Impunity for Torture, ‘Disappearances,’ Killings Undermines Security
November 10, 2011
Instead of reducing violence, Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director

(Mexico City) – Mexico’s military and police have committed widespread human rights violations in efforts to combat organized crime, virtually none of which are being adequately investigated, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 212-page report “Neither Rights Nor Security: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico’s ‘War on Drugs,’” examines the human rights consequences of President Felipe Calderón’s approach to confronting Mexico’s powerful drug cartels. Through in-depth research in five of Mexico’s most violent states, Human Rights Watch found evidence that strongly suggests the participation of security forces in more than 170 cases of torture, 39 “disappearances,” and 24 extrajudicial killings since Calderón took office in December 2006.

“Instead of reducing violence, Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in a dramatic increase in killings, torture, and other appalling abuses by security forces, which only make the climate of lawlessness and fear worse in many parts of the country,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

A Human Rights Watch delegation led by Executive Director Kenneth Roth and Vivanco presented the report to Calderón, members of Mexico’s Congress, and the Supreme Court, as well civil society groups.

Shortly after taking office in December 2006, Calderón declared “war” on organized crime and deployed Mexico’s military to combat cartels, despite the military’s long track record of abuse and impunity. More than 50,000 soldiers are involved, along with thousands of members of the Navy, the federal police, and state and local police forces.

In all five states surveyed – Baja California, Chihuahua, Guerrero, Nuevo León, and Tabasco –Human Rights Watch found that security forces systematically use torture to obtain forced confessions from detainees or information about cartels. The report also provides evidence strongly suggesting that soldiers and police have carried out “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions, and in many cases have taken steps to conceal their crimes.

Human Rights Watch analyzed data gathered through more than 200 interviews with victims and government officials, 60 public information requests, and a wide-ranging review of government statistics. While the incidence of grave human rights violations has increased dramatically in the context of Mexico’s counter-narcotics efforts, the effective investigation and prosecution of such abuses has not, Human Rights Watch found.

In part, this is because soldiers who commit human rights violations against civilians continue to be investigated and prosecuted under military jurisdiction, despite rulings by Mexico’s Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that such abuses should be investigated under civilian jurisdiction, and that military courts lack the impartiality and transparency to judge their own. The result has been near total impunity, Human Rights Watch said. In the five states surveyed, military prosecutors opened 1,615 investigations from 2007 to April 2011 into crimes allegedly committed by soldiers against civilians. Not a single soldier has been convicted in these cases.

Civilian prosecutors have also failed to undertake basic steps – such as interviewing key witnesses or visiting crime scenes – to investigate allegations of human rights violations perpetrated by police and other civilian officials. For example, according to information requested from state prosecutor’s offices in the five states surveyed, there were hundreds of complaints of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment to state human rights commissions. But not a single official in these states has been convicted on charges of torture.

“These abuses are almost never adequately investigated, yet government officials routinely dismiss the victims as criminals and discount their allegations as false,” Vivanco said. “As a result, the victims and their families are left with the burden of doing the investigations themselves to clear the names of their loved ones.”

Calderón has repeatedly declared publicly that 90 percent of the victims of drug-related deaths, which his government estimates totaled approximately 35,000 between 2007 and January 2011, were criminals. However, data obtained by Human Rights Watch raises serious doubts about the reliability of these claims. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office, which has constitutional authority to prosecute killings tied to organized crime, told Human Rights Watch it had only opened 997 investigations into homicides tied to organized crime from 2007 to August 2011. And according to the federal judicial branch, federal judges have only convicted 22 defendants for homicides and other offenses tied to organized crime.

Human Rights Watch found that a wide array of justice officials are implicated in human rights violations. They include judges who admit evidence that was likely to have been obtained through torture, prosecutors who obtain “confessions” from defendants who are being held incommunicado on military bases, and medical experts who omit or play down signs of physical injuries when they examine detainees.

The report provides targeted recommendations to the executive, legislative, and judicial branches for addressing the abuses documented in the report, including:

  • Congress should reform the Military Code of Justice to prevent all investigations into alleged human rights violations from falling within military jurisdiction, and civilian attorneys general should take the initiative to investigate all cases of possible human rights violations, including those allegedly committed by the military;
  • Government officials should stop making unfounded statements dismissing allegations of abuse before they have been investigated or claiming that abuse victims are criminals before they have been convicted of any crime; and
  • Judges should enforce the prohibition on evidence obtained through torture, and legislators should eliminate the legal provisions, such as arraigo (preventative detention)and overly broad provisions permitting arrests in flagrante (in the act of committing a crime), which facilitate abuses against detainees.

“The Mexican government is confronting cartels that have committed horrific crimes against officials and civilians alike,” Vivanco said. “But in responding, security forces need to be held to a different standard – not only because upholding rights is the correct thing to do, but also because it’s critical for ensuring that public security efforts succeed.” 

More reporting on: