A system of torture? The case of the Mexican police and investigation authorities

by Sebastian Starystach

43 students disappeared without trace in Mexico in 2014. The case made headlines internationally and nationally. The students had demonstrated against the discriminatory hiring practices of the government and administration, and in the process hijacked buses, all unarmed. The police opened fire and six students were shot, 25 of them seriously injured. One student is still in a coma today. After this incident, students, among them Jorge Antonio Legideño, were arrested, 43 disappeared without a trace. What happened is still unknown today. The official version: 43 of the arrested students were handed over by the police to the criminal drug syndicate „Guerreros Unidos“ and murdered by their hitman, their bodies burned and disposed of at a garbage dump. The newspaper Milenio reported on 24 January 2015, citing interrogation transcripts, that the contract killer known as „El Cepillo“ from the criminal cartel „Guerreros Unidos“ had confessed to the murder of at least 15 students. Whether this is true or not, the 43 who have disappeared have become a symbol for about 40,000 missing people in the Mexican drug war, whose fate remains unknown to this day.

Source: University of British Colombia

However, the investigations again resulted in massive use of violence. According to a report by the UNHCHR, 51, but at least 34 of the 129 suspects were tortured. Among them were also suspects who, as it later turned out, were suspected for no reason. It seems to be a typical pattern: Violence and torture are commonplace on both sides, the police and the criminals, in Mexico. And both sides often work so closely together that the population’s distrust of the police is enormous. In some areas of Mexico, the population simply chases them away and civilian militias take over the protection against the omnipresent drug syndicates. We have reported on this.

Against this background, it is not surprising that the police and investigating authorities are not only perceived as corrupt, but also enjoy comparatively little trust among the population as a whole. As a result, according to estimates of unreported cases, 93.2% of criminal offences were not reported or no preliminary investigation was initiated. The reasons for not reporting crimes to the authorities in the first place include „waste of time“ and, to a large extent, distrust of the authorities.

Source: own illustration based on ENVIPE 2019

However, torture is not only used in the case of missing students, but also for other offenses: in the case of kidnapping, 94% of the accused experience torture and mistreatment,79% in the case of burglary, 49% in the case of fraud, and the lower limit of 38% in the case of breaches of alimony obligations. The focus is on the production of evidence and confessions and social control in the context of imprisonment. Torture and mistreatment occur mainly during identity checks, interrogations, juxtapositions, but also in witness interviews. Often, it is  supervisors who work towards the use of torture.

However, torture by Mexican police authorities does not only include death threats, kicks, bludgeoning and confiscation of property. On May 3 and 4, 2006, approximately 300 unarmed residents of the city of Atenco protested once again against urban development plans. They encountered 4,000 police officers. During the clashes, among others, 50 women were deported to prisons such as the „Centro de Readaptaciòn Social Santiago“, 31 of whom were sexually abused there.

Source: ninocare via Pixabay

So there is not – as in the German case of Magnus Gäfgen – a morally questionable „noble cause“ behind this practice, e.g. in order to find and free kidnap victims or track down culprits. Instead, torture and mistreatment by Mexican investigating authorities has a system and is not usually guided by higher purposes. However, it is not only in the population and civil society that there is resistance to police torture practices; the state framework has also changed. Reforms of the constitution and criminal procedural law have resulted in (a) an increasing number of courts not recognizing confessions, evidence and testimonies produced by torture, (b) in cases where torture has been carried out by the prosecuting authorities, the result is often lower sentences or acquittals for perpetrators, (c) police officers, when tortured, arethemselves subject to prosecution and are being sentenced. Interviews with police officers show that they see the new criminal justice system as a real and mostly undesirable restriction of their freedom of action.

However, although police practice is thus increasingly losing its functionality and is associated with the danger of social delegitimization of the prosecuting authorities, torture and mistreatment are still commonplace in Mexican police forces. How can this be explained?

It is evident that informal norms and structures underlying deviant practices are part of a deep-rooted organizational culture of the Mexican police and investigative agencies. They have repeatedly proved useful for organizational as well as individual purposes in the past and are difficult to deinstitutionalize as a result, even though their functionality in criminal proceedings is increasingly disappearing. This shows that combating deviant practices through changes in incentive structures external to the organization is usually not sufficient, since the latter do not address the organizational setting, but rather, in response to the new incentive structures, new informal rules and customs develop in order to avoid sanctions in the future.

In a strictly hierarchical organization such as the police, the influence of superiors should not be underestimated in order to establish the practice as legitimate, efficient and effective, to enforce it against opposition or even to maintain it. In order to steer employees‘ behavior towards torture and abuse, result-oriented instruments such as target agreements and quotas can also be used. For example, senior Mexican police officers often require their subordinates to solve a minimum number of murders within a certain period of time.

Source: Needpix

Furthermore, many police organisations have a ‚blue code of silence‘ (Westmarland 2005) or ‚blue wall of silence‘ (Chin/Wells 1997). A particularly strong and persistent form of „organisational silence“ (Morrison/Milliken 2005). In their work, police officers are more dependent on their colleagues than in almost any other professional field. The „blue code of silence“ protects this relationship. The study by Westmarland (2005), for example, provides evidence that the use of illegal violence or law enforcement to protect colleagues from criminal proceedings is considered a comparatively minor evil. A breach of this code can lead to retaliation by colleagues in the form of damage to property, bodily injury and abandonment in life-threatening situations. So even honest policemen are forced to tolerate or even take part in illegal behaviour by their colleagues out of misunderstood collegiality or, in the Mexican case, we regularly use violence and dehumanisation of their victims, even though these actions may cause them psychological distress or they themselves do not really believe in the effectiveness of torture. So for corrupt policemen this cover means protection, for their machinations. The more corrupt a police organisation is, as in the case of Mexico, the more interested it is in maintaining and developing a „blue wall of silence“. Organizational and individual deviance put the handle on each other.

Reforms of the police and investigative authorities, such as those that are numerous in Mexico, can only be successful if torture and other forms of deviance continue to be labelled as illegitimate. Reform proposals of the Mexican authorities on 14 articles of the constitution and amendments to four federal laws, which were leaked in January, unfortunately point in a different direction. Among other things, current regulations that declare illegally obtained evidence in court as inadmissible are to be repealed. All in the name of the fight against organized crime. But fighting illegal violence with illegal violence has never been advisable for a democratic constitutional state – the ideals of which Mexico aspires to.

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