Amnesty International highlights alarming culture of torture in Mexico

Report from Amnesty International details extent of the use of torture by police and armed forces in Mexico, which often goes unpunished despite its illegality under national and international law

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A new report from Amnesty International reveals that torture is a major institutionalised problem in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Reuters via Amnesty International.

A newly released report from Amnesty International has shed light on the alarming culture of torture and abuses of basic human rights that it says is “out of control” and deeply imbedded in Mexican society. The renowned international human rights NGO noted in its report, Out of Control: Torture and other ill-treatment in Mexico, that the number of reported cases of torture has risen by some 600% over the course of the last ten years, and called on the Mexican government to act now to stop the “wide-spread and persistent use of torture by members of the police and armed forces”.

The report, which is the result of years of research that have included a series of case studies on individual instances of torture, stated that in 2013 there were 1,505 reports of torture and other ill-treatment received by Mexico’s Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH – National Commission for Human Rights). This represents a 587% increase from 2003, when there were 219 reported cases, although it is also similar to the 1,524 cases reported in 2010, which were followed by a jump to 2,114 cases in 2012, a near-tenfold increase on 2003.

In a press release on its website, Amnesty lamented the “prevailing culture of tolerance and impunity” concerning torture that exists in Mexico, citing the fact that in spite of the many thousands of complaints received by the CNDH in recent years, only seven cases have ever resulted in a conviction at the federal level, with even fewer being prosecuted at state level. Amnesty describe torture as “any act intentionally performed whereby physical or mental pain or suffering is inflicted on a person for purposes of criminal investigation, as a means of intimidation, as personal punishment, as a preventive measure, as a penalty, or for any other purpose”, citing the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture.

Amnesty also revealed how victims from all over the country had told the NGO of the various methods of torture to which they were subjected: from beatings, death threats and sexual violence, to electric shocks, near asphyxiation and mock executions, mainly at the hands of police and armed forces and often with the aim of extracting confessions or incriminating other suspects implicated in serious crimes. Mexico’s justice system still accepts ‘evidence’ in the form of confessions obtained under torture or extreme duress, even though torture is supposedly illegal under federal law, Amnesty International claimed.

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Mexico’s Armed Forces are implicated in the allegations of widespread torture, according to the Amnesty International report. Photo courtesy of Getty Images via BBC.

A survey carried out by Amnesty as part of the wider report found that 64% of Mexicans fear that they would be submitted to torture if they were detained by federal or local authorities and taken into custody. This culture of fear goes hand in hand with the upswing in violence that has shaken the country since 2006, when the then conservative administration of President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) pressed ahead with a full-blown armed conflict against drug cartels. Amnesty have drawn a link between this and the rise in torture, saying in its report that “The deployment of the armed forces to combat organized crime led to a sharp and sustained increase in reports of human rights violations, including reports of the use of torture and other ill-treatment”.

The current government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took power at the end of 2012, has sought to distance itself from the militaristic approach of Calderón’s government and its subsequent human rights abuses, and has pointed to the apparent decrease in the number of reported torture cases since 2012 as reported by Amnesty as evidence of this change in tack. However, Amnesty maintain that figures are still incredibly high compared to ten years ago, while pointing out that a visit to Mexico in May this year led to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Argentinean Juan Méndez, remarking that “a widespread use of torture and other ill-treatment still persists”.

In addition to the miniscule rate of convictions resulting from complaints of torture received by the CNDH, less than 1% of all victims of torture and human rights violations see the CNDH issue a public recommendation on their behalf relating to their case, according to Amnesty. Just 1 in 20 of those who claim to have been tortured are permitted an official forensic examination by the Federal Attorney General, and of those only 1 in 8 actually conclude that there is evidence of torture. Even so, this would theoretically equate to around 70 of the 7,000 cases reported between 2010 and 2013 resulting in an official charge of torture, yet between 2006 and 2013 the true number was just 12.

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The mass deployment of armed forces under the previous government of President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), as part of the war on Mexico’s drug cartels, is thought to be behind the sharp rise in the number of cases of torture. Photo courtesy of AP via Huffington Post.

Amnesty’s latest report is not even the first instance this year of concerns being publicly voiced over the prevalence of torture in Mexico. Shortly after Méndez’s visit with the UN, Amnesty released a report on global torture to mark the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention against Torture, in which the NGO highlighted the example of Mexico as a country that had failed to live up to its promises on stamping out the practice of torture. Amnesty also used this opportunity to acknowledge the fact that this is a problem that is by no means confined to Mexico within Latin America, pointing to examples of torture in Venezuela and Colombia, among others.

For now, though, it is Mexico that is firmly in Amnesty’s sights as one of five countries that feature in a global campaign to raise awareness of the persistence of torture in the present day. For Amnesty, a key part of the problem can be found in the nature of Mexico’s institutional set-up, claiming in its Out of Control report that “The justice system is unable or unwilling to prevent torture” and that “key anti-torture safeguards [are] rarely upheld”.

“For too long, the political, judicial and administrative authorities have downplayed the widespread use of torture and other ill-treatment”, the report continues, before adding: “A lack of clear political leadership and real political will by successive governments has allowed officials and institutions to ignore their responsibilities to take decisive action whenever allegations of torture and other ill-treatment come to light”.

The report includes a list of ‘key recommendations’, including that Mexican authorities must ensure that detentions are “only carried out in strict accordance with the law” and that they “should be immediately and accurately recorded on national database accessible to defence lawyers and relatives”. Armed Forces members should also be prevented from carrying out policing functions such as detentions and interrogations, for which they are “not trained or accountable”, while the justice system is urged to exclude “any evidence against criminal suspects where there is reasonable grounds to believe that it has been obtained as a result of human rights violations, such as arbitrary detention, torture and other ill-treatment”. Finally, Amnesty urges Mexico to ensure that allegations of torture are subjected to a “prompt, independent, impartial and exhaustive investigation”, and that those responsible for instances of torture are prosecuted, in order to bring the country in line with its obligations under international human rights law.

Mexico’s current President, Enrique Peña Nieto, who has tried to distance his government from the human rights abuses of his predecessor Calderón. Photo courtesy of AP via The Guardian.