support for the general’s cause.

``They tell us in private, `We support you, but we can’t say anything publicly because we’ll lose our ranks,‴ said Leticia Enriquez Gallardo, the general’s wife of 28 years.

The unwritten code in army families is rigorous, despite reports of torture and beatings of soldiers within the ranks and abuse of civilians: Do not talk, do not accuse.

Gallardo says he is being prosecuted because he broke that rule in a 1993 article calling for a human rights ombudsman for civilian or soldiers’ complaints against the army.

Last week, a court-martial convicted Gallardo of amassing a fortune while in uniform and sentenced him to 14 years in military prison. On March 11, a similar five-officer panel found him guilty of corruption and destroying files. Sentences from the two convictions add up to 28 years.

The first conviction was for allegedly stealing horse feed from the army while he was commander of cavalry stables in 1988 and burning files to cover his tracks. The second involved $340,000 allegedly found in Gallardo’s bank account.

Gallardo claims much of the money actually belonged to a former defense minister, Gen. Juan Arevalo Gardoqui, who told him to use it to make improvements on a property owned by Arevalo Gardoqui. If that is true, Gallardo appears to have been at least a passive part of another army problem: corruption.

His family says their properties _ the three-bedroom army apartment with threadbare furniture, another small house in the process of construction, a small farm and another, tinier apartment _ were the product of 35 years’ honest work.

``Where are our riches? You can see we live humbly,″ Leticia Enriquez said.

Both courts-martial were open to reporters, who watched witnesses who stumbled and a judges’ panel that sometimes appeared less than impartial. The verdict was guilty.

``I knew it was going to happen,″ Gallardo wrote from his prison cell. ``The sentences ... sent a message warning other soldiers not to dissent publicly, or disagree with the high command.″

The army says both trials were fair and conducted according to military law.

But with the army taking on a greater role in national life in the wake of guerrilla uprisings and increased crime, the question is an important one: When patrols equipped with machine guns rumble through villages in the southern state of Chiapas, for example, who oversees the army’s respect for human rights?

``If there is a complaint by a civilian or ... a soldier, we’ll take up the case. But neither we, nor other civilian institutions can intervene in the military justice system,″ said Arturo de Aquino, spokesman for Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.

In one case several years ago, Gallardo says 20 sailors apparently were beaten and tortured by military police; in another, soldiers appear to have engaged in a shootout with local police.

While her father fights for acquittal _ Gallardo has appealed past convictions on charges such as `defaming the army’ to civilian courts and won _ his daughter, Jessica, has never seen her dad at home.

Guards at the military prison ask her mother to strip her before visits to the general, and male family members are asked to drop their pants for searches.

Update hourly