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Report blames thousands of human rights atrocities on Mexican military

Gustavo Acosta Luján is seen in an undated photo.
Gustavo Acosta Luján is seen in an undated photo. The Acosta family/Human Rights Watch

Susana Seijas is CBS News producer based in Mexico City

MEXICO CITY - A leading human rights group issued a report Wednesday charging the Mexican military and police with widespread abuses in the war on drugs.

Human Rights Watch released the report after meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.  Calderon told the group that in his view the biggest threat to human rights in Mexico comes from criminals. "They are the ones who, by committing serious crimes such as murder, kidnapping and extortion, systematically violate the rights of citizens and their families," Calderon said according to a written statement put out after the meeting by his office. The HRW report listed cases like that of the Acosta family, documented below. The day began with the sound of shooting outside the Acosta house. Their home was riddled with bullets. There was banging at the front door.

Gustavo Acosta shared the story of his son's death with the group Human Rights Watch. According to his account, Gustavo Acosta Jr., a 29-year-old father and club owner, got up and answered the banging on the door. Outside, armed Navy officers asked why the family had shot at them. When Gustavo Jr. said his family was unarmed and that there were children inside, one of the Navy officers shot him in the head.

Read the full report by Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch reports the young man's father and brother Eliot Daniel witnessed his killing. "My son was shielding me," said Gustavo Sr. "I was behind him, my son fell at my feet."

The Navy officers then reportedly handcuffed Eliot Daniel and took him to a nearby house where they threatened to kill his entire family if he reported what happened to his brother. Although investigations into Acosta's death have been opened by civilian and military prosecutors, no members of the Navy have been charged for the crime.

Acosta became another faceless statistic in Mexico's increasing death count, which has claimed up to 40,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and declared "war" on organized crime.

"The scale of the violence that we're seeing in Mexico is unprecedented, innocent people are being caught in the middle, they're being tortured, they're being killed, they're being disappeared and they're being branded as criminals," says Nik Steinberg, the author of the Human Rights Watch report "Neither Rights nor Security."

Mexican authorities assert that 90 percent of people killed in drug-related violence are members of criminal groups, though most deaths in Mexico are not investigated.

According to Wednesday's report, Acosta's killing is one of the thousands of human rights atrocities blamed on the military - including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detentions and the forced disappearance of civilians. The report was two years in the making and included dozens of cases as well as the Acosta family's account.

Human Rights Watch spent two years interviewing victims of crime like the Acosta family in states most affected by violence in Mexico, including Baja Calif., Chihuahua, Guerrero, Nuevo Leon and Tabasco.

Since Calderon deployed more than 50,000 soldiers to fight Mexico's powerful drug cartels five years ago, the group claims his public security policy has not succeeded in reducing violence but instead resulted in a dramatic increase of grave human rights violations.

Although the military have captured and killed major cartel members, over 5,000 official human rights violations have been filed. Most cases remain unsolved and according to HRW, after thousands of official complaints against the military, less than 30 soldiers have been convicted by military courts.

For the Acosta family, Mexico's drug war is not just another headline of a massacre or the latest mayor shot to death in a faraway city, but the painful reality of not having their brother, father and son- and knowing they're unlikely to see justice in his murder.

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