The Mexican defense minister did the right thing when he apologized for a case of torture caught on tape, but the government should recognize that such abuse is widespread and ensure that those responsible are brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
On April 16, 2016, the defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, addressing thousands of members of the Armed Forces, publicly apologized for the acts of torture committed by soldiers against a woman in Guerrero state in January 2015. The speech came days after a video showing federal police officers and soldiers repeatedly placing a plastic bag over the woman’s head and threatening to kill her went viral on social media.
While General Cienfuegos called on all members of the military to respect human rights, he also insisted this was an “isolated” incident and that “bad members” of the Armed Forces “tarnish the honorable performance of thousands of women and men wearing military uniforms.”
“The defense minister was right to apologize for the torture episode, but he undercut the message by insisting it was an isolated incident, when in fact it’s a much broader problem,” said Daniel Wilkinson, Americas managing director at Human Rights Watch. “The takeaway for the troops could easily be that the real mistake wasn’t committing the abuse but being caught on tape.”
Torture is a chronic problem in Mexico, practiced by members of the armed forces and police at the federal, state, and municipal levels. Human Rights Watch has documented scores of cases of torture in recent years, including beatings, asphyxiation with plastic bags, waterboarding, electric shocks, sexual torture, and death threats.
The United Nations special rapporteur on torture said in a report published in March 2015, that “torture is generalized” in Mexico. He found that torture is most frequently used while victims are being held arbitrarily, often incommunicado at military bases or other illegal detention sites, before they are brought before a judicial authority. According to the special rapporteur, judges still occasionally admit evidence obtained through torture, despite the constitutional prohibition on such evidence.
In 2014, the Federal Attorney General’s Office received more than 2,400 complaints alleging torture, more than double the 1,165 in 2013. In 2015, the National Human Rights Commission received 49 complaints of torture, while it had received a total of 136 between 2000 and 2014.
Impunity for torture is the norm. The government has reported only five convictions for torture between 2005 and 2013, according to the UN special rapporteur.
After the special rapporteur’s report was made public, the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto publicly denounced him, and it has repeatedly questioned his finding that torture was a generalized problem in Mexico.
In the case of the tortured woman in Guerrero, General Cienfuegos said that the soldiers are being investigated by military courts for military crimes, and the civilian justice system is investigating the “crimes against civilians.” The criminal investigation by the civilian justice system also includes the federal police officers allegedly involved in the incident, news accounts said. The Attorney General’s Office has issued arrest warrants for three police officers, including two who have already been detained, according to Mexican press reports.
“If Mexico is to make progress in curbing torture, it will need to recognize the scope of the problem,” Wilkinson said. “All allegations of torture need to be thoroughly investigated, not just the ones that go viral.”