Mexico: Tortured at random

Miriam López was kidnapped on the school run by men in balaclavas, tortured and detained for months. How could this happen? Amnesty International looks at the reality of torture in Mexico.

It took time for Miriam Isaura López Vargas to piece together what had happened to her.  

The 30-year-old mother of four had just dropped three of her children off at school in Ensenada, a city in northern Mexico, on 2 February 2011. Suddenly, two men wearing balaclavas appeared, forced her into a white van and took her away.

“I didn’t know who they were, and when I asked them they put a gun to my head and told me to shut up or they would blow my head off,” she later said. The men turned out to be soldiers in plain clothes. They took Miriam to a military barracks in a nearby city, Tijuana. She described what came next as the worst seven days of her life.  

“They tortured me:  they repeatedly put wet cloths over my face and poured water over it so I couldn’t breathe,” she told us. “They gave me electric shocks.”

Deeply traumatized, she later found the courage to tell her partner that soldiers had also repeatedly raped her.

The soldiers were trying to force Miriam to “confess” to trafficking drugs through a military checkpoint. Miriam maintains her innocence, and that she was simply making her usual journey to visit her mother 45 kilometres away.

After a week of torture, Miriam was taken to a detention centre in Mexico City.  She spent 80 days there before being charged with drug-related offences and transferred to a prison in Ensenada. She was finally released on 2 September 2011, after her case was thrown out of court because of a lack of evidence.

Using torture to fight crime 

Torture remains the police’s method of choice for investigating crimes across Mexico.

People are often tortured and otherwise ill-treated to make them sign statements that falsely implicate them – or others – in a crime. These are then used as evidence to prosecute somebody. The authorities tend to turn a blind eye, because torture identifies supposed “criminals” and suggests that the police are fighting crime effectively.

This leaves many innocent people behind bars, criminals on the streets, victims of crime without access to real justice, and the general population at risk of more crime and violence.

Prosecutors used Miriam’s testimony to implicate others, not just Miriam, in drug-related offences. They just needed someone to fill a gap in the evidence required to bring charges.

Miriam is one of thousands

A few years ago, Mexico started combating drug cartels and organized crime, using tens of thousands of soldiers and marines to lead operations. Since then, complaints of torture and ill-treatment by the military and police have increased. This has left Mexicans at much higher risk of being tortured at random.

Ordinary people like Miriam, with few means and limited access to independent legal help, are particularly vulnerable.

Allegations of torture and other ill-treatment alone rose by 500% between 2006-2012, according to the National Human Rights Commission. It is also investigating around 2,400 disappearances in which public officials are implicated.

Failed by the system

Successive Mexican governments have repeatedly said they will prevent and punish torture. But they have so far failed to fully investigate any allegations, and have brought virtually no one to justice. The authorities, including judges, are also failing in their legal obligation to prevent testimony tainted by torture being used as evidence during trials.

Miriam was examined by National Human Rights Commission staff in 2012. They confirmed that her account was consistent with having been tortured, including sexual violence. But the Federal Attorney General’s Office still requested another examination performed by its own forensic officials.

This was only carried out in May 2013, even though Miriam filed her complaint for torture in December 2011. Miriam and her lawyer still haven’t been informed of the examination results. 

Tell Miriam that she is not alone

15 December 2013 marks two years since Miriam filed her complaint with the Federal Attorney General’s Office for the human rights violations she suffered.

The investigation has hardly moved since. Despite compelling medical evidence, and Miriam identifying some of the perpetrators, no one has been officially questioned.

Most torture victims in Mexico are too scared to complain. Many women who have been sexually assaulted fear being stigmatized if they speak out. Miriam decided to come forward because she is determined to get justice, and to protect others from suffering what she went through.

She needs your support. Her home in Ensenada, Baja California state, is 2,000 km from the capital, Mexico City, where her case is being processed. She is in regular touch with her lawyer, a national NGO that supports her, and with Amnesty. But keeping up her fight is a constant challenge.

“I try to live normally,” she told us, “but I’m always scared – for me, for my family – that something is going to happen to them”. To protect her family, Miriam has asked us not to publish any images identifying her.

Please let Miriam know what she is not alone. It is very important to her that thousands of people are supporting her campaign for justice.

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