Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

A scathing UN report, backlash and the urgent need to tackle rampant torture in Mexico

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By Guillermo Farias

A recent report on Mexico by Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, paints a bleak picture of the country’s human rights record and its generalized use of torture. Practiced by a wide range of actors, from doctors to ministerial agents, torture usually starts as soon as someone is detained and tends to be used with the goal of getting confessions related to organized crime. Its victims often belong to marginalized groups.

The modus operandi portrayed in the report is disturbing. Arresting officers arrive in civilian clothes, sometimes with their faces covered by ski masks, drive unmarked cars, lack proper warrants and don’t explain the motives for an arrest. Those arrested 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.” Victims of torture are often presented to the media as criminals without having been convicted, itself a form of degrading treatment, the report notes.

Moreover, this torture takes place in a context of almost complete impunity, according to the report. Between 2005 and 2013, there were only five convictions for torture. Even recommendations from the National Human Rights Commission have failed to lead to accountability: not one of its 223 recommendations has resulted in a criminal conviction, the Special Rapporteur critically noted. The panorama is similar at the state level. In Mexico City, officially known as the Federal District, 388 preliminary investigations into allegations of torture have been opened since 2008. Criminal proceedings have been brought in only two cases and 121 cases are still pending. Since 2005, there have been only been three convictions, and the penalties imposed, according to the Special Rapporteur, were not commensurate with the seriousness of the crime. In Chiapas, the state that forms the border with Guatemala, the four torture cases that reached the verdict stage from 2007 to 2013 resulted in acquittals.

To improve the situation, the Special Rapporteur recommended two controversial changes to Mexico’s security strategy and legislative framework. First, ending the use of the military in security operations. The Mexican military has been deployed to combat organized crime groups since the administration of President Felipe Calderon, who was in office from 2006 to 2012. At its apex, in 2012, the military-centric offensive against organized crime groups called for the deployment of 50,000 soldiers, the report said. The deployment of the military, the Special Rapporteur’s report points out, correlates with a massive increase in the numbers of complaints of torture and ill-treatment. From 2001 to 2006, the National Human Rights Commission registered 320 such complaints per year on average. Between December 2012 and July 2014, the Commission received 1,148 complaints related to the armed forces alone.

Second, the Special Rapporteur recommended the elimination of a controversial form of pre-charge detention known in Spanish as arraigo. The measure allows the authorities to detain someone for up to 40 days, with the possibility of an extension, in the course of an organized crime investigation. In the course of those 40 days, authorities are supposed to determine whether to bring formal charges against the detained suspect. In practice, however, arraigo violates the presumption of innocence and creates perverse incentives for torture. There is a marked tendency to use arraigo to “detain in order to investigate, rather than investigate in order to detain,” the report said. Additionally, the Special Rapporteur pointed out that the practice is ineffective: only 3.2% of the more than 8,000 people that have been subject to the measure since 2008 have been convicted.

As if the reports findings were not enough to send chills down one’s spine, the government of Mexico responded to the report by going on the offensive, attempting to discredit the report rather than face its findings.

Government officials were quick to accuse the Special Rapporteur of being unethical and unprofessional.  Mexico’s Foreign Minister, José Antonio Meade, went as far as saying that Mexico would no longer cooperate with the Special Rapporteur. Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo, undersecretary of foreign affairs, argued that generalized torture would be considered a crime against humanity and require the intervention of the International Criminal Court, thus putting the accusation outside the scope of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate. The government was also critical of the report’s methodology, specially its reliance on a small number of cases. As tensions grew and broke standard diplomatic protocol, the Special Rapporteur made clear that he was not accusing the Mexican government of crimes against humanity. However, he made clear that he had gathered enough evidence to sustain the report’s conclusion that torture is generalized.

The government’s strongly defensive reaction makes sense only in the context of a country that lacks a cohesive human rights strategy. Rather than admit that there are serious human rights problems, the government tries to minimize and dismiss criticism in the hopes of avoiding the spotlight of international mechanisms. Given the magnitude of the problem, this strategy is untenable. Instead of attempting to discredit the Special Rapporteur’s scathing report, the government should seize the moment as an opportunity to address the human rights consequences of a security strategy centered on the use of military force and call on the international community for support.

Over a week ago, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said it considered its disagreement with the Special Rapporteur to be “concluded.” While the government said it stood by its criticisms of the report, it made clear that the country is open to “international scrutiny,” thus walking back some of its more inflammatory remarks. The Special Rapporteur, while standing firmly behind the findings contained in the report, has offered a follow-up visit to Mexico in 2015 or 2016. This is a good first step. Let’s hope cooler heads prevail going forward.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Eneas De Troya/Creative Commons

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Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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