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Mexican General Who Led the 'Death Platoon' Will Go to Prison for Torture and Murder

General Manuel de Jesús Moreno Aviña was convicted of one case, though he allegedly a wider rule of terror in a small border town, and even oversaw the resale of drugs his forces seized.
Imagen por Marco Ugarte/AP Photo

A Mexican army general has been sentenced to 52 years in prison for ordering the torture and murder of a young man in the town of Ojinaga, just over the border from Texas.

The events took place in 2008 when General Manuel de Jesús Moreno Aviña had reportedly imposed a generalized rule of terror — dubbed the "Death Platoon" — in Ojinaga which has a long tradition as a major trafficking point for Mexican cartels.


This was during the initial years of the massive military-led offensive against organized crime launched by former President Felipe Calderón and continued by his successor President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The sentence, released on Thursday, said José Heriberto Rojas Lemus was tortured within the Ojinaga military garrison where he was strapped to a post and soaked with water before he was given electric shocks for hours.

The sentence says that Rojas Lemus probably died because of the multiple cardiac arrests this caused. It adds that a military doctor was ordered to write up a death certificate blaming the death on an overdose.

After that, the sentence says, General Moreno ordered soldiers under his command to incinerate the body at a ranch some 60 miles away with 60 liters of diesel, and then dump the ashes in a nearby stream.

According to local media reports Moreno's "death platoon" was also allegedly involved in numerous other murders, as well as kidnapping and extortion as it used and abused its power within the area. The victims allegedly included Patricia González, who was a secretary of the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation against him, in 2009.

The general also reportedly oversaw the resale of cocaine and marijuana it had seized from local traffickers.

General Moreno was arrested in 2009 and initially charged within the military court system. A 2012 ruling by the Mexican supreme court transferred the case to civilian jurisdiction.


Related: The Mexican Soldiers and Police Shown Torturing a Woman in a Video Will Face Trial

This week's ruling orders that the general pay the family of his victim $15,000 dollars, and make a public apology.

The Mexican army has already apologized for a case of torture this month after the emergence of a video of two soldiers and and a federal police officer torturing a young woman.

"I have brought you here today because it is necessary to publicly show our indignation over these regrettable events," Defence Minister Salvador Cienfuegos told a special gathering of 26,000 troops. "I offer a heartfelt apology to all of society for this inadmissible event."

Santiago Aguirre, of the Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, dismissed the apology as little more than a PR strategy designed to preempt pressure on the military to withdraw from its leading role in Mexico's efforts to contain the cartels.

"Such public acts can't substitute for real sanctions for those responsible," Aguirre said. "We need international supervision and transparency that demonstrates that the army is willing to change its attitudes."

Aguirre insisted that the General Moreno case adds to mounting evidence that these kind of abuses are widespread, and not just isolated incidents. He mentioned the 2014 Tlatlaya case in which a military platoon allegedly killed suspected cartel members after they had been disarmed.

Related: Mexico Will Never Win Its War on Drugs — But It's Going to Keep Fighting Anyway


Meanwhile, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, is investigating ex-Mexican president Calderón and his former Secretary of Defense General Guillermo Galván Galván for their alleged role in the Ojinaga case in the context of the wider anti-cartel operations within the state of Chihuahua.

This stems from allegations by three soldiers also arrested in the "death platoon" case who allege they were tortured in an effort to force them to accept being scapegoats in the case where responsibility for human rights abuses goes further up the chain of command.

The army has reportedly blocked efforts to force General Galván to give testimony in the investigation on the grounds that he is still an adviser to the defense minister and so he cannot talk for "national security" reasons.

"The army has a lot of interests, especially economic interests, in remaining at the head of the war against drugs, and resisting a change of attitude about human rights," Aguirre, the activist, said. "The army should go back to its barracks."

By contrast, Raúl Benítez, an expert in the military attached to Mexico's National Autonomous University, argues that the the army is starting to change because of the international and political pressure.

"They can't keep resisting," he said. "There is a recognition within the army that the erosion of its political and moral authority is putting its honorability and role in question."


Benítiez also rejects the idea that the army should pull out of the drug wars, insisting that the numerous cases of abuse still do not reach anything like the levels seen within the country's police forces.

"The army should not withdraw to their barracks," Benítez said. "It would be paradise for the criminals."

Moreno is the first Mexican general to be given a prison sentence for 19 years. The last one was General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo who was convicted for his connections with the Juárez cartel and it's former leader Amado Carrillo Fuentes, known as el señor de los cielos — or the lord of the skies.

Related: The Mexican Government Isn't Thrilled With a New Report on Torture and Illegal Killings

Follow Alan Hernández on Twitter: @alanpasten