Authors: Daniella Burgi-Palomino, Lily Folkerts
This past April, a video of a military soldier and a federal police officer torturing a woman in Mexico went viral on social media. Unfortunately, such practices are all too common in Mexico, but the public video provided a visual example of the systematic and repeated use of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by Mexican security forces.
In the video, a handcuffed woman can be seen sitting on the floor and being asphyxiated by a plastic bag that a soldier and police officer place on her while questioning her alleged ties to organized crime. They can also be heard threatening to use electric shocks on her. While the video only came to light a few months ago, the torture of this twenty-one year old woman occurred a year earlier in a small town in the state of Guerrero, one of the states with the highest number of torture complaints in 2015 according to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos or CNDH).
The reactions to the video by high ranking Mexican government officials were welcomed and first-time acknowledgements of the use of torture, but were still too little too late. Mexico’s Secretary of Defense offered an immediate televised apology stating before thousands of soldiers, “We must not, nor can we confront illegality with more illegality,” However, he also referred to the incident captured on video as “isolated.” The National Security Commissioner and the Federal Police Commissioner likewise offered apologies emphasizing that crimes cannot be investigated by committing crimes and that the systemic use of torture by Mexican security forces can undermine the progress being made in Mexico’s criminal justice system. These statements are a step forward—in the past, high ranking Mexican government officials have immediately defended the actions of their security forces and denied the existence of a problem. Still, it should not take a leaked video for such apologies to be made. And their value is undermined when the officials say the cases are rare.
The practice of torture is so common in Mexico’s justice system that 64% of respondents in a 2015 Amnesty International report survey disagreed with the statement that they would be safe from torture if they were arrested. According to the estimates of the Miguel Augustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center, approximately 10,000 people are tortured annually in Mexico. Multiple international and regional organizations have affirmed the generalized and widespread dimension of the problem, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture in his 2014 report and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in its latest Mexico country report. The U.S. State Department listed torture as one of the most significant human rights issues in its 2015 human rights report on Mexico.
Increases in the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by all levels of Mexican security forces mirror the years when the Mexican government began militarizing its national strategy to fight organized crime. Authorities increased the role of the military in policing tasks and blurred the lines of responsibility in joint operations between military, marines, and all levels of police. It is no surprise that human rights violations surged alongside the torture of individuals to gather confessions, gain incriminating information, or punish suspects. In the six years from January 2007 through December 2015, complaints to the CNDH regarding torture more than quadrupled.
Though there are international guidelines on the definition of torture, exactly how torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment have been officially categorized has also been a problem in Mexico. Authorities (sometimes the very agencies involved in the torture) have frequently categorized some incidents as less serious crimes such as “assault” or “abuse of authority.” The majority of the documented cases of torture occur during the time that someone is detained, usually arbitrarily, and before that individual is brought before a judge. The IACHR documented specific types of torture in Mexico ranging from punches, kicks with boots, beatings with sticks and weapons to different parts of the body, to insults, threats, and humiliation; electric shocks, witnessing or hearing others being tortured; asphyxiation, waterboarding; and forced nudity and sexual torture. While all populations are subject to torture, groups who have historically faced discrimination and exclusion such as indigenous communities and women are more likely to be victims of torture when arrested. Even the investigations into the disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college and the Tlatlaya massacre of 22 civilians—two of the most emblematic cases of grave human rights violations in the past two years in Mexico—included evidence of torture being used against key suspects and witnesses to force them to back the Mexican government’s false narrative of the incidents.
The use of torture is not just isolated to Mexico’s security forces. In Mexico’s efforts to increase migration enforcement along its southern border with Guatemala, alarming cases of its National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración or INM) torturing migrants and subjecting them to cruel and inhuman treatment in migrant detention centers have also come to light. Since the end of last year, three cases have led to suicide. In another 15 cases since December 2015, Mexican citizens have even been tortured by INM in efforts to pressure them to say that they are Central American migrants. LAWG and civil society partners have denounced these horrific cases and demanded that the Mexican government take steps immediately to change its treatments of all migrants.
On the observance of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture June 26th, there is virtually no support or justice for survivors of torture in Mexico. Efforts to address the use of torture in the Ayotzinapa and Tlatlaya cases, as well as in thousands of others, need to go beyond apologies. The implementation of concrete actions to address and prohibit the pervasive use of torture and cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment by Mexico’s security forces at all levels, ensure investigation and prosecution into these cases, and provide access to justice for the survivors and their families are urgent. As noted by the IACHR, as of April 2015, the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República or PGR) had 2,420 pending investigations for torture but only 15 federal convictions.
Mexico’s current proposed bill to establish a General Law to Prevent, Investigate, and Punish Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Ley General para Prevenir, Investigar y Sancionar los Delitos de Tortura, otros Tratos o Penas Crueles, Inhumanos o Degradantes) would set back the government’s previous absolute prohibition on the use of evidence obtained under torture. The bill would allow the consideration of evidence obtained by torture as long as prosecutors can demonstrate that the evidence could have been obtained in other ways. The text of the current bill essentially includes a loophole for the use of torture, allowing evidence obtained through “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Mexican and U.S. civil society organizations outlined their concerns with the current bill this past April following a series of more in-depth recommendations that Mexican groups had already raised in the initial consultation phase of the bill.
The use of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment by any Mexican law enforcement or migration enforcement body should be prohibited, investigated, and prosecuted under law. Investigating a crime by committing another crime not only violates basic human rights, but encourages impunity and demonstrates a lack of commitment to pursue justice. Passing a strong and well-funded General Law on Torture in Mexico could set the stage for future improvements; but the shortcomings of the current bill need to be addressed immediately. Months have already passed without signs of progress. And the passing of such a law must be coupled with other changes to Mexico’s criminal justice system: police reform to address corruption and abuses, the prosecution of the military in civilian courts, and transparency around abuses committed by Mexico’s security forces. Until then, justice for Mexico’s survivors of torture and their families will remain elusive.
On the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, join us in demanding better conditions and an end to the use of torture against migrants in Mexico. Sign the petition from LAWG and partners here.