Behind Looking Glass: Abuse Continues : Torture: Human rights workers in Mexico find that it is becoming more wide- spread and more sophisticated.

<i> Victor Clark Alfaro, an anthropologist, heads the Tijuana-based Binational Center for Human Rights. This piece was originally run by the Pacific News Service</i>

In theory, torture is prohibited in Mexico. In practice, the government has long relied on torture to control the civilian population. Despite the fanfare over President Salinas de Gortari’s vision of a modern Mexican state, human rights workers find that torture is growing more widespread and sophisticated.

The case of Ruben Oropeza Hurtado, 38, a Tijuana street vendor, is instructive.

Last year, Oropeza was arrested for “health violations”--short- hand in Mexico for drug trafficking. He was beaten so badly by the federal judicial police that, when transferred to the state penitentiary, his fellow inmates staged a hunger strike on his behalf that lasted 70 days. I interviewed Oropeza shortly after his arrest, along with 158 other torture victims, most of whom were incarcerated in the same Baja California State Penitentiary in Tijuana, a bustling, overcrowded place known as Little Town, because of its similarity to a densely populated village.

In spite of the severity of the torture, Oropeza’s advocates had hope for him. Turning to Mexico’s new National Commission for Human Rights, they were promised that Hurtado would be flown to one of “the best hospitals in the world,” and that his case would be “looked into.”


Seventy days after his arrest, Oropeza died in a state hospital in Tijuana with the dubious honor of having been one of the world’s few people to have his intestines surgically removed. The National Commission for Human Rights recommended to the attorney general’s office that the police who had beaten him be suspended from their jobs and “punished.” The attorney general responded that Oropeza was responsible for his own injuries--that he had “hit himself against a car” in the course of his arrest.

Mexicans, like myself, who were optimistic about the creation of the commission and a new set of laws prohibiting torture that were put into effect last year, see the Oropeza case as a sign that torture--far from disappearing in Mexico--is quietly gaining acceptance at all levels of government. It is becoming institutionalized.

Interviews with prisoners at Little Town--most of whom have yet to be convicted of any crime--reveal that almost all said they had been tortured before their incarceration, principally at the hands of the federal police. What’s especially worrisome is the kind of torture they describe--a range of techniques that we human rights workers have not encountered before.

In 1987, human rights workers recorded 14 kinds of torture commonly found in Mexico; by 1990, the number had risen to 22. In recent months it has jumped to 50. Testimonials describe techniques such as sticking needles into a victim’s chest and then plugging electric cables into the holes; applying shocks to tongues, ears, toes, fingers nails, testicles and thorax; placing a plastic bag over a victim’s head, filling it with cigarette smoke, and tying it at the neck.

Victims include men, women, children and old people.

Most alarming is the trend to “modernize” torture--to make it invisible. The federal police are beginning to use boxing gloves to beat people, according to my interviewees. Gloves leave fewer marks.

If the marks of torture are becoming less visible, so is the work of the National Commission for Human Rights. In the course of just one year, it has become a bloated bureaucracy, incapable of handling its case load.


Of the 1,300 cases that came into its office in 1990, the commission acted on only 45, including recommendations that the perpetrators be punished. Of these, only five were resolved to the satisfaction of the victims.

One inmate of Little Town who had written to the commission complaining about his conditions told me he received a letter instructing him to show up at commission headquarters at a specific date and time. “How can I travel to their offices when I am in prison?” he demanded.

In another case, I sent a memo to the commission documenting the cases of 75 Tijuana juveniles abused by the police. Four months later, there was still no response. When I called to complain, the commission promised to send delegates to Tijuana in 72 hours. They have yet to show up.

Yet the commission maintains a high profile abroad. In recent months, commission members have testified in Washington and in Los Angeles that the human rights situation in Mexico is improving.

But the Mexican people know otherwise. As the gap widens between the state’s facade of “good intentions” to eliminate torture and torture’s actual use, public distrust deepens--along with cynicism at the official level.