In Mexico, the human rights abuses of the ‘war on drugs’ have been a daily reality for more than a decade

Impunity over human rights violations generates an unconscionable mixture: the economic and political interests of criminality go unscathed, while the most marginalised, and often innocent, people face the worst consequences. Español

Centro Prodh
17 May 2016

Drug rehabilitation centre. Tijuana, Mexico. Alejandro Cossio/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Drug rehabilitation centre. Tijuana, Mexico. Alejandro Cossio/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The criminalisation of the sale and consumption of certain substances, under the model known internationally as ‘the war on drugs’, has been increasingly criticised in a variety of global forums due to its evident failure as a strategy to end the use and abuse of prohibited substances, as well as its impact in filling prisons with people accused of non-violent crimes.

When this model is adopted in a country where the rule of law, accountability or respect for human rights has not been consolidated, the negative impacts are multiplied. This is the case in Mexico.

The prohibition of numerous substances that are in high demand in the United States has made drug trafficking throughout Mexico one of the most lucrative businesses in the world. The million-dollar profits produced by this industry have massively fueled the growth, diversification and conflicts between criminal groups in Mexico. It is worth noting that these groups are often confused with broad sectors of the state in more than a few regions of the country, where the line between organised crime and the public sector has been blurred.

Given this reality, approximately a decade ago the federal government ushered in a new era, deploying tens of thousands of soldiers on the streets all over the country, even though neither the army nor the navy are institutions trained or legally authorised to perform public security tasks. Announced as a temporary measure to enable the purging and strengthening of the police corps, the militarisation continues in force today without any plan for its eventual termination.

The militarisation continues in force today without any plan for its eventual termination.

Along with it, the violence also continues in full force: in the past decade there have been more than 160,000 intentional homicides, a huge percentage of them related to ‘narco-violence’ and the government’s response. Although the federal government claimed a decrease in the homicide rate a couple of years ago, currently the country has the highest rates of intentional homicide since 2013, a trend that has been on the rise in recent months. For the past two years, Mexico has been among the three most deadly armed conflicts in the world.

The grave human rights violations committed in Mexico in recent years, now of international notoriety, are carried out in this context.

Enforced disappearance

The enforced disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero state in September 2014, at the hands of state agents, shook Mexico and the entire world.  

Without question, this case is one of the bloodiest examples of the crisis of violence, corruption and impunity that prevails in the country. The events in Iguala clearly showed one facet of the macro-crime context that exists in Mexico, as well as the human rights impact of the ‘war on drugs’: the different police corps involved violated human rights, because they were at the service of criminal organisations associated with drug trafficking.

This was documented by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI in Spanish), which was appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to provide technical assistance in the investigation. As part of a novel approach in international supervision of human rights matters, the GIEI pinpointed the drug trafficking from Iguala, Guerrero to Chicago, Illinois as a relevant line of investigation. According to the GIEI, it is possible that the police unleashed such high levels of violence against the students to protect the heroin trafficking route, in confusing some of the buses commandeered by the students with those that the criminal organisation uses for its illegal activities. This line cannot be discounted since the GIEI proved that, effectively, the organisation uses buses to traffic drugs, according to an accusation filed in Illinois.

Beyond this aspect, what makes the disappearance of the 43 students (along with the killing of six more young people and the serious injuries suffered by others that night) even more troubling is the fact that the case falls within broader patterns of severe violations in the country.

Disappearance and other forms of extreme violence are not new to Iguala.

Disappearance and other forms of extreme violence are not new to Iguala, where the students were attacked. After the events of 26 September 2014, multiple mass graves were found in that area, resulting in the exhumation of more than 100 bodies. This reality extends beyond the state of Guerrero: there are hundreds of mass graves distributed throughout the country.

On a national level, according to figures contained in the National Databank on Missing or Disappeared Persons (RNPED in Spanish), as of 31 January 2016, there were 27,215 “missing” persons reported in the common courts (19,881 men and 7,334 women). Between 2013 and 31 January 2016, it registered 12,989 disappearances, including 217 in January 2016 alone. Furthermore, the RNPED lists the number of disappeared persons reported under federal jurisdiction between January 2014 and March 2016 at 943 (786 men and 157 women).

Taking into account the cases that went unreported due to fear, as well as the obstacles faced by families who do report them, we can infer that the official figures do not include all disappeared persons. A variety of civil society organisations that document cases of disappearances reviewed the official registry and discovered that only a fraction of their cases appear on the list.

In short, it is possible to assert that one of the unforeseen effects of the 'war on drugs' in Mexico has been the exponential increase in disappearances, causing thousands of families pain and uncertainty.

Arbitrary executions

Another problem that Mexican civil society reports, in the context of the ‘war on drugs’, is the extrajudicial execution of civilians by the army.

For example: in the town of Tlatlaya, in the state of Mexico, on 30 June 2014, soldiers from the 102nd Infantry Battalion took the lives of 22 civilian adults and minors, some associated with a criminal group. The majority were arbitrarily executed, according to the National Human Rights Commission. The only survivors, who were circumstantially at the scene of the events, were subjected to torture, ill treatment and sexual intimidation in a bid to coerce them into confessing that they belonged to a criminal organization and to keep them from talking about what they had witnessed. 

The orders in force for members of the 102nd Battalion at the time of the events included instructions to: “take down criminals after dark”. However, to date there has been no investigation into the chain of command, nor has it been revealed how many other “take down” orders have been issued around the country.

Between 1 December 2006 (the approximate start of the current phase of militarisation of public security) and 31 December 2014, the National Defense Secretariat (Sedena, in Spanish) and the Naval Secretariat (Semar, in Spanish) say they participated in more than 3,500 armed confrontations. According to data provided by these two institutions in response to public information requests, over 4,000 civilians lost their lives at the hands of Mexico’s armed forces in the same period.

Sedena reported that, for the period of 13 January 2007 through 5 April 2014, in the course of supposed confrontations with criminal groups, 3,967 civilians died. It also reported that 209 military personnel died between 13 January 2007 and 30 October 2014. In other words, for every soldier who has died, approximately 19 civilians have lost their lives. Such numbers are evidence of the disproportionate use of lethal force.

During that same period, human rights organisations in different regions of the country and international groups documented executions by military agents in which the civilian victims were not involved in any criminal activity whatsoever. Currently, however, Sedena no longer keeps records of civilian deaths and injuries at the hands of the armed forces. This lack of access to information hinders public scrutiny of their operations.

Arbitrary detention, torture and fabrication in criminal investigations

No analysis of public security in Mexico can omit the widespread use of arbitrary detentions, torture and the fabrication of evidence and guilty parties — a practice that not only generates thousands of direct victims, but also makes professionalisation of the country’s criminal investigations impossible.

From 2004 to 2014, public human rights bodies registered at least 57,890 complaints of arbitrary detention. In a country where the percentage of supposed in flagrante detentions – made at the time the crime is committed – by federal and state police continues to be disproportionate, the criminalisation of the possession or sale of drugs is used to justify arbitrary or illegal detentions.

The immediate aftermath of many arbitrary detentions is torture.

The immediate aftermath of many arbitrary detentions is torture. Upon concluding his official visit to the country in May 2014, current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, confirmed that torture is rampant and practiced at all levels by civilian and military forces. Likewise, he found that “the use of torture and ill treatment appear to be excessively related to obtaining forced confessions,” and noted “with concern, the elevated number of allegations related to the fabrication of evidence and false incrimination of persons as a consequence of the use of torture and ill treatment.”

The cases of torture reported just by judges in the federal courts in the first eight months of 2014 numbered 1,398. If the judicial authorities in the common courts were to report cases of torture as often as their federal counterparts, in total there would have been some 10,000 reported cases of torture that year. Some statistics revealed in the media suggest that the rate of reports of torture in criminal cases was even higher in 2015, but all these figures still only represent a fraction of the cases of torture in the country.

As a general rule, public prosecutors barely, or wrongly, apply medical-psychological rules for documenting torture and/or ill treatment. A variety of ways to manipulate this tool have been documented, making it materially impossible to document torture and keeping it almost universally in the realm of impunity.

Of course, for every innocent person incarcerated because of a confession fabricated under torture, there is at least one unpunished crime and one perpetrator at large. The use of torture and other methods in the fabrication of evidence, instead of developing techniques for scientific investigation based on the collection and analysis of real evidence, is one factor that explains why approximately 98% of crimes go unpunished in Mexico.

An unconscionable mixture

The past decade, and especially the series of paradigmatic cases of gross violations that have come to light in recent years, demonstrate the obvious: if the security forces and the justice system diverge from the rule of law and systematically violate human rights, granting these institutions more power and discretion in the name of the ‘war on drugs’ will lead to more violence.

For Mexico, current drug policy has only brought a large-scale deterioration of its institutions and social fabric. The impunity over human rights violations and corruption generates an unconscionable mixture, in which the strong economic and political interests of criminality go unscathed, while it is the most marginalized, and often innocent, people who face the worst consequences. In short, the negative impact on human rights of the war on drugs in Mexico is not a mere analytical hypothesis to be proven; it is, rather, a daily reality experienced for more than a decade by thousands of families scarred by the crisis of violence.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

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