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Torture in Latin America

Interview: Enrique López MagallónMay 13, 2014

In Latin America, torture remains an "endemic" problem for all democratic governments in the region. In countries like Mexico, torture is "widespread," but not state policy says UN Special Rapporteur Juan E. Méndez.

Man sitting at desk
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Juan E. Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, recently visited Mexico to evaluate how serious the problem is of torture practices by law enforcement institutions in that country. In an interview with DW, Méndez talks about the challenges regarding human rights throughout Latin America.

Deutsche Welle: In your overall assessment of the situation you spoke of "widespread torture" in Mexico. Why did you choose this specific wording?

Juan E. Méndez: I chose it very carefully, because I do not want to say that torture in Mexico is systematic. It is not state policy, but rather an endemic situation, which the Mexican state is obviously obliged to correct. I didn't want to suggest in any way that this behavior is dictated from the highest levels of the state. I think it's more a kind of permanent practice, and it is widespread because it affects almost all kinds of citizens.

Also, victims are being tortured by officers from different institutions: municipal police, state police, federal police, the army, the navy, even the so-called ministerial police, whose task is to investigate and prosecute. In all cases, the practice is very similar: beating - some of it very serious -, the use of electric shocks, or waterboarding or "wet asphyxiation." Another common one is the "dry submarine" - putting a bag over the victim's head. In most cases these abuses occur in the first 10, 18, or 24 hours of detention, when it is more or less clandestine. Once the victims are presented to the Court, it is very unlikely that they are tortured again. In general, no Mexican police force tortures more than the others. There's no police force free from this methodology. In almost all cases, the torture methods are more or less the same.

Why do all these police forces in Mexico use torture? Is it to fulfill orders? Or because of lack of training? Or maybe because there's so much impunity?

The third factor is the most important: impunity. I don't think they obey orders. I don't think anyone tell them 'go and torture.' They torture to obtain confessions and "solve" cases and fairly brutal coercion is used. Even when the victim refuses to sign a confession, torture is practiced in order to learn other details: where the weapons are, where the drugs are, who the victim's accomplices are. It is possible that during the "war against drugs" that had its peak a couple of years ago, torture was a little more widespread than it is now. Today there are less complaints, but it is not clear whether this practice has been completely eliminated or not.

army vehicles AFP PHOTO/Alfredo Estrella
No law enforcement agency in Mexico is free of tortureImage: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

Is there a special group among the Mexican population that suffers most from torture, for example, indigenous people, women, immigrants, or dissidents?

I'd say the poor suffer the most. The most vulnerable a group is, the less defenses it has against torture. Immigrants are victims of criminal groups, not so much of the immigration police. Serious crimes amount to about 90 percent of all the crimes investigated in Mexico today, in any state, in any city and in any region. When these are related to organized crime, there is a tendency to use a little more brutal coercion.

Mexico has a robust system of protection of human rights, with a national commission and dozens of state agencies involved in monitoring both the federal government and regional and local authorities. Are these commissions useful, given that have been unable to eradicate the phenomenon of torture in Mexico?

I think they are quite efficient in general. But one must remember that this sort of both federal and state ombudsman actually protect all the rights of the human person, including social and economic rights, up to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. Protection against torture is one of the many things they have to do, and although they have significant resources, they are not really able to solve all problems. The National Commission on Human Rights has ruled sometimes very eloquently, but neither it nor the state commissions can produce binding reports; they direct their recommendations to certain authorities (police or the public prosecutor, or even military) and these authorities have no obligation to comply.

You suffered firsthand the abuses of human rights by the military dictatorship in Argentina. With that in mind, what would you say are the main challenges for Latin America in general, in terms of respect for human rights?

Fortunately, we have no military dictatorships in Latin America today. With the exception of Colombia - where there is still torture of guerrilla groups - there is no torture directed at insurgent forces. But even though we have 25 years of democracy in Latin America, endemic torture is not eradicated. It is important to call attention to democratic governments: precisely because of their democratic condition, they should pay special attention to break the cycle of impunity that makes this "low-intensity torture" prevail throughout Latin America today.

We must insist that torture is immoral under any circumstances and, of course, illegal in both domestic law and international law. We also have to prove it inefficient. Torture really doesn't really help to combat crime. All it does is to reproduce the conditions that make crime grow.

During the military dictatorship in Argentina, in the 1970s, Juan E. Méndez suffered detention and torture. While in exile, he worked for 15 years for Human Rights Watch, where he launched the Americas Program. Méndez was appointed UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in November 2010. He has received numerous international awards. He teaches regularly at Oxford and other universities.