“What happens in the army stays in the army”: the hell of reporting sexual abuse in the Mexican Armed Forces

The Breath of Infantry Lieutenant Colonel Dorian N that day smelled of guajillo chili. Sergeant AFJ says it a month later and squirms many miles away. At the end of April, the military denounced her superior for sexual abuse in a process plagued with obstacles. Since then, she tells EL PAÍS, her life has turned into a nightmare: “I denounced and threw the whole army on me.” The 30-year-old young woman affirms that she has been removed from her duties, isolated by her colleagues, accused of insubordination and also threatened with death. If she now dares to tell her story, it is out of fear: “I am afraid that the situation will go further and they will rape me or they will make me disappear. I want everything to be in writing.” The Secretary of National Defense has not wanted to answer the questions of this newspaper.

It was the morning of April 23 and the computer science assistant first sergeant went to the archives department to consult information about some printers. From her post in Tapachula, Chiapas, she had to collect how many impressions had been made that month in the 36th military zone. She lacked the data of battalion 61, in Tonalá, and 100, in Chiapas Nuevo. She knocked on the wooden door and was answered by a soldier through a gate: “What do you need, my sergeant?”

During that conversation, someone came up behind AFJ and, he says, grabbed his hip. “She went all over my body from the waist up, but she really did it viciously, rubbing herself. He grabbed my breasts, squeezed them and moved in circular motions, ”he tells of the jerk. The young woman stands up to recreate her aggression: “She brought her penis close to my body and climbed on me, as if she gave me the I arrivedwhat we know as I arrived [embestida]it went up: wham!”.

“I turned around and Lieutenant Colonel Dorian released me. He started laughing and told me: ‘Oh, sorry, I confused you with Karina.’ And he walked away laughing. I was stunned, white, I didn’t know what to do. I saw how he found another justice and told him laughing: ‘Oh, I screwed up, I already watered it’, and they went into his office”, continues the soldier and points out: “I don’t get along with him, I don’t like take me because there are misinterpretations, it’s sad but that’s the way it is”. AFJ affirms that she felt “disappointed” with herself: “When I was in high school the same thing happened to me and I swore to myself that they were not going to do that kind of thing to me again,” she says and then cries.

Complaint of sexual abuse.  filed on April 24 by sergeant AFJ, in Tapachula.
Complaint of sexual abuse. filed on April 24 by sergeant AFJ, in Tapachula.

The day after the attack, the young woman wrote a complaint addressed to the military justice center number 18 El Sabino, in Chiapas. “Two hours after sending it, a commander came down to inform me that he was not going to proceed. He told me: ‘I’m not going to put it in because with this part you’re going to ruin the chief’s military career,’ ”says the young woman. Faced with this situation, she decided to escalate the complaint: he sent it to the general directorate of Human Rights, the Women’s Observatory and the commander of the Seventh Military Region, based in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital. She only received one response: “The aforementioned Equality Observatory lacks the power to know about the behaviors that you refer to.” This military body was created in 2011 specifically to “eliminate any form of discrimination based on gender.” Faced with a complaint of abuse, she declared herself incompetent.

In one of the last records that the National Secretary of Defense had to make public —through a request for transparency to the newspaper The Sun of Mexico— There are 582 complaints of sexual attacks within the Army between 2006 and 2021. Experts consider that these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, because most victims do not dare to report. According to the same data from SEDENA, only 33 soldiers have been prosecuted in these 15 years for these attacks.

AFJ has received WhatsApp messages, reviewed by this newspaper, in which other colleagues from the same military zone report similar attacks and recommend the victim to desist in her complaint. A woman who asks to remain anonymous wrote to him: “Three years ago I was a soldier in the 36th military zone and was harassed by a second sergeant. He told me that he dreamed that he had sexual relations with me. He threatened me with arrest warrants. I was always afraid of rape. I had to give up my dreams because of sexual harassment and not having support from superiors, because their motto is that a soldier cannot act against a superior. I deserted the army.” Another sergeant, a colleague of hers, tried to advise her: “You cannot go against the system, you know that there will be commanders who will do everything possible to make you leave.” But she kept going.

Soldiers in the Mexican Army, in the 33 military zone of Campeche.
Soldiers in the Mexican Army, in the 33 military zone of Campeche.Michael Balam (Dark Room)

A few days later, a call from the Human Rights directorate made the military commanders react. They started a protocol for the prevention and attention to sexual harassment, and sent the AFJ complaint to the El Sabino center. “This command gives you all the facilities to go to the External Consultation Medical Unit to receive the medical and psychological care you require, as well as any other measure for your protection, without it going unnoticed that your complaint has already been duly channeled to the Agent of the Military Public Ministry”, reads a document dated April 26, signed by Infantry Colonel Hamlet Toledo.

But the 7th of May arrived and nothing had moved. AFJ insisted again to the command: the “omission” of both the Military Public Ministry and the administrative staff re-victimized her. She wrote, again, desperately, on May 13: “19 calendar days have passed since the denounced act was committed without my interview being received, nor has the ministerial authority designated me as a legal adviser or protective measures have been decreed. That same day the response from the General Staff arrived to notify that the complaint had been channeled to the Attorney General’s Office of Military Justice, based in Mexico City and the entire process would be carried out there from then on.

Between this back and forth of writings, the life of the young sergeant became “something that no one can imagine.” She takes a breath and AFJ lists: they began to follow her and she had to move house, she received death threats written under her office door, her colleagues stopped talking to her, she lost access to work areas, they opened two folders investigation accusing her of insubordination and document extraction, and threatened to expel her from the armed forces. “The commander of the seventh region said that the people who worked inside and denounced us were disloyal people, that we did not deserve to be in the army, that what happened in the army had to stay in the army,” she says and adds angrily: “ They have also told me that how dare I denounce, that if I am not ashamed: shame on him! I am defending myself. What he did is an aggravated sexual abuse from one public servant to another.”

“I dreamed of joining the army”

AFJ entered the army 10 years ago, when she was 20 and studying Administration and Financial Management at the Polytechnic University of the State of Morelos. She did a social service at the Cuernavaca Military Hospital and was fascinated by the discipline and respect that the uniformed men exuded. “Since then I dreamed of joining the army,” she says. She dropped out of college and got a job as a computer science private. She later spent a few years in Morelia, in Michoacán, and in 2019 she was sent to the southern border, to Tapachula. She has been climbing the ranks, and proudly boasts, she was ranked third nationally in the promotion to second sergeant. “The institution is the most noble and good, it is the people who have corrupted it,” defends the military.

When the attack happened, AFJ was involved in a labor conflict with the general in command of military zone 36, Miguel Ángel N. He had summoned a procedure called an honor council, in which military workers are evaluated. The sergeant had already passed one in December, but in early January 2022 she was called again to another for having accumulated 36 days of arrest in 2021 for breaching military discipline. He had slept through a class (three days of arrest), been late three times for roll call (a total of 23 days) and had not shown enough respect to a superior (10 days): in total he exceeded the 30 days allowed in one year. AFJ’s defense was based on the fact that these were minor offenses committed during a difficult emotional period for her due to a family problem; she asked for the opportunity to correct her conduct.

The sanctions after a council of honor range from military prison for 15 days, change of unit to another part of the country or expulsion, depending on the seriousness of the acts committed. The sergeant affirms that she did not have a real opportunity to defend herself against her, because the general had already decided her punishment long before her —as she induces from leaked conversations between the members of the Council, also shown to this newspaper—. On January 19, the general of zone 36 certifies his dismissal from the Army because “with his conduct he has shown indiscipline, lack of professionalism and zeal in the performance of his duty.”

Sergeant AFJ, in an interview in Mexico City.
Sergeant AFJ, in an interview in Mexico City.Monica Gonzalez Islas

After appeals and resources —in which AFJ appealed that the council had been held out of time and that the arrests had not taken place in the 36 military zone but when she was on duty in other battalions—, the intervention of the Computer General (the unit to which the sergeant depends), Haro Cárdenas, forces the young woman to remain in the post. On April 25, General Miguel Ángel N issues a document in which he declares his own advice invalid for “not being duly documented” and for “defects in the process.” In this context, aggression occurs. The young woman can’t help but see a connection: “Lieutenant Colonel Dorian is part of the general staff of the 36th military zone.”

On May 11, she is summoned again to a Council of Honor for the same events of 2021: “My general Miguel Ángel sent word that he had done that so that I would not want to continue accusing the graduates and that of his I was running that they were going to fire me from the army. They try to intimidate me morally. They are hostilities to corner me. But with me they are hardly going to do it because I am already in this boat. I ask for justice and for those responsible to pay for what he did.” EL PAÍS has tried to obtain the Sedena version, but has not received a response.

The sergeant recounts her experience in several meetings with this newspaper in Mexico City, where she is following the process of her complaint. On June 6, she gave her first statement for the investigation file and has had several meetings with psychological experts. However, she still doesn’t trust the process. After these tests she must return to her position in Tapachula, “to the mouth of the wolf”. “I’m afraid to go back, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, I’m afraid they’ll disappear,” she says desperately. In Mexico there are more than 100,000 missing persons, a crime that has become, according to the UN, the paradigm of the perfect crime in the country. “I don’t want to be just another number.”

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