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Mexico Senate debates militarizing National Guard a week after Army kills 4-year-old girl

The federal government claims Heidi Mariana Pérez was killed by a stray bullet from a clash between soldiers and members of organized crime, but the girl’s mother and human rights defenders said only soldiers were involved.

MÉXICO CITY (CN) — While Mexico’s Senate debated expanding the country’s military Thursday, the family of a 4-year-old girl killed by soldiers last week demanded justice outside the National Palace in downtown Mexico City. 

Heidi Mariana Pérez was killed on Aug. 31 by what the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) said was a stray bullet during a firefight with members of organized crime in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. 

“She was a beautiful, loving child, very smart,” said Heidi’s mother Cristina Pérez at a press conference hosted by the Mexico City-based human rights organization Centro Prodh. “She was protective of her brother and others in her life. She was a hothead, but she was always happy, dressed as a princess. That’s how I’ll remember her.”

Heidi had just started preschool in August and would have turned five later this month. She was shot while a relative drove her to the hospital to see a doctor about stomach problems she was experiencing.

“I’m just asking the president and attorney general to listen to me, as I listened to their version of events,” she said. “As her family and as victims, we also have the right to have our own version of what happened.”

Cristina Pérez Rodríguez (right) and others stand for a photo at a press conference concerning her daughter Heidi's death at a press conference in Mexico City on Sep. 8, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

The glaring difference between the two versions is that the family’s does not include members of organized crime.

“There is no evidence that a confrontation occurred there between members of organized crime and the Mexican Army,”  said Raymundo Ramos, head of the Human Rights Committee of Nuevo Laredo. 

He investigated the scene of the incident with Cristina and Griselda Saavedra, the family member who was driving Heidi and her brother Kevin to the hospital. They found no signs of a firefight.

Saavedra said she did not see any other civilian vehicles in the area that night. She turned away from her route when a military vehicle blocked them from continuing. That’s when she heard the shots.

“We covered the scene block-by-block,” said Ramos. “It is not a scene of violence. There are no shot-up military vehicles, no wounded soldiers, no facades that prove that there was a confrontation, as detailed in the president’s story, which is obviously informed by SEDENA."

He accused the National Human Rights Commission of having abandoned the family of Heidi Pérez. Aside from one perfunctory visit, it has not sent inspectors or psychologists to Nuevo Laredo to investigate the incident and support the family.

While they spoke, senators two blocks away began debating a constitutional reform to transfer the National Guard to the authority of SEDENA.

Senator Emilio Álvarez Icaza speaks with anti-militarization activists before a debate over the transfer of Mexico's National Guard to the Secretariat of National Defense on Sep. 8, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

The 2019 constitutional reform pushed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that created the National Guard mandated that it be a civil security force. 

“The consequences of moving the National Guard to SEDENA have a huge amount of implications, not just in terms of violating the Constitution, but also, for example, in terms of the budget,” said Emilio Álvarez Icaza, an independent senator who spoke to reporters before Thursday’s session.

The move would expand Mexico’s military by over 115,000 and more than double the funds destined for the military. 

“If the Army suddenly receives the budget of the National Guard, it’ll be the department with the second-largest budget in the federal government,” said Álvarez. “We must ask if SEDENA has priority over health, over food, over all these other elements of public administration.”

There is also the glaring fact that the National Guard has not made Mexico any safer. The list of disappeared people has skyrocketed since its inception, 2022 is turning out to be the most dangerous year for journalists on record, and even avocados and limes have been sucked into the country’s ever expanding web of organized crime.

And Centro Prodh reported in April that 94 people had been killed by National Guard troops from May 2019 to March 2022, according to freedom of information requests it submitted.

Despite an estimated 400 protesters marching against the initiative on Tuesday night, Thursday’s demonstration did not compare by a long shot. Only four members of the activist group Seguridad Sin Guerra (Security Without War) showed up for what they called a “symbolic closure” of the Senate.

“Many people consider the reform to be a given, so they didn’t come out,” said María Elena Morera, executive director of the militarization watchdog Causa En Común (Common Cause). "The next step is to take it to the courts."

Marcela Villalobos (right) and other anti-militarization activists protest outside Mexico's Senate on Sep. 8, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

“But I believe that the last bit of effort doesn’t cost us anything, so we’re going to be here while the senators enter so that there’s evidence that society is not on board with this,” she said.

Marcela Villalobos and other activists with Seguridad Sin Guerra bird-dogged Morena Senator Martha Lucía Micher as she entered the Senate building, demanding that she tell them her intentions. 

Micher said she would vote “for Mexico” and walked into the building as activists accused her of participating in a coup. 

Meanwhile, a crowd of around 150 people had gathered outside the National Palace to protest and wait for Heidi’s mother Cristina to arrive with a letter for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. They came from Nuevo Laredo to support Pérez and demand justice for the death of the four-year-old.

“Murderer soldiers! Out of the streets,” they chanted outside the buildings of Mexico City's main square that were decked out in patriotic trimming for upcoming Independence Day celebrations, which include López Obrador's military parade.

“We came to demand justice and that they get the soldiers out of the streets,” said Nuevo Laredo resident José Luis Vallejo. “Our problem with the military in Tamaulipas goes back decades. Heidi, may she rest in peace, is not the first of their victims.”

Cristina Pérez Rodríguez stands with protesters outside Mexico's National Palace in downtown Mexico City on Sep. 8, 2022. She and 150 others from her hometown of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, came to demand justice for her daughter Heidi. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Vallejo’s statement echoed the message that human rights defender Ramos gave earlier at the press conference at Centro Prodh.

“Tamaulipas is a state with two decades of violence, insecurity and armed forces, and in two decades, they haven’t been able to bring peace to the state,” said Ramos. “Tamaulipas is the clearest proof that the use of armed forces for tasks of public security does not work.”

Over a decade ago, nearer the beginning of the drug war started by Felipe Calderón in 2006, López Obrador had a similar view of the issue.

“Problems of insecurity and violence cannot be solved by the Army,” he said in 2010. “We cannot accept a militarist government.”

On Tuesday, López Obrador admitted he had changed his mind on the issue, “considering the problem I inherited [from previous administrations].”

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