Verónica Razo, a Mexican 37-year-old mother of three is terrified of sleeping. Every night, when she lies in her bed in a small cell in Morelo’s federal prison, an hour outside the capital, Mexico City, her mind replays the scariest 24 hours of her life.
On 8 June 2011 federal police raped, suffocated and electrocuted her in a warehouse in Mexico City. She was tortured so badly that she almost died as a result. Police wanted her to say that she belonged to one of the brutal criminal gangs causing mayhem across the country. She has been behind bars since then.
Verónica’s story should be an exception; a terrible aberration; the result of a few “bad apples” within Mexico´s security forces.
Tragically, it is not.
A groundbreaking report published by Amnesty International details the harrowing testimonies of 100 women who have been arrested by Mexico´s police or military, the majority during the current President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012.
Of these 100 women; 97 said they were physically abused, 72 said they had been sexually abused, and 33 said they had been raped. As happened to Veronica, many of them were tortured to force them to “confess” to being part of a drug cartel or kidnapping ring.
Of these 100 women; 97 said they were physically abused, 72 said they had been sexually abused, and 33 said they had been raped.
We visited the only federal prison for women in Mexico to conduct interviews for this report; and the appalling stories of abuse just kept coming.
A housewife who was kidnapped from the street as she was on her way to buy groceries by unknown men, later identified as members of the security forces; a mother arrested as she walked to pick up her children from school; and a young woman who witnessed her husband being tortured to death by police officers, are among the stories of terror documented by Amnesty International
The fact that torture is incredibly common in Mexico is hardly big news anymore. According to a recent investigation by Amnesty International, criminal complaints of torture at a federal level doubled between 2013 and 2014. Since 2014 the authorities have not been able to provide updated figures.
According to a recent investigation by Amnesty International, criminal complaints of torture at a federal level doubled between 2013 and 2014.
But our most recent report takes these early findings to a whole new, and highly sinister level. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are routinely being used to torture women into confessing to crimes. These confessions boost prosecution figures and create the illusion that the authorities are doing something to tackle the security crisis currently enveloping Mexico. While these revelations are shocking, they should not come as news to the Peña Nieto administration.
Just two months ago a video was leaked to the Mexican press that provoked a public scandal. It showed police and military officials asphyxiating a woman with a plastic bag and interrogating her while she screamed in pain.
In an unprecedented move, the head of the Army took to the airwaves to publicly condemn the acts and apologize. The head of the Federal Police followed suit. The video brought a stark fact into the public domain: that torture continues to be a key strategy in Mexico’s fight against drug cartels and organized crime.
The video also shows us the human cost of this approach – two unbearable minutes of a woman’s excruciating suffering. Perhaps worse is that we do not know what happened once the camera was switched off. We do not know what else this woman was forced to endure.
On paper, Mexico might win a gold star as prize pupil in the international human rights system. There is almost no major human rights treaty that it has not ratified. Yet impunity for human rights violations is almost absolute; despite thousands of complaints of torture and other ill-treatment filed each year, the perpetrators go unpunished.
Mexico’s Federal Attorney General could not point to even one charge laid against torturers in either 2014 or 2015. And when we asked how many soldiers had been suspended for sexual abuse or rape since 2010, the army could not name one.
When women are tortured or ill-treated they are specifically at risk of forms of violence that target them because of their gender. Severe beatings; threats of rape against women and their families; asphyxiation; electric shocks to the genitals; groping of breasts and pinching of nipples; rape, including with objects, fingers and firearms – these are just some of the forms of violence meted out to women and documented by Amnesty International.
When women are tortured or ill-treated they are specifically at risk of forms of violence that target them because of their gender.
In addition, being a woman from a disadvantaged background makes you an easy target for abuses. The police and soldiers seem to take advantage of the fact that when women are living in poverty, they do not have the means to question the authorities. For example, a young sex worker and single mother-of-two told Amnesty International that all she had done was “go out to work to survive” one night when she was arrested by Federal Police in 2014. She was beaten and abused, and later accused of a serious crime.
A number of the women we spoke to had been raped by individuals belonging to the Navy. Mexico’s marines participate in public security operations and are generally seen as an elite force. However our research found that arrests carried out by the Navy had the highest rates of rape. In 2011, it was marines who subjected Denise Blanco and Korina Utrera to a 30-hour ordeal involving rape and ritual humiliation as a punishment for being lesbians. The couple remain in prison on charges of organized crime and drug offences.
In 2011, it was marines who subjected Denise Blanco and Korina Utrera to a 30-hour ordeal involving rape and ritual humiliation as a punishment for being lesbians. The couple remain in prison on charges of organized crime and drug offences.
So what must the government do to eradicate these hellish practices? Evidence suggests that training actually has very little impact. In fact the Navy, Army and Federal Police informed Amnesty International of literally hundreds of trainings directed at their agents in recent years on “women’s rights and a gender perspective.”
While this is discouraging, Amnesty International believes the situation can, and must, change. We also believe that the best way to stem the tide of abuse is to make sure there are consequences for those who perpetrate it.
The government already has the tools with which to do this. On 9 September 2015 it established a small taskforce within the Ministry of the Interior to focus on the issue of sexual torture of women. The taskforce was intended to coordinate different government institutions on the issue, allowing real progress in the investigation of cases. However it has remained largely dormant since its creation.
This taskforce, named the Official Mechanism on Sexual Torture against Women, must kick started into life and urgently given the resources it needs to start delivering results.
If the taskforce is not empowered to do its work, it will fail. But with tales of horror continuing to emerge from Mexican prisons; that cannot be allowed to happen. This nightmare must stop.