Report confirms rape and torture of prisoners

October 30, 2006

On October 16, the Mexico's national ombudsman, Jose Luis Soberanes Fernandez, delivered the recommendations of his report into the killing of two young men and the detention of another 207 people by municipal, state and federal security forces on May 3 and 4 in the municipalities of Texcoco and San Salvador Atenco. The clashes were sparked by attempts to remove flower venders without licences from a market.

Soberanes confirmed many of the victims' allegations, saying: "Torture, violation of sexual liberty — the sexual abuse and rape of 26 women — are attacks on the right to life, they violate the right to physical integrity and security, liberty, and legality."

His findings included:

•Federal, state and municipal police and military caused 207 people to suffer cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment;

•that without any legal justification, these agents were authorised to beat those they captured;

•145 people were arbitrarily arrested within their own homes;

•some people who had not participated in the May 3 confrontation with police were arrested without any grounds other than they happened to be there at the time;

•false allegations had been made against five foreigners were violently detained and deported in an irregular manner;

•detainees were held incommunicado and tortured during their transfer to Santiaguito prison, receiving beatings and death threats, and being thrown to the floor of vehicles. Many were sexually assaulted and raped by state agents.

Although the victims and their families and supporters appreciated the vindication offered by the ombudsmen's findings, the report's recommendations were roundly criticised for merely returning the investigation back to those who committed the crimes.

He recommended that investigations should be conducted by the Public Ministry, the Preventative Federal Police, the commissioner of the National Institute of Migration and the director of Santiaguito prison.

Soberanes implicitly acknowledged his lack of any real powers, expressing hope that the relevant authorities would accept their responsibility.

Defence lawyer Juan de Dios Hernandez pointed out that despite the litany of clear-cut abuses and human rights violations, there is no obligation on Mexican authorities to act on the ombudsman's recommendations, and no mechanism to enforce them.

He said that in spite of torture being a criminal offence in Mexico since 2003, there has never been a single conviction, because the perpetrators are the same people investigating it — the state authorities.

The inability of even the Human Rights Commission to break the cycle of impunity that currently exists gives credence the widely held belief that this case is evidence of a grave institutional and political crisis facing the country.

Victims and family members have demanded that not only those individuals who committed the atrocities should be held responsible, but so also should those who gave the orders.

President Vicente Fox, Mexico State governor Pena Nieto and Wilfrido Robledo, chief of the Security Agency of the State of Mexico (ASE), are accused of being behind Operation Atenco. "The government is the main one responsible", said Angel Behumea, father of Ollin Alexis Benhumea, one of those killed. "The Mexican State is responsible. I accuse governor Peña Nieto and president Fox, their hands are already stained with blood."

Another issue neglected by the ombudsman was the calls for the immediate release of the remaining 27 prisoners, 19 men and seven women, who face several more years in jail awaiting trial. Contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Mexico is a signatory, Mexican justice operates on the presumption of guilt, and the accused can be held for several years while evidence is collected.

Presiding judge Maldonado, widely perceived to be following the government line and prolonging the process, is insisting on calling more than 100 police to give evidence, in lots of five, every few weeks. After more than five months of imprisonment not one of the 27 prisoners has a trial date.

Every time a police officer gives evidence, the prisoners are dragged before the judge to face those accusing them — frequently the same person that beat, threatened, sexually assaulted or raped them.

While legal wrangling, including of whether the case even falls within Maldonado's jurisdiction, continues, the prisoners, who have already been found to have been arbitrarily detained, illegally arrested, and to have suffered torture, continue their imprisonment without access to independent medical and psychological assistance, to friends, and even to some family members. One woman prisoner, a food-seller caught up in the events, is permitted visits from her husband and youngest child, but not from her other five children, for example.

Several human rights delegations from France, Italy, Canada, and the United States are in Mexico investigating the case.

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