It is simultaneously easy and difficult to come to the conclusion that Mexico is at war. Mexico City, though rough around the edges by European standards, is anything but a war zone. Same with much of the country, where life goes on, beneath the body count headlines that now define Mexico internationally.
But, Mexico records more violent deaths than some official war zones. Even the most conservative accounts say that more than 40,000 have died. Certain regions experience outright gun battles, and civilians live with similar fears and daily risks as those in explicit conflict zones. To confuse matters, the Mexican government will at times state it is at war against the powerful drug cartels, only to later play down the metaphor.
Whether officially at war or not, President Felipe Calderón and other top officials may have to answer to some tough accusations on the topic: war crimes and crimes against humanity. Led by human rights lawyer Netzaí Sandoval, a group of Mexican lawyers filed a formal complaint at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Friday afternoon. It accuses five government officials and cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán of failing to respect the rules of armed conflict. And, it requests formal investigation and prosecution of all six.
Experts say the unique nature of Mexico’s “war” will make it tough to fit into the strict regulations for prosecution at the ICC. Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo hinted that they would not judge a case of “political responsibility”. Proponents counter that Mexico has pursued a reckless militarised policy with improperly trained security forces, aggravating a “blood bath” of innocent civilians and respected Narcos alike. They also point to Mexico’s inability to prosecute any more than a handful of the more than 6,500 formal complaints of human rights abuses against the army – a key component to justify admission to the ICC – and of the general inability to protect citizens.
Calderón’s administration has decried the charges as absurd. A Sunday evening press statement continued in this vein but concluded with a surprise: a thinly veiled threat of legal action against those leading the case and the 23,000 Mexicans who had signed in support.
Critics quickly responded to the statement, asking why Mexico should take time to attack the people trying to hold it to account, when a 98 per cent impunity rate follows its 50,000 drug war deaths. Brushing off accusations that this case is just a publicity stunt against an unpopular government, those supporting the action keep reiterating a similar question: if these are not war crimes, this is not a war, then where exactly do we look for justice?