Human Rights Challenges in Mexico, Part 1: The Use of Torture

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Since 2006, the deterioration of Mexico’s security situation due to the Mexican government’s “war on organized crime” has made international headlines. The violence has affected tens of thousands of citizens and exacerbated long-standing issues of corruption and institutional weakness. During the administration of former President Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) saw a five-fold increase in complaints of human rights violations by Mexican soldiers and federal police, including torture, rape, extrajudicial execution, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearance.  At the same time, human rights defenders have found it increasingly difficult to carry out their work due to threats to their safety. Recently elected president Enrique Peña Nieto has firmly expressed his commitment to making sure that “rights established on paper become reality,” but his government has yet to make concrete changes that would reflect this commitment.

During the “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico” event, co-hosted by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and Just AssociatesStephanie Brewer (Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center) discussed the use of torture as it relates to Mexico’s criminal justice system. The following is a translation…

 “I work in the Pro Center in Mexico City. In the Pro Center, we receive cases every day, or almost every day, and more than one case per day on average. More than half of cases we receive have to do with the violation of human rights in the criminal justice system in Mexico. Therefore, thinking about the current human rights challenges in Mexico, for the new federal government as well as for the state governments, one of the greatest problems is the use of torture in Mexico’s criminal justice system. 

For example, as the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT) has declared, torture is a systematic practice in Mexico. Human Rights Watch declared the same thing a year ago when it published a report called “Neither Security, Nor Rights” (“Ni Seguridad, Ni Derechos”). The Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture also visited Mexico in 2008. Therefore there are many resources that document this practice by all security forces and at all levels.

Why does this practice [of torture] persist and why is it systemic? Our analysis based on the cases that we document, statistics, and other organizations is that it continues due to a series of incentivizing factors. Primarily, it is a tool that allows authorities to secure condemning sentences against people who much of the time are innocent, or have not been proven innocent or guilty, without having to do complete, serious, and scientific investigations. This problem is historically ingrained in the country and continues today.

Why does it work this way? Despite the constitutional human rights reforms, judges continue admitting confessions, declarations and other evidence obtained under torture as legal evidence. Many times acts of torture are carried out in irregular detention locations, in military bases, and in other places. The person is tortured, signs a declaration or even a blank paper, then is later tried, and in the trial says, ´this isn´t true, I was being tortured and that´s why I signed this paper.´ At this point the judge should exclude the ministerial pre-trial confession, should order an investigation into the claim of torture, and the in-court declaration should prevail; but the real practice is the opposite. Judges normally continue to admit the pre-trial confession under a principle called procedural immediacy, one of several criteria that are applied to value the evidence given under torture and devalue the retraction. This is something that should have changed with the [Mexican] constitutional reform, and that should have changed much earlier with the signing and ratification of international human rights treaties, but that in fact continues to occur.

On the other hand, there has been almost universal impunity in federal cases of torture during the past 18 years. From 1994 to 2012 there were two federal judgments of torture, which obviously makes impunity the general rule. 

Finally, another problem is the lack of adequate documentation of torture through the medical and psychological exams required by the Istanbul Protocol, which is an international protocol designed by experts and medical and human rights organizations to document torture. Since 2003, Mexico has had its own localized version of the Istanbul Protocol. However, it is common that it not be applied even upon request; or it is applied inadequately or in a re-victimizing way. Therefore, this is another great challenge. Another problem is that only ministerial lawsuits can apply the Istanbul Protocol so that it carries the full weight in a criminal proceeding. [That is, to establish legal precedent.] If it is [applied by] the National Commission of Human Rights or a non-governmental organization specialized in torture documentation, it will not carry the full weight in the legal process. 

These are some of the structural factors that we see: torture is incentivized and torture is not punished. We identify these as pending challenges of the future [in Mexico].”

Click here to read “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico, Part 2: Attacks on Human Rights Defenders”

Click here to read “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico, Part 3: Military Jurisdiction”