Monday, January 29, 2018

Recounting torture: "to speak and not be listened to"

Translated by El Profe for Borderland Beat from Horizonal

Torture is a current practice in Mexico. To the pain of having lived it in their own flesh, the victims add the impossibility of talking about it.

Past and present of torture in Mexico

On September 19, an earthquake collapsed a considerable number of buildings in Mexico City. One of them was the Attorney General's Office, whose rubble revealed the existence of clandestine prisons, as well as corpses with torture marks. Some media and international human rights organizations reported these macabre discoveries. [I] In response, the Attorney General's Office "described as a lie everything reported in Mexico and in the world about the findings after the earthquake." [II] It was the year of 1985 and the country was governed by the authoritarian regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), led by President Miguel de la Madrid, in which serious human rights abuses were committed and which was characterized by its aversion to transparency, their indifference to accountability and their hostility to the scrutiny of the international community. [III] "Office of darkness," recalls Juan Villoro, the exercise of power in Mexico "depended for almost a century on the political value of the inscrutable." [IV]

After a long and equivocal political transition process, in 2000 the country formally inaugurated a democratic regime. From then on, it was said, Mexico would cease to be a "reference of discredit in the matter of human rights." [V] With the arrival of democracy, President Vicente Fox promised, the country would consolidate a culture of repudiation of human rights violations, it would be a democratic scenario in which the perpetrators of abuses would receive sanctions. [VI] Torture and other serious human rights violations would be a matter of the past, problems of the previous authoritarian regime, of which the new government - the government of change - sought to distance itself. In accordance with the liberal creed and respect for international law to which Mexico claimed to adhere, democracies do not torture (under any circumstances).

Twelve years later, the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) launched the First Survey among the Internal Population in Federal Social Readaptation Centers. When analyzing the data, Ana Laura Magaloni found that far from disappearing, torture had increased significantly during the arrest and preliminary federal investigations since 2006, that is, in the administration of President Felipe Calderón. For example, thirty-five percent of the detainees suffered electric shocks and forty-two percent were submerged in water ( waterboarding ). [VII] The CIDE survey showed an uncomfortable reality: Mexican democracy does torture and does it in a habitual way.

In 2014, Juan Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, stated that torture is a "generalized" practice in Mexico. [VIII] That same year, Amnesty International warned that torture in the country is "out of control", because "anyone" who is detained - just for being in "the wrong place at the wrong time" - is at risk of being tortured. [IX] Following these investigations, the increase in the use of torture has a perfectly delimited scenario: the war on drugs, initiated by President Felipe Calderón and continued in the current administration of Enrique Peña Nieto. This war has allowed the deployment of policies and practices - deep rooted - that visibly facilitate the commission of serious human rights violations: from the outset, torture.

The Mexican democracy is, thus, very peculiar; According to a large group of investigations carried out by national and international human rights organizations, torture remains the favored method of the State security forces - municipal, state and federal police; state and federal ministerial agents; and the armed forces- to investigate the alleged commission of crimes. [X] The irony is obvious: it would seem that democracy did not bring about the end of torture, but the roots and reinforcement of its practice.

Recounting torture

How is pain narrated? How can torture be told? This is the first obstacle faced by victims of torture: to find the words that can understandably portray the unspeakable suffering endured.

Sometimes the victim's narrative is the only evidence available, because torture does not always leave physical traces: subjecting detainees to several nights without sleep; some types of sexual violence; solitary confinement in tiny places where detainees can only stand; exposure to extremely cold temperatures; public humiliations such as forcing detainees to strip naked; forcing them to squat for long periods ...

Torture is a public act. This is so because, in accordance with international human rights law, it is an agent of the State responsible for inflicting it. However, it is not an act that usually occurs in public, before the eyes of other people. The practice of torture today tends to occur in private, in a "room", or in a space where there are usually no witnesses; and, if there are any, they are other agents of the State who collaborate actively with the torturer or who, with their silence and passivity, are his accomplices. Stan Cohen, who made the most important investigation into the mistreatment of Palestinians detained in Israel, illustrates with a phrase - often repeated by torturers to their victims - the public and private character of this practice: "yell all you want nobody is going to hear you." [XI]

How many torture victims publicly and legally denounce their suffering? How many victims dare to tell their torture? Victims rarely dare to express their suffering; and, when they do, nobody believes them or they run the risk of being revictimized: hence the contagious phrase "they would be involved in something."

The perpetrators, on the other hand, remain silent and are rarely brought to justice or found responsible. The exception occurs, perhaps, in countries with autocratic regimes that are dismantled, in which the new democratic governments that succeed them establish some kind of transitional justice, in order to seek truth or justice with respect to abuses committed in the past. For example, in Chile or Argentina democratic governments that succeeded their respective dictatorships established truth commissions that widely reported the use of torture. In Mexico there has already been an expensive and prolonged process of transitional justice during the administration of President Vicente Fox, materialized through the Special Prosecutor for Crimes of the Past. This process ended in 2006 when Fox left the presidency, without getting to know the reality of patterns of abuse - such as torture - committed during the authoritarian period, nor managed to imprison the perpetrators of these crimes.

But what happens in countries that, in principle, are democratic and that are not transiting to any other political regime? The difference in the type of regime does not seem to be necessarily significant for the victims. At least in the current Mexican democracy, as Magaloni warns, the practice of torture is rarely detected and prosecuted, because the authorities that perpetrate it are the same ones that, if denounced, must investigate it. [XII] It is not a surprise, for example, according to Amnesty International, that between 2006 and 2013 the Attorney General's Office opened more than a thousand investigations for torture and that it only presented charges in twelve cases. [XIII]

Victims also find it difficult to convey their suffering to those who believe that torture is abhorrent, human rights defenders. It is not necessarily easy for the victims to translate their pain into the legalistic language of human rights. For example, the Convention against Torture states that states must ensure that whenever there is "reasonable grounds to believe" that an act of torture was committed, "the competent authorities will conduct a prompt and impartial investigation." But how exactly are these reasonable grounds to believe? Who defines it and how does "reasonable" materialize? What can a victim finally do for them to believe that she was tortured in a room where there was nothing else except she and her tormentor?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture during his visit to Mexico said he had received "numerous plausible allegations of victims" and their families. [XIV] But, again, how exactly is the quality of verisimilitude established? What makes a story of a victim of torture valid and true?

The Convention against Torture defines this practice as those acts perpetrated by an agent of the State for which a person is intentionally inflicted with severe pain or suffering [...] in order to obtain from [...] her a confession, to punish her for an act that has been committed [...] or to intimidate or coerce that person. However, what exactly do you mean by "serious" suffering? The Convention itself does not consider as torture the "pains or sufferings" that are "the consequence [...] of legitimate punishment." But what exactly is a legitimate punishment that produces pain and suffering?

How is it that the human rights commissions in the country conclude that the physical abuse suffered by a person should be considered as an act of "excessive use of force", "arbitrary use of force", "cruel treatment" or, simply, "torture"? Amnesty International warns of the tendency of some state commissions that define torture as "abuse of authority." [XV] The figures of the National Commission of Human Rights are eloquent: before more than eleven thousand complaints of torture and ill-treatment received between 2005 and 2013, it only issued two hundred and twenty-three recommendations. [XVI]
Torture , Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 1943
Denying torture

When one speaks of torture, not only are ideas related to physical injuries about a body or traumas evoked, but also the undemocratic exercise of state power. That is, in addition to considerations regarding corporal or psychological torments, the debate about torture brings about a deep discussion about public policy, the nature of a regime, the rule of law and responsibility.

Sheltered in the discourse of non-intervention and self-determination of peoples, the Mexican authoritarian regime of the 20th century was alien to the international community's gaze. The security forces could commit acts of torture with impunity without feeling the need to justify themselves before liberal democracies or the questioning of international human rights organizations, whose access to the country was limited. The authoritarian regime, if anything, sought to legitimize its actions, sporadically, before an internal audience based on different permutations of the propaganda of the time: the victims of torture or forced disappearance, to say the least, were represented as "bad Mexicans", "communists", "guerrillas", "agitators", "anarchists", "traitors." The "enemies of Mexico" only received what they deserved, therefore the abuses of authority were justified.

But the authoritarian regime was left behind, formally, in the year 2000. Since then the country is a democracy open to the international community. In this context, organizations such as Human Rights Watch and various United Nations bodies come to the country to conduct extensive investigations and promote the strengthening of democracy. Mexico is even home to an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The prohibition of torture is absolute in international human rights law, which has been adopted and adapted to the Constitution. There is no way to excuse its practice. But if democracies do not torture, how does the Mexican government justify its widespread practice now?

The Mexican government has tried to deny or minimize the existence of the practice of torture through different discursive strategies. A case to illustrate this occurred before the publication of the report prepared by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture about Mexico in 2015. The first strategy of the official bureaucracy was to "kill the messenger": the prestigious Special Rapporteur was accused by the then chancellor José Antonio Meade (now presidential candidate of the PRI) and the undersecretary of multilateral affairs and human rights, Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, to act "in an irresponsible, unethical and unsupported manner." [XVII] The problem for members of the Executive and Legislative Power was not the systematic and abundantly evidenced use of torture, but the Rapporteur who spoke, according to them, "without sustenance." The issue was not the unethical and irresponsible behavior of the security forces that perpetrate torture on a daily basis, but the statements of the Rapporteur, who simply came to confirm what was already known.

The second tactic of the official bureaucracy was to "condemn the condemned": that is to say, it was a matter of discrediting those who had come to sully the country's honor; a country accused of practicing torture in a generalized manner. For the Mexican government, the great loser of this "mess" was the Rapporteur: because Mexico - a country that tortures - would stop working with him; because other countries would surely think "better we do not invite him." Even Gómez Robledo even said that the Rapporteur was responsible for the effectiveness of the multilateral system, on which democracies operate in large part. [XVIII] According to this logic, the multilateral system did not lose because one of its democracies practiced torture, but because the Rapporteur showed that this was the case.

The last strategy used by the Mexican government was the plain denial that torture was practiced in Mexico. That is, the official bureaucracy simply denied, literally, that the serious problem of torture is occurring in the country. For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Rapporteur's assessment, which had been evidenced on numerous occasions by a large number of human rights organizations, "does not correspond to reality." [XIX] The ambassador of Mexico to the UN, Jorge Lomónaco, who now represents Mexico before the OAS, said that what the Rapporteur said was "a fallacy." [XX] Thus, in Mexico, it seems that two different realities occur simultaneously: on the one hand, that of the victims and of human rights organizations, in which torture is practiced on a regular basis by the security forces and the public ministries of the country; on the other, the reality of the government, in which torture does not exist or is a lesser evil, and in which there is no evidence to support its existence, or what is really important is that the UN Special Rapporteur on torture is supposedly irresponsible and risky for the multilateral system.

Final considerations

The structural conditions that allowed the use of torture in the authoritarian era seem not to have changed with the arrival of democracy. In fact, some of the factors that make the practice of torture possible have been supported by the provisions that the war against drug traffickers has brought with them. In this context, the victims of torture continue to face the physical and psychological pain of the torments to which the torturers of the State are subjected, but they also suffer the challenge of telling what happened to them, of being heard and of someone believing them so that, perhaps eventually, justice will be served. The history of torture victims in Mexico recalls Primo Levi's recurrent nightmare in the Auschwitz concentration camp during Nazi Germany: "I had a dream, we all always had a dream [...] to speak and not be listened to, of finding liberty and remaining alone." [XXI]

Note: A previous version of this text was published by La voz que clama ..., magazine of the State Human Rights Commission of Aguascalientes.

[I] Drafting Process, "With the earthquake appeared clandestine prisons in the district attorney's office and in nearby hotels", Proceso , October 5, 1985, available at: -the-earthquake-appeared-clandestine-jails-in-the-procuraduria-of-the-district-and-in-nearby-hotels ; Americas Watch, Human Rights in Mexico. A Policy of Impunity , June 1990.

[I] Drafting Process , Idem.

[III] Sergio Aguayo, The Pantheon of Myths , Mexico, Grijalbo-El Colegio de México, 1998.

[IV] Juan Villoro, «The red carpet», The newspaper of Catalonia , February 2009.

[V] Vicente Fox, stenographic version of the message of the graduate Vicente Fox Quesada, during the Solemn Session of the H. Congress of the Union, after rendering the Protest of Law as Constitutional President of the United Mexican States , December 1, 2000.

[VI] Idem.

[VII] Ana Laura Magaloni, "Arbitrariness as a method of work: criminal prosecution during the administration of Felipe Calderón", in Catalina Pérez-Correa (ed), From detention to prison. Criminal justice under review , Mexico, Center for Economic Research and Teaching, 2015, pp. 30 and 39.

[VIII] Juan Méndez , Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment , United Nations, December 2014.

[IX] Amnesty International, Torture and other ill-treatment in Mexico , Madrid, Amnesty International, 2014, available at:

[X] Idem.

[XI] Stanley Cohen, "State crimes of past regimes: knowledge, accountability and the policing of the past," Law and Social Inquiry , 20 (1), 1995, p. 19

[XII] Magaloni, op. cit ., p. 41

[XIII] Amnesty International, op. cit ., p. 51

[XIV] Juan Méndez, op. cit. , p. 7

[V] Amnesty International, op. cit ., p. 26

[XVI] Juan Méndez, op. cit ., p. 8

[XVII] Natalia Gómez Quintero, "Confront Meade to the UN Rapporteur", El Universal , March 18, 2015, available at: -encha-a-rapporteur-of-the-un-disqualifies-his-work-49037.html

[XVIII] Idem.

[XIX] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Mexico reiterates State policy of openness to international scrutiny on Human Rights", Mexico, April 4, 2015, available at mexico-reitera-politica-de-estado-de-apertura-al-scrutinio-internacional-en-materia-de-derechos-humanos

[XX] Redacción Sin Embargo , "Torture is widespread in Mexico: UN rapporteur; that's a lie, responds ambassador », Sin Embargo, March 9, 2015, available at:

[XXI] Primo Levi, If this is a man. The truce , London, Abacus, 1991, p. 246
On the cover: Signometry image : Tentativa Artaud , Raúl Zurita and Ronald Kay (Chile, 2015); on the pain of confinement and torture, based on texts by Antonin Artaud.

On the cover: Signometry image : Tentativa Artaud , Raúl Zurita and Ronald Kay (Chile, 2015); on the pain of confinement and torture, based on texts by Antonin Artaud.


  1. Thanks God for that targeted earthquake to reveal torture chambers !

  2. Wow, hadn’t heard of the clandestine tortured/ dead.......that is why we come here.
    It is a little confusing , that first paragraph . They are talking about the recent Sept earthquake, not 1985 ?

  3. When I see articles like the one with the father and son who both were tortured by a rival group, and sadistically slaughtered, in a failed state such as Mexico I ask myself this. Will torturing criminals help anything? Probably no. But the criminals wouldn’t think twice before doing the dirty deed and life is a two way street so deal with it .

    1. Torture works. The Communists did it on a massive scale in the Soviet Union and controlled an entire population. Same with Saddam in Iraq or Kadaffi in Libya or Amin in Uganda and on and on and on.

  4. That why the motherfacking government orders their sicarios to disappear their victims in secret mass Graves and fracture every bone into saw dust, the facing marinas and soldiers are a bunch of crude murderers and the police corporations are just more of the same.
    There used to be a federal judicial police captain Jesús Miyazawa, partner of michoacan torturer policia judicial federal Francisco Sahagun Baca... miyazawa went to Morelos after he got fired for torture and murder and disappearances, and he set a school specialized in those "specialties", but before he left he left well protected his buddy, kidnapper murderer Luis Cardenas Palomino whose "Expediente Secreto" you may still be able to google. And he went on to a life of a criminal police officer in cahoots with genarco Garcia luna, and all they did in 20 to 30 years of serving and protecting was jidnapping for ransom, false imprisonments, torture and murders and exacting fees from all the officers that "worked for them"
    Marcelo Ebrard Casaubón was chief of government of Mexico city when niño Fernando Marti was kidnapped and murdered, by SSP WORKERS OF GARCIA LUNA and cardenas palomino, procurable DE justice Miguel angel Mancera, actual chief of government of Mexico city, as a prize for never "solving" the marti case, Carlos Salinas de gortari was Miguel de la Madrid puchacacas and the man behind the violence during that time, including the murder of Kiki Camarena.
    Mexico has signed international theatrics treaties, but nobody tries to enforce them if the Mexican does not allow for it, as we last saw with the Ayotzinapos and the foreigners investigating.
    Thanks for this article, I hope you can find fotos of the victims of torture.

  5. Humberto Padgett, "JAURIA" la verdadera historia del secuestro en mexico.

  6. Live by the dirty deed,die by the dirty deed.

  7. Or what comes around,goes around and that includes violence.

  8. My uncle in michoacan was picked up and was tortured with water and gasoline no lie by the federales thats probably why hes half ways crazy


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