For many in Mexico, the disappearance of 43 young students from the Ayotzinapa teaching college two years ago remains a painful emblem of a profound national failure—the failure of the state to protect its own people. Among other things, the case highlighted collusion among drug gangs, local politicians, and police, the failure of federal authorities to carry out a credible investigation, and—glaringly—the degree to which torture remains part of the standard operating procedure of criminal investigation.
Take the case of Patricio Reyes Landa, an alleged member of the Guerrero Unidos criminal gang. Two years ago, Mexico’s attorney general called a press conference and showed a video in which Reyes Landa and three other suspects demonstrated how they supposedly threw the students’ ashes in a river, after incinerating their bodies at a garbage dump. Now, Reyes Landa and some 90 other suspects detained during the investigation say they were tortured into making false confessions about what they did or saw.
Two years on, the fate of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college in the state of Guerrero remains unknown, while the official version of events has become increasingly tattered.
A group of independent international experts concluded that the government’s story of a fire at the garbage dump hot enough to burn 43 bodies was forensically impossible. They also reported that Mexico’s top criminal investigator may have planted key evidence, and noted that authorities have failed to investigate alternate theories, including the potential involvement of the Mexican military.
In all this, one thing is clear: that the routine use of torture is one of the reasons why the investigation has gone nowhere.
In the case of Reyes Landa, he told authorities that in order to make him support their version of the case, officials beat him, administered electrical shocks to his testicles and body, and threatened to rape his daughters. A medical examination two months after the alleged torture revealed lesions, scabs, and bruises consistent with his claims. The group of independent international experts, invited into Mexico to support the investigation, documented 17 cases of apparent torture in detail, among them Reyes Landa and all of the other men in the “re-enactment” shown at the attorney general’s press conference. Of 80 detainees in the Ayotzinapa case examined by doctors, 61 presented injuries similar in nature.
The Attorney General’s Office stated in April that it is investigating some of these allegations, but there has been no news of progress and little reason for hope: Mexico’s record of prosecuting torture is miserable. There have only ever been six convictions for torture in federal courts – all low-level suspects. Recent judicial reforms barring the admission in court of evidence obtained through torture are welcome, but the implementation has been poor.
Mexicans widely distrust police and prosecutors, reporting less than ten percent of all crime. Yet many paradoxically trust these same authorities to torture the “right” suspects into confessing. There have been around 600,000 kidnappings in Mexico over the past decade. Understandably, people are fed up. Some victim organizations close to the government have become influential defenders of tough tactics by police to locate victims and coerce confessions.
Yet not only is torture wrong and illegal—it doesn’t “work.” Victims say anything to make the pain stop. Torturers who can make anyone confess to anything can easily direct this power beyond suspected criminals, to political opponents and innocents who are prosecuted either to demonstrate “results” or to cover up for real perpetrators. Torture opens the door to prosecutions for pay, creating greater space for authorities’ collusion with criminal cartels.
Torture also perverts justice in other ways. When officials force an innocent person to confess to a kidnapping or other disappearance, they stop searching for victims still in captivity. When prosecutors and police can obtain convictions on the basis of forced confessions, they lose incentive to learn proper means of criminal investigation.
As the Ayotzinapa students’ fates remain unresolved into another year, Mexico must recognize that its crisis of disappearance is closely intertwined with the widespread and systematic use of torture. The false allure of tough tactics must be abandoned. Punishing the torturers of Patricio Reyes Landa and other suspects who have confessed under dubious circumstances may just be the key to resolving the Ayotzinapa case and creating the incentives to locate and provide justice for many more of Mexico’s disappeared.