Two videos of a torture-training session with the police force of León, Guanajuato shocked the Mexican public last week and raised serious questions about human rights under the Calderon offensive against organized crime. For readers with strong stomachs, the videos can be found here.
The videos leaked by the local paper El Heraldo de León hit the media just one day after President Bush signed into law a $400 million aid package to support President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs and organized crime. The tapes show graphic images of torture techniques used on victims who city officials claim were volunteers from the police force. In one, a debilitated victim is insulted and dragged through his own vomit. In another, a victim receives shots of mineral water up the nose and has his head forced into a pit of "rats and excrement."
It's old news that torture exists in Mexico. The videos were especially shocking in a society relatively inured to human rights violations for two reasons: they prove without a doubt that torture is not an anomaly in the country, but an institutionalized practice; and they reveal the role of foreign private security companies.
1) The graphic images led to public outcry throughout the country and made it into the international press. Compounding the outrage at the torture scenes, Leon officials responded by defending the training program and refusing to suspend it. As people across the country watched in horror, the mayor and police chief claimed the practices do not violate human rights and are necessary to fight organized crime.
When reminded that torture is prohibited under Mexican law, the officials backtracked and claimed they were teaching specialized police officers to withstand torture techniques rather than dish them out. But it's obvious watching the video that this is a Torture 101 course. Trainers bark orders at police officers on how to humiliate and "break" the victims.
What has many people worried is that the war on drugs launched by Felipe Calderon -- and explicitly endorsed and supported by the U.S. government through aid to the Mexican police and military -- is sending a message to Mexican security forces that "anything goes". These tactics are reprehensible, yet they are being presented as acceptable in the context of a war mentality.
2) The second point of concern is that the video clips show foreign private security companies teaching torture interrogation techniques to Mexican security forces. Kristin Bricker, an investigative report from the online newspaper NarcoNews, uncovered evidence that indicates the trainers are from a Miami-based private security company called "Risks, Incorporated."
The company, incorporated in London, boasts "Psychological torture is the main tactic used in professional interrogations, it works and leaves no physical marks. We do this interrogation technique and others on some courses to show how easy it is to break a hostage and we're being nice!"
The images raise serious questions about the direction of U.S. aid under Plan Mexico (Merida Initiative). The Plan includes an unspecified amount for contracts to U.S. private security companies. As the webpage of Risks Incorporated shows, these kind of courses are the dead opposite of human rights training.
We don't know if other companies carry out similar courses. But private security companies under contract from the State Department and the Dept. of defense have come under heavy fire since the massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians in which Blackwater employees were involved and the lawsuits against security firms for torture in Abu Ghraib. Even Department of Defense officials have complained that they have "quick trigger fingers", "act like cowboys" and "lack accountability". A military intelligence officer referred to them as "essentially mercenary forces"--the term commonly used throughout Latin America to describe U.S. private security forces.
To make matters worse, these firms seem to operating in an international legal void. A CRS report to Congress states "It is possible that some contractors may remain outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, civil or military, for improper conduct in Iraq." This lack of legal accountability extends to their actions elsewhere as well. The UN Mercenaries Working Group has noted the lack of regulation worldwide of these growing forces.
In Mexico, despite legal reforms that no longer allow testimony obtained through torture as evidence, the practice is widespread. When we took testimonies in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Atenco in February as part of the International Civil Commission on Human Rights, I heard many cases of beatings, scaldings and sexual abuse in police custody. These cases, and these victims, remain beneath the radar of the press and public opinion, and were ignored by U.S. legislators quick to please Latino voters.
The Mexican government recognized only 72 cases for the entire period 2001-2006. When torture cases are prosecuted at all, they often wind up being prosecuted as lesser charges. According to its website, the Human Rights Commission has issued only three recommendations regarding torture since 1995. Many victims who have suffered torture at the hands of the authorities are understandably reluctant to report the violations to the same governments whose security forces or agencies were responsible for the incidents.
Mexican human rights groups report that violations have been on the rise in Mexico since the drug war sent over 25,000 soldiers out into the streets and emboldened police forces. In its annual report, the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center notes "a regression in respect and protection of fundamental rights." Since most of the aid from Congress goes to the police and military, with another large chunk for domestic spying operations, it's fairly easy to predict that instead of cleaning up Mexican security forces in their fight against organized crime, we will see the empowerment of impunity.
Women, indigenous peoples and opposition leaders are the most common targets. Since Plan Mexico also funds equipment for tracking Central American migrants in Mexico and further militarizing the Mexican border, it can be assumed that migrants will also be the victims of increased human rights violations.
Some Washington human rights groups have claimed that Plan Mexico will help Mexico reform and eliminate illegal practices such as torture. But the aid package funds the same forces that commit those atrocities with virtual impunity.
The problem for Mexico in reaching a higher level of respect for human rights is a political -- not a legal or economic -- problem. All indications show that the Calderon model of militarized control, supported by the Bush model of counter-terrorism security embodied in Plan Mexico, will only make it worse.