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Is the UN sure it wants Mexican soldiers keeping the peace?

CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico — When criminal gunmen abducted 15-year-old Betzi Rodriguez a few blocks from her house, her mother was frantic.

This northern Mexican city is home to the feared Zetas cartel, who are alleged to kidnap teenage girls and force them into prostitution.

Carla Peña immediately reported her daughter’s disappearance to police and scoured the streets searching desperately.

After 10 harrowing days, Peña received a call. Betzi had been found. But when Peña arrived at the police station, officers led her to identify the corpse. A soldier had killed the 15-year-old student along with two of her alleged kidnappers in a botched arrest, the officers revealed.

“I was so devastated I almost collapsed. They first said she was killed in crossfire. But the soldier had shot her seven times, putting three bullets in her head at point-blank range,” Peña said. “There were witnesses that said her hands were tied. They said her last words were, ‘Not me. I want to see my mother.’”

After Peña made a complaint, several soldiers corroborated that an army lieutenant had indeed shot her unarmed daughter at point-blank range. The lieutenant was arrested and charged with homicide, a case that has yet to be ruled on.

The Betzi Rodriguez shooting, in 2013, was one of a series of alleged murders of civilians blamed on Mexican soldiers since President Enrique Peña Nieto came to office in 2012.

In the most high-profile case, prosecutors in November charged seven soldiers in the killing of 22 suspects in Mexico state. Parents of 43 students kidnapped in Guerrero state have also demanded that soldiers be investigated for any possible role in that mass disappearance, which has prompted global outrage.

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But now, the government is working to globalize its troops’ mandate. Officials are analyzing a plan to send Mexican soldiers on United Nations peacekeeping missions, the presidency said this month.

That would be a first for Mexico — but some aren’t celebrating.

Human rights advocates have condemned the proposal, saying the country needs to better train its soldiers before it sends them to foreign war zones.

“It is an army that does not have the culture of respecting human rights and doesn’t have the track record to serve as a model when facing the circumstances of international crises,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas head of Human Rights Watch.

Amnesty International also released a report this year detailing widespread torture committed by Mexican soldiers and marines.

Mexico's military would not be the first with a dubious rights record among UN peacekeepers, who are currently deployed on 16 missions in countries that include Haiti, South Sudan, Syria and Cyprus.

Take Zimbabwe, with 55 police and soldiers on UN missions. Both Pakistan and India contribute close to 8,000 police and military personnel. By comparison, the United States has just 129 members on UN peacekeeping missions.

It’s not yet clear how many troops Mexico would send.

Boots on the ground at home

Former President Felipe Calderon unleashed the army on the country’s own cities and villages when he led a military offensive against drug cartels during his 2006 to 2012 term. During that time, soldiers also clocked up a series of homicide charges, including the killing of five women and children headed to a funeral in Sinaloa state.

When Peña Nieto took power, he promised to gradually pull soldiers off the streets. However, with cartel violence raging on here in Ciudad Victoria and many other cities, he’s launched several new military surges. Subsequently, his presidency has been shadowed by new killings, including the alleged massacre of the 22 suspects in Tlatlaya, the Mexican military’s biggest scandal in years.

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The president promises justice for any victims of army bullets, saying they are isolated cases from an otherwise well-trained force. “Promoting, respecting and protecting human rights is not only a constitutional obligation, it’s an inalienable right,” Peña Nieto said in a recent speech. “Our armed forces clearly share this conviction of respect for human rights.”

Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, the head of the Mexican army, has also promised justice for victims of his troops. “Any time that a soldier breaks a law, he is tried by the correct authority,” he said in an end of year speech.

Still, critics fear it’s not a question of just a few bad apples but some fundamental problems with the military institution.

“The Mexican army is not a police force. They don’t investigate or ask questions. They come to kill. It is how they have acted since the 1970s, and it has been well documented,” said Juan Velediaz, a specialist on military affairs and author of “The General Without Memory.”

Velediaz also asks whether the army had a role in the disappearance of the 43 students in Iguala in September. The city is home to a military base with about 600 soldiers involved in anti-narcotics work and other duties. When police and alleged cartel hit men attacked the students, the military claims the soldiers stayed inside the base.

But Velediaz finds this hard to believe. “It is illogical that the soldiers wouldn’t go out onto the street,” he said. “When something happens, they respond. They also have agents in plain clothes working day and night, watching everything that is going on.”

Mexican prosecutors allege that corrupt police officers and cartel assassins took the 43 students to a garbage dump, killing them and burning their bodies.

But Felipe de la Cruz Sandoval, father of one of the students, said he has demanded that prosecutors also look at the soldiers’ role.

In response, the attorney general has promised him a thorough investigation, de la Cruz said.

Army chief Cienfuegos has reiterated the position that his troops were not involved. Last month, he told a congressional committee that the army has a protocol to only respond to incidents when the police request it.

“The events of Iguala were incomprehensible and have moved the national conscience,” Cienfuegos said.

Peña, the mother of the deceased Betzi Rodriguez, said she is not against the army as a whole. Like many Mexicans, she has family members in the military. But she says soldiers need to be better trained and disciplined to stop more atrocities.

“I don’t want other mothers to be suffering like I am,” she said.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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