In early 2014, three prisoners arrived at the jail in the city of Acapulco in Mexico’s Guerrero state. They were being transferred from another prison in the town of Iguala—where, just days before, four inmates had been shot dead by a group of armed men that somehow secured an entry to the facility. Within hours of arriving in Acapulco, the three transferred inmates were also dead, beaten to death by fellow prisoners.
Such violence, often assumed to be linked to rivalries between drug gangs, is not unusual in Mexico’s penal system. In October, 2013, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights highlighted five incidents at five prisons over the course of 25 months in which more than 130 inmates lost their lives to prison violence.
The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, has also expressed his concerns about deaths in custody. During his visit to Mexico in 2013 he sought comprehensive and reliable information on deaths in prisons and other places of detention, either as willful homicides or suspicious suicides―and found that the data doesn’t exist. He learned of specific cases of individuals who had been arbitrarily detained and tortured, resulting in their deaths. But getting any comprehensive picture of the problem has proven impossible.
In 2013 the Federal District Human Rights Commission called on the Mexico City government to take measures to prevent deaths in custody, showing that 521 prisoners died in Mexican prisons between 2009 and 2013. In all 521 cases, no investigations took place, and the causes of the deaths remain unknown.
According to the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, “all persons under any form of detention or imprisonment shall be treated in a humane manner and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”
States also have the obligation to investigate deaths in their custody, whether a case seems to involve guards killing prisoners, interprisoner violence, suicides, death resulting from torture in custody, death resulting from prison conditions, or any other cause. The newly adopted Nelson Mandela Rules on the minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners also call for the investigation of every death in custody. Yet Mexicans continue to die while in state custody, without explanation or investigation.
A look at Mexico’s legal framework shows why there is so little public accounting―and why there is a need for reform. Current federal and state regulations do not establish explicitly the obligation to immediately investigate every death in custody―unless the death is presumed to be the result of a crime. As such, investigations are only discretional and not mandatory. Similarly, the current regulations do not provide details on how investigations are to be conducted; they do not assign the power or obligation to investigate to any authority; and they do not regard death in custody prima facie as summary or arbitrary execution.
A notable attempt to change this situation was the protocol drawn up in 2001 for the district government of Mexico City by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, assisted by Luis Fondebrider of the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense and Maria Cristina de Mendonça, of the Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal de Portugal. The protocol set out ways of incorporating international obligations regarding death in custody into the Mexican legal system. Unfortunately, it was never formally implemented.
Last July, the escape of Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman, the drug lord, from a federal prison in Altiplano underlined the dysfunctional state of the Mexican prison system. It will not be easy for state and federal authorities to establish the proper level of control over a system long plagued by violence and corruption. But establishing the legal requirement that every death in custody must be properly investigated, and setting up the systems for doing so, will be vital if change is to come.