As Mexico Institutes Judicial Reforms, New Report Highlights Torture in Custody

By Mark Browne | June 30, 2016 | 5:32pm EDT
Women prisoners in the Top Chico prison in Monterrey, Mexico. A deadly riot broke out at the prison on Feb. 11, 2016. (AP Photo/Emilio Vazquez, File)

Mexico City ( – Torture by law enforcement and the military in Mexico “remains a serious problem,” according to a just-released Amnesty International study, while a Mexican expert monitoring judicial reforms – aimed in part at stopping torture – says that corruption, if not eliminated, will stand in the way.

The Amnesty study concluded that “Mexican police and armed forces routinely torture and ill-treat women.”

It said “sexual violence is routine during arrest and interrogation,” with 72 percent reporting sexual violence during arrest or in the following hours. The report said the abuse led in some cases to forced confessions.

The women reported beatings, threats of rape, electric shocks, near-asphyxiation and other violent acts by authorities after they were taken into custody.

The group interviewed 100 women being held in Mexican jails, but complained that federal authorities would not allow it to interview a larger sample of women.

“There are indeed public officials who strive to make progress in combating torture and ill treatment, but unfortunately they appear to be outnumbered by those who would obstruct access to justice and information,” the study noted.

Mexican Secretary of Defense Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda issued a public apology earlier this year after a video that went viral showed two soldiers and a police officer torturing a female suspect, according to the Associated Press.

Major judicial reforms are being put in place in Mexico on the basis of legislation and constitutional reforms passed in 2008.

Locally-based U.N. officials in a statement this week said the reforms offered an “historic opportunity” to “eradicate” torture.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights’ representative in Mexico, Jan Jarab, called on the authorities to fully implement the reforms, which include prohibitions on the use of evidence in court proceedings obtained through torture.

Failures in Mexico’s justice system result in only one in five reported crimes being “fully investigated,” according to a 2011 paper published by David Shirk of the Woodrow Wilson Center. The paper cited “widespread criminal impunity” in Mexico and “a disturbingly high proportion of torture cases involving forced confessions.”

According to a study by the Inter-American Commission on Human rights, 98 percent of crimes committed in Mexico do not result in convictions. Citing the figures, an NPR report noted that the U.S. has donated “millions” of dollars through the Merida Initiative toward the judicial reform effort in Mexico.

The reforms require a presumption of innocence and oral arguments before judges in court sessions open to the public, according to Javier Carrasco, director of Instituto de Justicia Procesal Penal, a non-profit group monitoring the progress of reform.

Mexico has no trial by jury, he noted.

Carrasco said his organization was satisfied that all of Mexico’s 31 states have met the June deadline for implementing the new court procedures, but emphasized that if corruption throughout the law enforcement system in Mexico is not dealt with, the reforms will amount to “window dressing.” 

The reforms also include new restrictions on police and prosecutors’ ability to interview suspects in the course of criminal investigations. Carrasco said this should help prevent the use of torture.

Law enforcement authorities are prohibited from questioning suspects against their will. If a suspect agrees to questioning, his or her defense attorney must be present, Carrasco said.

Confessions are only valid if given by the suspect in front of a judge.

Carrasco said a large majority of municipal police in Mexico are following the reform requirements, but that it will take “generations” to see change because of public mistrust of law enforcement due to years of corruption.

“Today, victims don’t have trust in the police or the prosecutors,” he said. “Measurable changes will take 10 to 11 years.”

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