07/24/14 (written by dpera) — Criminal defense lawyers are arguing that a Supreme Court ruling in April 2014 to address allegations of torture is coming up far short of initial expectations. On April 2, Mexico’s Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, SCJN) ruled that if a suspect detained during court proceedings claims he or she was tortured while being held, Mexico’s Public Prosecutors (Ministerio Público, MP) would launch an investigation into the validity of the allegations. The decision, which was officially published on May 23, also mandates that judges must alert the Public Ministry when a witness or defendant claims that an admission was obtained through torture.
Nevertheless, in the two months since the ruling has been in effect, critics argue that authorities have failed to put the reform into practice. Three criminal defense lawyers in Mexico—Felipe Rosales Flores, Agustín Figueroa, and Martín Millán—have spoken out recently in an interview with La Jornada, arguing that the ruling passed “without trouble or fanfare because persons under arrest are simply not listened to.” The attorneys cited several of their clients’ recent cases involving such allegations of human rights abuse at the hands of authorities. Figueroa added, “If we start from the assumption that the majority of complaints are against members of the Police and the Army,” translates Mexico Voices, “then naturally [the subsequent investigations] will be neither impartial nor independent.”
The obligation of authorities to order investigations was put in place to curb the use of torture, a practice allegedly used in Mexico’s justice system that has been widely criticized. Since 2006, allegations of the use of torture against civilians by Mexican authorities, particularly police and members of the military, has risen due to the adoption of a more militarized anti-drug strategy by former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) that continues under current President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018). As Justice in Mexico wrote in its 2012 report, “Armed with Impunity: Curbing Military Human Rights Abuses in Mexico,” as the proximity with which troops interact with the public increased during Calderón’s sexenio and into Peña Nieto’s, so too has the problem of human rights violations. Under Calderón, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) registered a 500% increase in reports of torture and otherwise cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, with 7,253 such cases reported. Meanwhile, 44% of Mexicans surveyed in a 2014 Amnesty International report expressed fear of being tortured if detained, while criminal defense lawyer Agustín Figueroa argues that defendants in 90% of property-related (delitos patrimoniales) claim they were tortured by authorities. For his part, U.N. Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez, who visited Mexico in April 2014 to investigate the increase in allegations of torture, concluded that a “generalized situation” of torture exists in Mexico, and must be addressed.
Nevertheless, recommendations handed down by the CNDH regarding the use of torture have decreased under the Peña Nieto administration, with a registered 30% decline in reported cases of torture between 2012 and 2013, reports the CNDH. Prior to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on torture and the subsequent investigations, Mexico has indeed tried to curb the use of the practice through other legal reforms. In 2008, for example, the SCJN ruled that any evidence or testimony obtained through the use of torture was invalid before the courts, a ruling that the recent reform seeks to build upon. Yet the combination of these reforms, however, seems to be felt more in theory than practice. Like many critics and human rights advocates, U.N. Special Investigator Méndez argues that the effectiveness of such reforms will continue to be undermined while Mexico’s notorious problem of impunity persists.