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Freedom from torture in Mexico

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Article 5: Freedom from torture

  • In 2001, Mexico's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) unveiled a report on human rights abuses by government and security forces against those accused as left wing activists during the 1970s and 1980s.
  • The worst human rights abuses occurred during the presidency of Luis Echeverria (1970-1976) and his successor, Jose Lopez Portillo (1976-1982).
  • The report details the torture and the forced disappearance of 532 people but does not identify the names of the officials allegedly involved in the atrocities.

Torture Defined

According to the UN Convention against Torture, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.


According to Amnesty International (AI), every day and in every region of the world, people are subjected to cruel or degrading treatment and torture. In many cases, these acts of extreme physical violence are not investigated and the perpetrators are neither arrested nor prosecuted for their crimes.

Public awareness about torture is, however, increasing and progress in some areas has been made. Stop Torture, AI's ongoing global campaign to raise public awareness of the persistence of torture, focuses on preventing torture and confronting racial discrimination.

It also examines impunity, i.e. measures to bring alleged torturers who escape justice in their own countries to international tribunals.

Mexico's Record

Mexico has a poor record on human rights abuses.

In 1999, the New York-based Human Rights Watch published a damning report on the abuses by Mexico's authorities, from judges, prosecutors and the military, to state and federal police.

The report said although Mexico boasted a series of laws protecting human rights, including the Convention against Torture, these were often not put into practice.

Suspects were reportedly tortured and there was alleged proof of tampering of evidence as well as extra-judicial executions.

Addressing Human Rights

When Vicente Fox was elected president of Mexico in 2000, ending 71 years of continuous rule by the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), he promised to address and improve the country's human rights record.

Mr Fox stated that those suspected of human rights violations would face justice, and the victims of these abuses and their families would receive compensation for their suffering.

President Fox appointed several people known for their promotion of human rights to his cabinet, including Foreign Minister Jorge G. Castaneda and National Security adviser Adolfo Aguilar Zinser.

He also appointed Mariclaire Acosta, one of the country's most outspoken human rights advocates to a new post, that of deputy minister for Human Rights and Democracy, within the Ministry of Foreign Relations.

Investigating Human Rights Violations

Before taking office, Fox promised to set up a Truth Commission to examine past human rights violations.

Mr Fox went a step further and ordered the creation of a Special Prosecutor's Office to investigate the crimes detailed in a report published in November 2001 by the National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH).

The 3,000 page report details human rights abuses against suspected leftists during the decade of the 1970s and early 1980s by municipal, state and federal agents.

It lists searches, arrests, torture and the disappearance of hundreds of rebels, students, farmers and social activists suspected of guerrilla activities and of being registered with communist groups.

The report examines 532 cases, offering testimonies and information about individual persons.

Since its publication, President Fox has appointed a special prosecutor, Ignacio Carrillo Prieto, to investigate the abuses.

Mr Fox has ordered the release of thousands of state files to help in the investigation and has also called for the creation of a committee to study ways of compensating the families of victims.

Human rights group welcomed this development. Many observers say one of the key tests for Fox's commitment now is a solution to the murder of the human rights activist Digna Ochoa.

A lawyer, Mrs Ochoa often took on cases involving accusations against members of the police and the army.

She was found shot dead in her office in October 2002, with a note threatening further attacks on human rights workers and left-wing politicians.

Positive Action

In July 2002, Special Prosecutor Carrillo called former President Luis Echeverria (1970-1976) to testify over the Tlatelolco massacre. This was the first time an ex-president has been called to answer for alleged crimes.

The former Mexican president was questioned over his alleged role in the massacre of student protesters during his time in power.

He was asked about two massacres, one in 1968 when he was interior minister and also the Corpus Christi massacre in 1971 when he was president.

The massacres were part of Mexico's 'dirty war' in which thousands of left wing activists and radicals allegedly went missing, were tortured and killed.

For many human rights defenders and activists the proceedings are hopeful. Others however remain sceptical.