Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP / Getty Images

Report: Torture in Mexico rose 600 percent during past decade

War on drug cartels escalated use of inhumane tactics to obtain false confessions

Instead of water-boarding it’s called the tehuacanazo — and the water forced down the victim’s nose is carbonated, and sometimes spiced with chili pepper. It’s been a well-known technique used by Mexican police for decades.

The tactic — along with electric shocks, sexual violence, near-asphyxiation and death threats — appears in the testimonies collected in a new Amnesty International report released on Thursday titled “Out of Control: Torture and Other Ill-Treatment in Mexico.”

According to the report, use of torture by Mexican police and military is widespread, with a 600 percent rise in the number of reported cases over the past decade. Yet despite the huge increase in incidents, there is little being done to combat it or, in fact, discourage it.

“Torture is so widespread in Mexico and sort of expected as an investigative technique,” said Maureen Meyer, the Washington Office of Latin America associate for Mexico and Central America.

Meyer authored a 2010 report on human rights violations committed by the military in Mexico, with a focus on Ciudad Juárez, where cartel violence combined with federal militarization made it the deadliest city in the world from 2008 to 2010. “It’s not sanctioned. It’s not necessarily a state policy to torture but in fact it’s very much permissive and the torturers are never investigated,” she said.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) received more than 7,000 complaints of torture and ill-treatment between 2010 and 2013, and advocates say that number is drastically lower than the actual number of incidents.

Yet not one of those complaints, as far as Amnesty International’s investigation could find, resulted in a torture conviction. In fact, very few torture complaints to human rights commissions result even in a criminal prosecution, the report stated.  

In 2012, the Mexican government told the U.N. Committee Against Torture that only six verdicts had been handed down in torture trials during the seven years prior. Torture charges, if pursued at all, are typically downgraded to abuse of authority, misuse of public office, or unauthorized exercise of public authority.

According to Rupert Knox, the author of the Amnesty report, Mexican citizens are routinely detained for long periods of time — in some cases up to 80 days — during which evidence is fabricated. They are tortured into making false confessions, sometimes implicating others. The forced statements are accepted as evidence by prosecutors and judges who, despite laws against such evidence, ignore how they were obtained. 

I’m obligated to tell the government of Mexico, but also Mexican society, that there is an epidemic of torture that needs to be corrected.

Juan Méndez

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture

Amnesty International says Ángel Colón was tortured into making a false statement. Five years later, he remains in prison pending trial.
Amnesty International

Among the cases highlighted in Knox’s report is Ángel Colón, a migrant from the Garifuna community of Honduras who was traveling with the aid of a people smuggler through Tijuana in 2009 on his way to the U.S. When armed men stormed the stash house where he was being held, Colón tried to flee. State police detained him and took him to a military base where, the report says, Colón was beaten, suffocated, stripped, forced to lick clean the shoes of other detainees and subjected to repeated racial abuse.

After 16 hours of interrogation Colón made a false statement to the public prosecutor and was charged with belonging to a criminal gang. He later described his torture to the judge, but his allegation was never investigated.  Although independent medical investigators say he was most likely tortured into making a false statement, Colón remains in prison.

The Mexican government’s focused efforts to combat drug cartels during President Felipe Calderón’s presidency from 2006 to 2012 resulted in a startling uptick in complaints of torture in Mexico, as soldiers and federal police agents were deployed to security hotspots throughout the country, such as Juárez and Tijuana.

As security forces were moved from place to place, Knox said, the culture of tolerance toward torture spread. The specific techniques — electric shocks, waterboarding, death threats — migrated along with the officers.

“The pressure on these forces to produce ‘results,’ coupled with weak controls over their actions, has meant that abuses, such as torture, have skyrocketed,” Meyer said. “The use of torture is more than just a serious human rights problem. It is a practice that is crippling Mexico’s efforts to fight crime and reduce violence.”

By relying on confessions gained through torture, Meyer said, investigators are let off the hook for investigating the true perpetrators of crime.

In December 2012, newly elected President Enrique Peña Nieto promised to curb the serious abuses being committed by security forces in Mexico. According to the CNDH, allegations of torture have decreased since Peña Nieto took office. But Knox said Peña Nieto has yet to make it a priority. “I would say there’s been a marked quiet about the issue,” Knox said. “I can’t point you toward anything where he specifically cites actions the government will be taking in relation to torture.”

Amnesty is far from the first group to detail Mexico’s use of torture.

Human Rights Watch’s 2014 world report on Mexico found widespread enforced disappearances, human rights violations and torture combined with a criminal justice system weakened by “corruption, inadequate training and resources, and the complicity of prosecutors and public defenders.”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, visited Mexico in April. “I’m obligated to tell the government of Mexico, but also Mexican society, that there is an epidemic of torture that needs to be corrected,” Méndez said during a press conference after his return. His final report has not yet been published.

However, there are some signs of change. Constitutional reforms in 2011 brought Mexico in line with international law when it comes to torture legislation. In March, a new National Code of Criminal Procedure reinforced the illegality of using court evidence obtained as a result of human rights violations. And in April, Congress approved reforms to the Code of Military Justice so that crimes committed by military officials against civilians be investigated and tried in the civilian justice system.

“The Mexican government could end the use of torture fairly rapidly if they cared to make it the political priority necessary to change practices,” Knox said.

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