MEXICO CITY — Torture and ill-treatment by the police and armed forces in Mexico are out of control, with a 600 percent rise in reported cases in the past decade, according to an investigation by Amnesty International.
Mock executions, electric shocks to genitals, water boarding, rape, beatings and near-asphyxiation using plastic bags are among the most common methods used, documented in the damning report published Thursday.
Miscarriages of justice are rife in Mexico, where allegations of torture — used to obtain forced confessions —are rarely investigated to international standards, if at all. In some states, recurrent claims of torture are written off by authorities as a legal tactic used by guilty detainees, rather than investigated as evidence of systemic abuse.
Despite laws introduced in recent years to combat such practices, authorities at the highest levels have continued to turn a blind eye.
"There is a chain of collusion which tolerates torture and impunity,” said Rupert Knox, co-author of the report.
The national human rights commission (CNDH) received 1,505 complaints of torture and ill-treatment in 2013, compared to 219 in 2003. The actual number is believed to be much higher, but the discrepancy is due in part to the fact that the CNDH deals only with complaints against federal — not state — officers.
The deployment of thousands of troops as a part of the government’s ‘war on drugs’ is closely linked to the increased use of torture, accepted as a sort of means to justify the end. From 2006, security forces were effectively given free rein to carry out arbitrary arrests and use whatever means necessary to elicit confessions from alleged criminals, the report claims. As many as 100,000 people have died in violence linked to organized crime since 2006.
Yet many of the victims documented by Amnesty were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had no links to criminal gangs. Fabricated evidence is common. Under the current system, there is a presumption of guilt and the burden of proof is on victims, who must prove their innocence.
Amnesty said impunity has thrived amid institutional collusion between prosecutors, forensic specialists, public defenders, judges, the CNDH, and politicians.
Only seven torturers have ever been convicted in federal courts and even fewer at state level. In a recent survey, two thirds of Mexicans polled said they feared being tortured if taken into custody.
The report, “Out of Control: Torture and other Ill-Treatment in Mexico,” features 20 cases investigated by the human rights organization in detail.
Doctors are directly implicated in some of the most shocking cases. Military doctors at army and naval bases reportedly resuscitated detainees in order to allow further torture to be inflicted. The failure to properly examine injured detainees or report evidence of torture is also common, the report said.
Oscar Valle, a 37-year-old pharmacist, was detained and tortured at a military base in September 2011 in Veracruz. A military doctor was allegedly present while marines repeatedly used plastic bags to nearly asphyxiate him, shock his testicles with electricity, beat and threaten him. Valle said he was then forced to sign papers admitting links to organized crime while blindfolded.
Valle was acquitted and released in July 2013. His family reported the case to the CNDH which dismissed the allegation without conducting a full investigation.
The report is highly critical of the CNDH, claiming that it frequently fails victims despite its ample resources and unique access to information, adding that it investigates far too few complaints, operates under an indefensible cloud of secrecy and appears primarily to serve its political masters.
Between 2010 and 2013, the CNDH received 7,164 complaints of torture and other ill-treatment. Of these, it made only 44 public recommendations confirming torture.
There have been several legal reforms and rulings in recent years meant to protect civilians from state-sponsored abuses, including the incorporation of international human rights law into the constitution in 2011, and the historic decision earlier this year to make armed forces accused of civilian abuses subject to civil prosecutions rather than military investigations.
But, according to Amnesty’s research, key anti-torture safeguards are rarely upheld. Courts continue to accept confessions obtained after arbitrary arrest and days of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
Ángel Colón, a black Honduran undocumented migrant trying to reach the US, was detained by police and army officers in Baja California in 2009. He was beaten, asphyxiated using a plastic bag, stripped and forced to perform humiliating acts, while being racially abused by his torturers. He was charged with belonging to a criminal gang on the basis of a statement he was forced to make, and remains in prison awaiting trial. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience.
The government has yet to comment on the report but may point to the recent reduction in complaints to the CNDH, and its focus on human rights training for prosecutors.
“Even if there has been a minor drop in reports since Enrique Peña Nieto came to power two years ago, torture remains widespread across Mexico and the criminal justice system continues to rely on it,” Knox said.
He added: “We’re confident it could be stopped within a year, if it became a political priority from the top-down, and not a single incident of torture or complicity was tolerated. There is a mindset that protecting human rights is an obstacle to catching criminals, but it is completely the opposite. Torture leads to miscarriages of justice with innocent people in jail while criminals remain free.”