UN special rapporteur says practice of torture is “generalized” in Mexico

Report calls for government to stop using army personnel in security operations

Jan Martínez Ahrens
UN Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez in Mexico City.
UN Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez in Mexico City. ALEX CRUZ (EFE)

The sentence sends a shiver down the reader’s spine. “Torture and ill-treatment in the moments following detention and before detainees are brought before a judge are generalized in Mexico and occur in a context of impunity.” Thus begins a report by UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez, based on his visit to Mexico between April 21 to May 2, 2014. In the report, which will be presented in March, Méndez reviews the failures of Mexican law enforcement and draws up a critique that spares few: “There is evidence of the active participation of police and ministerial police forces from almost all jurisdictions and of the armed forces, but also of tolerance, indifference or complicity on the part of some doctors, public defenders, prosecutors and judges.”

The special rapporteur recommends putting an end to the legacy of former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012): the use of military force in security operations. He also demands the elimination of arraigo, a controversial measure that allows authorities to detain a person, with a warrant and at the request of the Attorney General’s Office, for 40 days (renewable) during the investigation of offenses related to organized crime to determine whether to bring criminal charges against the suspect. This practice, often employed in the war on drugs, violates the presumption of innocence and exposes the detainee to torture, Méndez says. He also questions its efficacy: “Of the more than 8,000 persons subjected to arraigo detention since 2008, only 3.2 percent have been convicted.”

Torture ends in death, followed by disappearance. For women, the horrors of torture include sexual violence

The report – pending final revision – begins its review with the war on drugs, which started in 2006. This offensive which, at its height, called for the deployment of 50,000 soldiers, led to a sharp rise in complaints of torture and ill-treatment. In the six years prior to 2007, the National Human Rights Commission had received 320 complaints on average. In 2012, there were more than 2,100 reports of torture. The number of complaints fell by 30 percent during President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, but many of the contributing factors still exist.

The UN special rapporteur says torture in Mexico “is used mainly from the moment when a person is detained until he is brought before the judicial authority” with the goal of extracting confessions on organized crime activities. The victims are usually poor or from marginalized social sectors. The modus operandi, according to the complaints filed, shows a disturbing pattern. The arresting officers arrive dressed in civilian clothes, sometimes hooded, without a warrant or any other information to explain the motives of the arrest. Then, the nightmare comes. “They are blindfolded and driven to unknown locations, including military bases, where the torture continues, consisting of a combination of: punches, kicks and beatings with sticks; electric shocks through the application of electrical devices such as cattle prods to their bodies, usually their genitals; asphyxiation with plastic bags; waterboarding; forced nudity; suspension by their limbs; threats and insults.”

This ordeal may last for days. Méndez says sometimes torture ends in death, followed by disappearance. For women, the horrors of torture include sexual violence: “Forced nudity, insults and verbal humiliation, groping of breasts and genitals, insertion of objects in the genitals and repeated rape by multiple individuals.”

The UN report says there were only five convictions for torture between 2005 and 2013

For Méndez, the pursuit of these abuses fails to offer any calming results. The report says there were only five convictions for torture between 2005 and 2013. According to the UN official, arrest files and medical exams do not register abuses correctly. And from then on, the process becomes an uphill battle. “There is inadequate monitoring of the legality of detention or the deadline for bringing detainees before the Public Prosecution Service; detainees are not given immediate access to an adequate defense; detainees’ statements are given without judicial oversight or the presence of a lawyer; investigations are not launched automatically and evidence obtained under torture is not excluded automatically; and the Istanbul Protocol is being interpreted restrictively and incorrectly.”

Despite the deterioration of these safeguards, the special rapporteur admits that some progress has been made in the last few years. The laws have started to bring human rights violations committed by soldiers against civilians out from under military jurisdiction. They have added more protection for detainees and established protocols that “strengthen safeguards.” Still, the Mexican government has not succeeded in “reversing the prevailing impunity.”

Within this context, Méndez expresses extreme concern over the “unacceptable tragedy in Iguala,” where “municipal authorities, in collusion with organized crime, forcibly disappeared 43 student teachers, executed a further six, some of whose bodies showed clear signs of torture, and injured more than 20 people.” The UN official says these killings should serve to as a call to action for the government to implement structural reforms in security.

In December 2014, Mexican President Peña Nieto announced a range of legislative and executive measures to fight impunity, including the elimination of the municipal police force, which has been heavily infiltrated by elements linked to the drug trade, intervention in corrupt city council administrations, and a special law against torture and ill-treatment. This newspaper tried but failed to secure Human Rights Undersecretary Lía Limón’s take on these initiatives.

“We agree with the report,” says Amnesty International Mexico director Perseo Quiroz. “Torture continues to be generalized and it happens between the time of arrest until the initial appearance before a judge. And, though there has been a decline in the number of cases, it remains six times as high as in 2003.”

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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