A controversy over the use of torture in Mexico and whether the government has retreated on human rights and rule of law issues intensified Tuesday, with human rights groups denouncing the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto for his administration’s criticism of a United Nations official.
In a letter distributed Tuesday, more than two dozen human rights groups voiced “profound disgust” over his government’s pledge to stop working with the U.N. envoy for torture, who earlier this month declared that the use of torture had become “generalized” in Mexico.
The groups cited what they called an “alarming increase in the number of registered complaints over torture and mistreatment.”
Those signing the letter include groups such as the Institute for Security and Democracy, Freedom House Mexico and Citizens in Support of Human Rights, all of which receive international funding or have strong connections abroad.
The U.N. special envoy on torture, Juan Mendez, issued a scathing report in Geneva March 9 that said all levels of the Mexican security apparatus routinely use torture during interrogation.
“Torture and ill treatment during detention are generalized in Mexico, and occur in a context of impunity,” Mendez, an Argentine, said in the report.
Amid a backlash from Mexican government officials, Mendez later told reporters that his assertion, drawn after a visit to Mexico in April 2014, “is based on hundreds of testimonies that I personally collected during my visits to jails and detention facilities where almost everyone, including children, told me that they’d suffered acts of brutality during detention.”
Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade later called Mendez “irresponsible and not very ethical,” and backed up his undersecretary for human rights, Juan Manuel Gómez Robledo, who said Mexico would no longer work with the U.N. envoy.
Gómez Robledo offered his own press conference Tuesday and reiterated that the government believes the Mendez report has “no basis in reality” but that Mexico remains open to “international scrutiny on human rights.”
He voiced an expectation that Mendez would not return to Mexico in an official capacity.
“The rapporteur usually only makes one trip to a country during his mandate. That is the practice,” Gómez Robledo said, according to a Foreign Secretariat transcript. “I don’t know of a single case in which the same rapporteur visited the same country twice.”
The undersecretary lambasted Mendez’s choice of the word “generalized” in reference to torture.
“It would be equivalent to saying that it happens in all 32 (states) in the three levels of government in every moment during the process, from detention until final sentencing and then while serving the (prison) term,” Gómez Robledo said.
The dispute comes amid rising troubles for Peña Nieto, whose popularity has slumped partly over the nation’s mediocre economic performance but also over conflict of interest charges and a horrific massacre last September.
In that mass killing, 43 students from a teachers college went missing in the city of Iguala in Guerrero state on Sept. 26 after local police working with an organized crime gang detained them. The attorney general declared in November that gangsters burned the students to death in a giant pyre at a rural garbage dump, although only a bone fragment from one body was ever located and proven to be from a missing student.
In their letter to Peña Nieto, the human and civil rights group alleged that his government is backsliding on a gamut of issues related to the rule of law.
It flayed his government’s “lack of recognition of the true situation of the country” and its “alarming disregard for the observations” of U.N. entities on human rights, saying the attitude “represents a setback for consolidation of democratic rule of law.”