Dr. Arely Gómez González
Attorney General
Mexico, D.F. – MEXICO

Dear Attorney General Gómez González:

I am writing to share Human Rights Watch’s concerns regarding the human rights crisis that Mexico is facing today, and to recommend steps that we believe that you, as the new attorney general, should take to address it.

As you know, last year Mexico witnessed two terrible atrocities that captured headlines around the globe: the killing of 22 civilians by soldiers in Tlatlaya in June and the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala in September. While more extreme than some other cases, these unfortunately were not isolated incidents but rather reflect a much broader pattern of abuse that Human Rights Watch, and others, have documented in Mexico in recent years. 

We welcome the statements you made when taking office, in which you expressed a commitment to pursuing justice in cases of human rights violations. We note, however, that we have heard similar commitments from other senior officials within the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, and have found that their efforts to fulfill them have been inadequate and the results far too limited. In order for you to be more successful in fulfilling your stated commitment to human rights, it will be necessary for you to take concrete steps to ensure that abuses are properly investigated and those responsible are held accountable.

 

Disappearances

In February 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting nearly 250 disappearances that occurred during the administration of former President Felipe Calderón. We found compelling evidence of enforced disappearances in 149 of those cases, involving the participation of state agents from all branches of the security forces. We also documented the routine failure of authorities to investigate these disappearances, locate the victims, and prosecute the perpetrators.[1]

The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has issued 13 recommendations on enforced disappearance, and found evidence of probable participation of state agents in approximately 600 other disappearances cases since 2006.[2]  The UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances has also expressed significant concern over a “generalized context” of disappearances in Mexico, many of which may be classified as enforced disappearances. The Committee underscored the serious challenges Mexico faces in terms of preventing, investigating, and prosecuting enforced disappearances.[3]

In August 2014, the government acknowledged that the whereabouts of over 22,000 people who had gone missing since 2006 remained unknown, but failed to disclose corroborating evidence, or information on how many of these cases are alleged enforced disappearances.

That same month, we conducted a fact-finding mission to Mexico to assess the results of Mexico’s strategies to address the disappearances crisis. We found that ambitious initiatives to find the missing and hold those responsible for abuses accountable had led to very limited results.[4] 

For example, in February 2013, the Attorney General’s Office and Interior Ministry signed an agreement with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to elaborate a comprehensive database with standardized information on unidentified remains and on cases of individuals whose whereabouts are unknown. This “Ante-Mortem – Post-Mortem Database” consists of an electronic platform donated by the ICRC, which has the capacity to cross-reference information in it, and determine if any of the unidentified bodies could belong to those individuals reported missing.

This new database could play a fundamental role in determining the fate of many of the disappeared, allowing families to retrieve the remains of lost loved ones, and facilitating criminal investigations that could lead to the prosecution of the perpetrators of these crimes. Yet, as of August 2014, only six jurisdictions had signed a follow-up agreement for the ICRC to donate them the required software, and in none of them was the system was fully operative. Authorities failed to provide updated detailed information on the number of jurisdictions in which the system was fully operational in a hearing before the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances in February 2015.

Another important initiative was the creation of a unit within the Attorney General’s Office in June 2013 specifically dedicated to investigating disappearance cases. Yet, as of January 2015, the unit had only found 102 people who had been reported missing.[5] According to official information from that same month, the unit had not obtained a single conviction for an enforced disappearance committed since 2007.

The Attorney General’s Office’s ineffectiveness in handling disappearance cases was evident after the disappearance of the 43 students in Iguala. The office—which waited 10 days after the students disappeared before opening an investigation—concluded in January that, based on the confessions of alleged perpetrators, municipal police handed the students over to members of a criminal group, who killed them, burnt their bodies, and threw them in a municipal dump.

In his concluding remarks on the case, former Attorney General Murillo Karam reported that 99 people had been detained and charged for their alleged involvement in these incidents.[6]

Nevertheless, an international team of forensic specialists tasked with investigating the case has cast doubt on the Attorney General Office’s conclusions, asserting in February that the Office’s findings on the case should be independently reviewed.[7] For example, the team included in its report satellite imagery that showed that several fires had occurred since October 2010 in the exact same location where Murillo claimed the students were burnt. Consequently, it is possible that the burnt materials provided by Murillo as proof that the students were set on fire were actually burnt during a fire that occurred in that location at some other time.

In the interests of an independent review, an interdisciplinary group of experts appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) began working in January to provide technical assistance and recommendations for strengthening the search for the disappeared students.[8] The experts have urged the Mexican government to assume responsibility for the case and treat it as an enforced disappearance.[9] In April, the group advised Mexican officials to open new lines of inquiry and investigate “coercion” suffered by the victims’ families.[10]

 

Extrajudicial Executions

In the 2011 report “Neither Rights, Nor Security,” Human Rights Watch obtained credible evidence in 24 cases that security forces committed extrajudicial killings. In the majority of these cases, strong evidence pointed to security forces—particularly the military—tampering with crime scenes to manipulate or destroy evidence. Given the lack of thorough and impartial investigations and the repeated manipulation of evidence by soldiers and police, it is impossible to know how many killings are in fact lawful, though there is strong evidence that that the cases we examined were examples of a more pervasive practice.  

In fact, in a 2014 report on Mexico, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions found that violations to the right to life “continue to take place at an alarmingly high rate” and expressed concern for “systematic and endemic” impunity for such killings.[11]

The Attorney General’s Office’s handling of the Tlatlaya case has been no better than its response to the disappearances in Iguala. As described below, state prosecutors beat and threatened three surviving witnesses to force them to say that the military was not responsible for the killings. For weeks the Defense Ministry, the governor of the State of Mexico, and the state attorney general upheld the official account that the fatalities had occurred in a shootout and that the soldiers had acted properly. The Attorney General’s Office only got involved in the investigation of the alleged executions three months after the fact, following Esquire magazine’s publication of an interview with one of the surviving witnesses who provided her account of the events.

In September, the military justice system detained 24 soldiers and one lieutenant who allegedly participated in the incidents, and accused eight of them of breaches of military discipline. The Attorney General’s Office separately charged seven soldiers and a lieutenant. However, while the CNDH concluded that at least 12 people had been executed, the soldiers were only charged with the killings of eight.[12] Moreover, despite a CNDH recommendation placing responsibility for the cover-up of the crime on the Defense Ministry, the investigation has yet to identify all the military officials involved in it, according to a lawyer involved in the case.

In January, a confrontation between civilians and the federal police left at least nine people dead in Apatzingán, Michoacán, according to the then security commissioner in Michoacán.[13] The commissioner claimed days later that nearly all the civilians were killed by firearms held by the civilians themselves.[14] However, media reports based on videos and witness testimony alleged that police officers killed at least 16 people.[15]

After the National Security Commission received a video from an anonymous source that suggested the incident may have involved “excessive use of force or abuse of authority,” it issued a press release stating that it had provided the information to the Attorney General’s Office so that it would “carry out the corresponding investigation and determine the responsibility of public officials.”[16] Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong requested that the Attorney General’s Office open an investigation into the incident at that time.[17]

 

Torture

In “Neither Rights, Nor Security,” Human Rights Watch found that security forces systematically used torture to obtain forced confessions from detainees or information about criminal groups. The tactics we documented—which most commonly included beatings, asphyxiation with plastic bags, waterboarding, electric shocks, sexual torture, and death threats—were used by members of all security forces.

More recently, in March, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment presented a report before the UN Human Rights Council affirming that “torture is generalized in Mexico.” The Special Rapporteur noted that the CNDH received 11,608 complaints of torture and ill-treatment between 2006 and April 2014. While the Attorney General’s Office conducted 232 examinations between 2007 and 2014 and reported that a further 715 are in process, only 11 completed examinations found positive evidence of torture, though the report notes that procedural shortcomings cast doubt on this small number.[18] 

The Special Rapporteur’s report affirms 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 of such evidence.

This practice was evident in the Tlatlaya case. The CNDH has found that after the massacre occurred, state prosecutors detained two of the three surviving witnesses, beat them, repeatedly asphyxiated them with a bag, and threatened them with sexual abuse to force them to confess to having links to people killed in the incidents, and to say that the military was not responsible for the killings. They also threatened and mistreated a third witness, and forced the three witnesses to sign documents they were not allowed to read. The state prosecutor’s office has not brought charges against any of the officials involved in torturing the witnesses, and none of the victims or victims’ families have received reparations for the abuses they suffered, a lawyer involved in the case told Human Rights Watch.

As with enforced disappearances and extrajudicial execution, impunity for torture is the norm. The government has reported only five convictions for torture between 2005 and 2013.[19] 

 

Recommendations

In public statements prior to your confirmation as attorney general, you vowed to work on investigative protocols related to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, and pledged to continue investigating the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, as well as the Tlatlaya case. You have also highlighted the need to address the problem of torture in the country.

For Mexico to overcome its current human rights crisis, it is crucial that you translate these pledges into concrete action. It should be a top priority of the Attorney General’s Office to conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into all alleged cases of disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture; to ensure that victims, their families, and the general public have as full access as legally possible to the findings of these investigations; and to ensure that perpetrators of abuses are brought to justice.

Toward that end, you should work with other competent authorities to:

  • Ensure that the special unit of the Attorney General’s Office and other relevant prosecutors have the resources and personnel they need, and that investigators receive full and active cooperation from all federal and state institutions;
  • Accelerate the nation-wide implementation of the Ante-Mortem/Post-Mortem database, which could provide key information for prosecutors to pursue criminal investigations;
  • Allow independent experts involved in the investigation of the Iguala disappearances, and in any other case in which their participation is required, to carry out their work without undue interferences; and
  • Release the names of the 30,000 people who were missing and have been found, as well as the 22,000 who remain missing, according to government figures based on information collected by prosecutors’ offices.

It is also crucially important that you work closely with international human rights monitors, including all human rights bodies from the Inter-American and United Nations systems that have issued recommendations for Mexico to address rampant impunity in the country. In particular, you should provide full support to the experts appointed by the IACHR to evaluate Mexico’s policies to address enforced disappearances.

We sincerely hope that you will take these recommendations into account as you undertake the necessary effort to address this human rights crisis.

 

Respectfully,

José Miguel Vivanco
Human Rights Watch

 

[1] Human Rights Watch, Mexico’s Disappeared: The Enduring Cost of a Crisis Ignored (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2013), https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/mexico0213_ForUpload_0_0_0.pdf

[2] National Human Rights Commission, Press Release, February 2, 2015, http://www.cndh.org.mx/sites/all/fuentes/documentos/Comunicados/2015/COM_2015_023.pdf (accessed March 31, 2015); Human Rights Watch interview with Luis García, primer visitador of the CNDH, Mexico City, August 15, 2014.

[3] UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, “Observaciones finales sobre el informe presentado por México en virtud del artículo 29, párrafo 1, de la Convención” (Final observations on the report presented by Mexico in virtue of article 29, paragraph 1, of the Convention), February 13, 2015. 

[4] Human Rights Watch, Letter to Interior Minister on Disappearances, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/10/08/mexico-letter-interior-minister-disappearances .

[5] “En cuanto al número de denuncias y sus resultados a enero de 2015 se habían abierto 435 expedientes de búsqueda (169 actas circunstanciadas y 452 averiguaciones previas)  que significaban 621 personas que se están buscando; de éstas, se han localizado 102 personas, 72 de ellas con vida y 30 sin vida” (“With regard to the number of complaints and their results as of January 2015, 435 search files had been opened (169 official reports and 452 preliminary investigations), signifying that 621 people are being searched for; of these, 102 people have been found, 72 of them alive and 30 dead”).   Goverment of Mexico, "Respuesta de México a la lista de cuestiones emitidas por el comité contra la desaparición forzada" (“Response from Mexico to the list of issues posed by the Committee on Enforced Disappearances”), http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CED/Shared%20Documents/MEX/INT_CED_RLI_MEX_19337_S.pdf (accessed April 23, 2015).

[6] “Message to the media on the investigation of events in Iguala, Guerrero,” Attorney General’s Office, January 27, 2015, http://www.pgr.gob.mx/Prensa/2007/bol15/Ene/b01715.shtm (accessed March 31, 2015).

[7] “Documento inicial sobre investigaciones en el basurero de Cocula y Río San Juan” (Initial document on the investigation of the dump in Cocula and Río San Juan), Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, Press Release, February 7, 2015, http://www.eaaf.org/files/comunicado-eaaf_7feb2015.pdf (accessed March 31, 2015).

[8] Inter American Commission on Human Rights, “Interdisciplinary Group of Experts begins its work at IACHR headquarters on the case of the Ayotzinapa Students, Mexico,” January 30, 2015, http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/media_center/PReleases/2015/008.asp (accessed March 31, 2015).

[9] “IACHR Makes an Urgent Call on the Mexican State Regarding the Murder and Disappearance of Students,” Organization of American States, Press Release, October 10, 2014, http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/media_center/PReleases/2014/117.asp (accessed March 31, 2015). “IACHR asks the Ayotzinapa case to be reclassified [as enforced disappearance]” (CIDH pide reclasificar caso Ayotzinapa), March 19, 2015, http://efektonoticias.com/noticias/mexico/cidh-pide-reclasificar-caso-ayotzinapa-video (accessed March 31, 2015).

[10] “Presenta GIEI informe sobre su segunda visita a México para la investigación y asesoría sobre el caso Ayotzinapa” (IGIE presents report on its second visit to Mexico for investigation and counsel on Ayotzinapa case), Press Release, April 20, 2015, http://www.tlachinollan.org/comunicado-presenta-giei-informe-sobre-su-segunda-visita-a-mexico-para-la-investigacion-y-asesoria-sobre-el-caso-ayotzinapa/ (accessed April 23, 2015).

[11] UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, Mission to Mexico” A/HRC/26/36/Add.1, April 28, 2014.

[12] In April, the Chamber of Deputies working group that was tasked with investigating the Tlatlaya case released a report that also concluded that 12 people had been executed. “Diputados presentan informe final sobre caso Tlatlaya” (Deputies present final report on Tlatlaya case), Chamber of Deputies, Press Release, April 16, 2015,  http://www5.diputados.gob.mx/index.php/esl/Comunicacion/Boletines/2015/Abril/16/5471-Diputados-presentan-informe-final-sobre-caso-Tlatlaya (accessed April 23, 2015).

[13]  “Enfrentamientos en Apatzingán deja 9 muertos: Alfredo Castillo” (Confrontations in Apatzingán leaves 9 people dead: Alfredo Castillo), Milenio Televisión video, http://tv.milenio.com/policia/Enfrentamientos-Apatzingan-muertos-Alfredo-Castillo_3_440985915.html (accessed April 23, 2015).

[14] “Balacera en Apatzingan muerte de 7 civiles fue por fuego cruzado dice Alfredo Castillo” (Confrontation in Apatzingan, death of 7 civilians was the consequence of cross-fire says Alfredo Castillo), January 12, 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMV_n9DrcSk (accessed April 23, 2015).

[15] “Las ejecuciones de Apatzingán: policías federales, los autores” (The executions in Apatzingán: federal police, the authors), April 18, 2015, http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=401646 (accessed April 23, 2015).

[17] “La Segob ordena investigación sobre presunto abuso policial en Apatzingán” (Interior Ministry orders investigation of apparent police abuse in Apatzingán), CNN Mexico video, April 20, 2015, http://www.cnnmexico.com/nacional/2015/04/20/la-segob-ordena-investigacion-sobre-presunto-abuso-policial-en-apatzingan (accessed April 23, 2015).

[18] UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, Mission to Mexico,” A/HRC/28/68/Add.3, December 29, 2014.

[19] UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, Mission to Mexico,” A/HRC/28/68/Add.3, December 29, 2014.