MEXICO CITY (AP) — Israel Arzate Melendez said soldiers snatched him off the street, gave him electric shocks, asphyxiated him and threatened that his wife would be raped and killed unless he admitted to a role in one of Mexico's most infamous cases of drug violence.
When Arzate told a judge he was tortured into falsely confessing to a role in the 2010 massacre of 15 teens at a party in Ciudad Juarez, she responded that his account was too detailed to be fabricated.
Arzate's case was among dozens cited by the group Human Rights Watch in an investigation released Wednesday that accuses the Mexican government of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings in its war against organized crime.
Two years in the making, the report says the deployment of Mexican troops has coincided with an escalation of violence that had killed more than 35,000 people by the end of 2010. The government hasn't issued new figures since then, although news media and other groups put the number at more than 43,000.
The report outlines misconduct at all levels of authority, from prosecutors who give detainees prewritten confessions to sign, to medical examiners who classify beatings and electric shock as causing minor injuries.
Only 15 soldiers have been convicted out of the 3,671 investigations launched by military prosecutors into alleged human rights violations by soldiers against civilians from 2007 to June 2011, according to the report. Not a single soldier or state official has been convicted in any of more than 200 cases the New York-based organization documented in the report.
"The existing approach is certainly not working," Executive Director Kenneth Roth told The Associated Press. "While one can't speak of causality, there's at least a correlation between the deployment of an unaccountable army prone to abuse and the explosion of cartel violence."
Human Rights Watch investigators met with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the country's interior secretary, attorney general and leaders of the armed forces while writing the report. Calderon did not have an immediate response Wednesday, while Attorney General Marisela Morales issued a statement saying the Calderon government has made progress in the defense of human rights and has "pushed for unprecedented openness and transparency."
The organization demands that the government stop allowing the military judicial system to prosecute military crimes and to end the practice of dropping suspects at military bases, where they are routinely tortured into confessions, rather than turning them over to civilian prosecutors.
The report says it documented 170 cases with credible evidence of torture, including waterboarding, electric shocks and asphyxiation, 39 forced disappearances and 24 cases of extra-judicial killings by security forces. The investigators said they only used cases in which victims' accounts could be corroborated by eyewitnesses, medical reports, coinciding testimony by people with no connections to each other or official investigations.
The report said that even if some of the suspects have committed crimes, their treatment still violated international and Mexican laws.
The report focuses on five states most heavily affected by drug violence and with some of the largest deployments of troops: Baja California, Chihuahua, Guerrero, Nuevo Leon and Tabasco.
The allegations are not surprising in a country known for widespread police corruption and a hobbled judicial system where more than three-quarters of detainees are set free, according to an AP investigation. Suspects are routinely paraded before the press with bruised or bleeding faces.
Calderon has often said 90 percent of the drug war victims are criminals, a characterization the Human Rights Watch report questions, since the vast majority of the 35,000 murders have never been investigated.
In one instance, authorities labeled two graduate students "hit men" after they were killed in a shootout between army troops and drug cartel members outside the prestigious Monterrey Technological Institute last year. In the case in which Arzate is accused, Calderon called the slain teenagers gang members, only to retract the statement and apologize.
Arzate had been accused by authorities of driving erratically in a stolen Jeep, a charge they later dropped. The official medical exam said his skin abrasions were consistent with a rash.
Calderon has since softened his tone on drug war victims in the face of criticisms from a peace movement led by Javier Sicilia, a poet whose college-student son was murdered along with six others south of Mexico City by drug cartel members. Authorities say he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But Calderon has stood fast on his deployment of some 50,000 military troops to fight organized crime and said last year he was getting tired of the "nagging" about alleged military abuses.
The allegations are "not true because the (soldiers) always respect the dignity of criminals and put them before a judge," he said.
Calderon has recently beefed up his offensive with the deployment of the Navy infantry, or marines, who are considered more highly trained and less corruptible. The states of Nuevo Leon and Veracruz, where marines dominate the offensive, have experienced some of the worst violence in the country this year.
"The navy is particularly unresponsive to queries about its conduct. It's a black, black box," Roth said. "While the navy is certainly reputable, more professional, a different class of people, that has not translated into more lawful conduct."
Both the Inter-American Court on Human Rights and Mexico's own Supreme Court have ruled the military cases should be handled by civilian courts. But the report also notes that civilian courts are no panacea, given that no public officials have been convicted in any of the 170 torture cases it studied.
Ricardo Castellanos, a Tijuana municipal police officer accused of ties to organized crime, said he was handed a list of names by a federal prosecutor to implicate in his confessions, according to the report. When he refused, he was tortured until he agreed.
"As the soldiers who had tortured him looked on, Castellanos said, the prosecutor rewrote his confession, fabricating a false account that included the names from the list," the report says.
Nallely Thamara Lara Sosa was tortured, undressed and threatened with rape to confess to three murders she says she didn't commit.
Castellanos was released for lack of evidence. Arzate and Lara are still in custody awaiting trial.