Mexico charges 30 marines over forced disappearances in border city

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gestures as he speaks during a news conference at the National Palace, in Mexico City, Mexico, March 24, 2021. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido/File Photo/File Photo

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican authorities have charged 30 marines for allegedly participating in a string of forced disappearances in the violent northern border city of Nuevo Laredo in 2018, the Attorney General's Office said on Thursday.

The charges mark the first high-profile move against military personnel by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in late 2018 vowing to curb violence and end impunity. His government has made unprecedented use of the military for a range of projects from policing to construction.

Prosecutors will have six months to carry out an investigation into the 30 arrested marines, the Attorney General's Office said.

"From February to May 2018 in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, there were a series of violent confrontations that led to various complaints of forced disappearance, tied to elements of the Mexican Navy," the office said in a statement.

The navy earlier this week incorrectly said the disappearances had taken place in 2014.

The navy, alongside the army, has played a key role in the government's military-led crackdown on drug cartels, which began in 2006.

Their deployment has led to frequent complaints of rights abuses by the armed forces, including allegations of up to 40 disappearances from February to May of 2018 in Nuevo Laredo, which has long been a hotspot for turf wars between drug cartels.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, denounced the crimes as "horrific," including the disappearances of at least five minors, and urged a full investigation.

Lopez Obrador has created a militarized police force known as the National Guard, made up in part of soldiers, to lead the fight against organized crime.

He has put the military in charge of the ports, civil aviation, COVID-19 vaccinations and infrastructure projects including a new airport to serve Mexico City and part of a tourist railway.

Lopez Obrador also backed the decision to drop an investigation into former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos, whom the United States had arrested on charges he had worked with a powerful drug cartel.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and Daina Beth Solomon; editing by Jane Wardell)

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