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Torture 'generalized' in Mexico: UN's top recommendations to stop it

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(Read caption) Juan E. Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, speaks during a press conference about his annual report to the Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, March 11, 2015.

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At the end of a report that describes "disturbing" levels of impunity around torture cases in Mexico, the United Nations offers dozens of recommendations to combat the problem. The majority of the recommendations have to do with confronting ongoing, severe dysfunction in the justice system. 

The report, released March 9 by Juan E. Mendez, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Torture, is based on a fact-finding mission that the UN carried out in Mexico in 2014. It explicitly notes the relationship between the security forces' use of torture and the government's battle against organized crime, as complaints of torture noticeably rose after President Felipe Calderón's government launched an assault against criminal groups in 2007. The report also said that most victims of torture "are detained for alleged links with organized crime."

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While the Mexican army has recently said that reported cases of abuse are dropping, the UN report states that there are several explanations for this, including better human rights training, but also the military's withdrawal in some parts of the country. Overall, it remains difficult to track torture in Mexico as no national registry yet exists – each state keeps track of reported cases, as well as the country's National Human Rights Commission (the CNDH). 

Mexico has undoubtedly seen some major successes in its fight against organized crime, and may yet further reduce the heavily criticized role that the military has played as the country's de facto police force. Nevertheless, the UN report makes clear that improving the rate at which torture cases are resolved – only five torture cases resulted in convictions between 2004 to 2013 – involves some serious reforms in the justice system and elsewhere. These include the following:

1. Get rid of certain judicial procedures that were supposed to aid the government's fight against organized crime, but are actually contributing to widespread abuse. 

The most prominent of these is the "arraigo," a constitutional amendment in 2008 that allows for suspects involved in organized crime cases to be held for up to 80 days without being formally charged. Similarly to Human Rights Watch, the UN urges for a swift and complete abolishment of arraigo, as well as other provisions in national and state law that allow for pre-trial detention without formal charges. Those subjected to arraigo detention are frequently tortured and abused in order to extract confessions, the report states, adding that within the Mexico City center where arraigo detainees involved in federal investigations are held, "almost everyone interviewed claimed to have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment before entering." 

Arraigo was meant to keep suspects in criminal investigations from escaping, but it was also meant to be applied sparingly, which it was not. Nor has it helped resolve more cases – according to data that the Mexican government gave the UN, just three percent of those subjected to arraigo detention since 2008 have been convicted of a crime. While the use of arraigo has been going down in Mexico, and while the Supreme Court limited its application to federal cases last year, the UN asserts that rather than gradually restricting the practice, Mexico would do well to eliminate it altogether.

2. Punish the judges and public prosecutors who do not automatically order an investigation into a reported torture case, as they are obliged to do under orders of Mexico's Supreme Court.  

The 2014 Supreme Court ruling was meant to tackle impunity by requiring officials to automatically investigate alleged cases of torture upon receiving a complaint. But the ruling will do little good if the protocol isn't widely applied and followed. 

3. Improve the way medical examinations are carried out on victims of torture.

According to the UN report, both federal and state attorney general's offices lack sufficiently trained staff to carry out the medical and psychological tests that should provide key evidence in any torture investigation. Not only that, investigations are usually delayed or incomplete, or produced by staff of the same security body accused of carrying out torture, the report observes. 

4. Stop arresting people in order to investigate them, and start investigating them in order to arrest them.

According to the UN, while some 5,500 federal arrest warrants were issued in Mexico in 2013, over 42,000 arrests were carried out without a warrant. In the words of the report, "Such practices give rise to arbitrary detention and increase the incidence of torture and ill-treatment." And as InSight Crime has previously argued, this tendency to arrest people in order to investigate them may have contributed to greater violence rates in the country, as Mexico's top crime lords have no reason to fear that committing outrageous acts would bulk up their case files and result in a harsher prison sentence if they are detained.

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Ultimately, in order to improve its record on torture, Mexico needs to send a strong message to its police, military, and other security officials that such behavior will not be tolerated and will result in an impartial, swift investigation and punishment if called for. But as illustrated by the abysmal conviction rates when it comes to torture cases – as well as the ongoing use of measures like arraigo – the message seems to be this one: in the fight against organized crime, rack up arrests and get the confessions needed to advance a case by any means necessary.