Rights Wire

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

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

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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Letting the “Mexican Moment” slip away

By Guillermo Farias

Enrique Peña Nieto’s Presidency is often described as a performance. Elected in 2012, he has presented himself as a modernizing technocrat and reformer capable of bringing about a “Mexican Moment.” From the start of his administration, many have seen him as nothing more than a cleverly packaged optical illusion. A Time Magazine cover from shortly after he was elected showed Peña Nieto standing behind the words “Saving Mexico” was widely ridiculed. However, in recent months, even those that bought into the President’s image are increasingly cynical about his administration’s capacity to govern, which can be seen in his 40 percent approval rating, almost the lowest-ever for a Mexican president. To reverse the trend, the President needs to show that he is capable of making difficult structural changes rather than just crafting, and vigorously protecting, an appealing personal image—as he has done so far.

Peña Nieto’s approval ratings—and carefully honed public image—have suffered as the result of two major recent crises. First, Mexico’s human rights situation has attracted international attention for major atrocities involving the security forces—both among the worst the country has seen in recent years. One involved the killing of 22 people by soldiers in Tlatlaya, in Mexico state in June 2014. The other involved the enforced disappearance of 43 students who were detained by municipal police forces in Iguala, Guerrero state in September 2014. The second crisis was triggered by a series of stories in the Wall Street Journal that exposed close links between senior members of the administration, including the President, First Lady, and the Finance Minister, and a construction company that has won a slew of government contracts. In part, as a result, Peña Nieto’s administration has had to seek new bids for construction of a $3.7 billion high-speed rail link between Mexico City and Queretaro.

In the case of the 43 disappeared students, Peña Nieto’s administration appeared to value public image over substance. President Peña Nieto first publicly responded to the case by asserting that this was an issue for the local government, and therefore not his administration’s problem. Under pressure, the President backtracked, but it still took the Attorney General ten days to open an investigation. At a news conference in November, the Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karam, announced that three gang members had confessed to killing the students and burning their bodies, making it difficult to identify bone remains. The human rights community has characterized the declaration as a rush to close the investigation, even if the government’s version of events is plausible. For example, Jose Miguel Vivanco, the head of Human Right Watch’s Americas Division, sharply criticized the government for declaring that all the students were dead after identifying the remains of just one. The families of the disappeared students are also understandably skeptical and have maintained pressure on the government to identify the remains of all the students before declaring them dead.

The Tlatlaya case follows a similar pattern. Federal prosecutors waited three months to open an investigation into the killing of 22 people by soldiers in Tlatlaya, a small town in Mexico state. The government originally claimed that the 22 people had been killed by soldiers in a shoot-out. That narrative was countered by a report from the National Human Rights Commission asserting that at least 12 of the 22 people were killed execution style by the soldiers after having surrendered. Beyond this, the report also documented abuses by state prosecutors, who threatened to rape three female witnesses of the executions, beat two of them and forced all of them to sign statements exonerating the soldiers. In fact, the federal investigation was only opened after the Latin American edition of Esquire published an interview with one of the witnesses. The Attorney General’s office has charged seven soldiers in the case, as well as a lieutenant for his role in covering up the crime. However, federal prosecutors have so far refused to investigate others for their roles in concealing the massacre.

The administration has similarly tried to minimize and contain the fallout from the conflict of interest accusations exposed by the Wall Street Journal. Both the President and the Finance Minister have denied wrongdoing. At the same time, steps taken by the administration to strengthen conflict of interest laws and improve transparency have been so anemic that hardly anyone considers them serious.

If the administration is serious about improving Mexico’s security and human rights record, tackling entrenched corruption, and avoiding conflicts of interest it should start by making difficult political decisions. First, it should commit itself to creating a truly independent prosecutor’s office and an agency to combat corruption. The second missing element is political accountability. So far, nobody has resigned or stepped forward to take responsibility for the human rights abuses in Tlataya and Iguala or the dodgy business deals.

It will take much more than excellent public relations skills to solve Mexico’s problems. Unfortunately, it seems that Peña Nieto is more interested in managing the fallout from the current crises than he is in addressing their root causes. Without more substantive policy, it is hard not to see the “Mexican Moment” slipping away.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/Creative Commons