In the face of strong international condemnation, Mexico says it is taking steps to stop the use of torture by its security forces. After the United States withheld $5 million on account of Mexico’s human rights record, the U.S. State Department in September recommended to Congress that full funding be restored. The nearly $2.5 billion Merida Initiative pays to equip and train Mexican security forces and support justice system reforms.
However, there is still widespread impunity around the use of torture by security forces. From December 2006 through October 2014, the Attorney General’s Office (PGR) registered 4,055 complaints of torture, nearly one-third of them against the military. Yet over almost the same period, only 13 police and soldiers were sentenced for torture. Nobody has been charged in Soni Bulo’s case.
Also, one in five reports on torture cases filed by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) between 1994 to 2014 were against marines, according to the nonprofit Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. But none of those sentenced over roughly the past decade were marines. The marines and the defense department did not respond to requests for an interview.
Juan Carlos Soni Bulos, a human rights activist who was kidnapped by marines, had far more resources than most victims of torture. He had a politically active family and connections in the human rights world. In the late 1990s, he worked as an international human rights observer for the United Nations in Guatemala. When he returned to Mexico, he continued to work in the indigenous communities of the Huasteca region.
November 9, 2013, was not the first time marines visited his home in central Mexico’s San Luis Potosí state, a lush landscape of sugarcane fields, rolling hills and waterfalls. Almost five months earlier, on June 22, 2013, Soni Bulos was driving home from teaching in the early afternoon when his sister called to tell him to stay away; marines and federal police were at the house.
That day they grabbed Luis Enrique Biu González, Soni Bulos’ gardener, who also lived at his home. They beat him and asphyxiated him with a plastic bag, Biu González says. A marine pointed a pistol at his head, asked if he was gay and threatened sexual violence, all the time demanding to know where Soni Bulos was.
The marines took Soni Bulos’ computers, which held records of human rights cases he documented. They returned in the middle of the night. With the house empty, they grabbed whatever they had not carried off in the first raid.
Soni Bulos does not know exactly why the marines targeted him. It could have been the human rights complaints he helped people file against them and other security forces in the area. Or somebody with influence might have perceived him as a political threat.
Soon after the June raid, Soni Bulos sought advice from his contacts at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They told him to get help from the Mexican government’s protection program.
Soni Bulos was enrolled in the program as of June 26, 2013, government records show. He had assurances from the Attorney General’s Office there would be no more trouble. The government programmed an emergency “panic” number into his cell phone.
“It gave me some peace of mind,” he recalls thinking.
On the morning he was taken, Soni Bulos was trying to find the panic number. It was too late.
Even in its own assessment, the U.S. State Department notes that “there continue to be serious, ongoing challenges in Mexico, including reports of law enforcement and military involvement in forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, the reported use of torture, impunity and violence and threats against journalists and human rights defenders.” In its recommendation to restore funding, the State Department cites several measures taken by the government, but Soni Bulos’ case suggests they do not go far enough:
— The U.S. mentions the Mexican government’s program for protecting human rights defenders and journalists, known colloquially as “the mechanism.” But Soni Bulos was enrolled in that program five months before the marines took him anyway.
— The U.S. cites the autonomous National Human Rights Commission, which investigates and reports on human rights abuses. That body only issued its report on Soni Bulos’ case in late September, nearly three years later. It concluded there was mistreatment, but not torture, without making any reference to the hours the victims spent in the warehouse. The victims’ lawyers are now litigating those omissions.
— The U.S. points to a new law against torture that passed the Mexican Senate in April and still needs to pass the lower chamber. But even though torture was already illegal in Mexico last year, the human rights commission still received 628 complaints of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and 49 of torture by government officials.
— The U.S. pays special attention to a more transparent justice system Mexico has implemented in all 32 states and at the federal level. But a study released by two prominent Mexican think tanks in October found that even when injuries caused by abuse were documented, judges in one state did not order investigations or throw out evidence.
The U.S. Embassy offered comment in a statement.
“Mexico has launched an ambitious effort to modernize and reform its law enforcement and justice system,” the statement said, noting that the recommendation was based on specific criteria established by Congress. “We are committed to supporting Mexico’s own efforts to increase respect for human rights.”
Mexico’s Interior Secretariat (Segob) deputy secretary for human rights, Roberto Campa, said eradicating the use of torture is a top human rights priority for the government, and he expects to see a significant increase in sentences against those responsible. He also noted that under Mexico’s new justice system, evidence obtained through torture is thrown out.
“For many years there were police forces that considered torture as an investigative method,” he said.
There has been no justice for Soni Bulos — and many others.
In April, a video circulated that showed soldiers and federal police torturing a young woman. In it, a female military police officer yanks on the woman’s hair and pokes a rifle barrel against her head. A female federal police officer also pulls a clear plastic bag over the woman’s head and holds it until she nearly passes out.
It led to an unprecedented public apology from Mexico’s defense secretary, but the victim remains in prison on weapons charges.
Soni Bulos and the others were also held on weapons and drug charges. They spent more than a year in prison in the western state of Nayarit without trial until a judge in March 2015 threw out the case.
From the day of their arrest through the day when the judge finally ordered the charges be dropped and signed their release, the men never once saw the judge. Soni Bulos hopes that this will change under Mexico’s new justice system, where both sides will have to present arguments and evidence in open court. His case is now being handled by a special unit created a year ago to investigate torture.
All the men bear scars from the experience, and some prefer not to speak about the details of their torture. Soni Bulos older nephew, Evanibaldo Larraga Galván, still has a lump on his neck where a marine grabbed and choked him that morning.
Luis Edgardo Charnichart Ortega, a teacher and childhood friend of Soni Bulos who was sleeping over that night, asks, “Is there even sufficient punishment to pay for all the damage done?”
Charnichart Ortega has struggled to work since his release.
“My mind, the psychologists say, they still have it,” he recounts. “After they take you, nothing of you can remain. That is their objective, make you disappear, plant death inside you and leave it to consume you until the end of your days.”