Over the course of 28 hours, Israel Arzate received repetitive electroshocks to the chest. A plastic bag was placed over his head as he listened to Mexican military personnel threaten to rape and murder his wife. These torture methods led to Arzate confessing to involvement in the January 2010 Villas de Salvarcar massacre in Ciudad Juarez, where 16 young students at a party were murdered, and 10 others were seriously injured.
Arzate had originally been arrested and accused of being in possession of a stolen van on February 3, 2010. He was illegally detained in a military compound for over a day, where he was tortured. Yet the confession that implicated him in these murders allowed the public prosecutors to declare his detention legal.
Arzate’s case could have been tried transparently if the Military Justice Code reform, that Mexican Congress approved on April 30, had existed at the time.
The reform seeks to limit military jurisdiction in any case that implicates civilians and raises questions of whether their rights have been violated — placing special emphasis on torture and forced disappearances. Under the new legislation, any crime that involves civilians will now no longer be judged by military tribunals.
As the Mexican Senate stated in a press release: “When a crime or violation of due process is committed against a civilian, the corresponding civil authorities will be notified.”
Arzate was found to be innocent and freed by the Supreme Court in November 2013, a decision that upset the Chihuahua Attorney General, Jorge González Nicolás, who hopes to request a new arrest warrant.
Yet Arzate’s case is just one example of the methods regularly used by armed forces to manufacture guilty parties, according to multiple accusations by human rights organizations.
The government announced prior to the reform that over 400 cases against members of the armed forces had been tried in civil court, as reported by Amnesty International. Yet the vast majority are still awaiting sentencing. Mexico City’s Prodh Center — a group that investigates torture cases committed by military personnel — stated that over the 18–year period between 1994 and 2012 there were only two federal torture convictions.
A preliminary report by the United Nations human rights office was released on May 2. This report, by Juan Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, stated: “The use of torture and improper treatment appear to be overwhelmingly related to incidents of forced confession and acquisition of information,” resulting in “allegations related to the fabrication of evidence and false incrimination.”
Méndez applauded the Military Justice Code reform, but indicated his ongoing concern for the “militarization of several regions” in Mexico and the use of military practices in police duties. He continued: “It weakens the guarantees that detainees should be entitled to for the effective protection of their human rights.”
Although the reform was recently approved, Méndez said at a press conference organized by the Prodh Center on May 5: “Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we don’t need to view the debate surrounding the Military Justice Code as one that has just arisen — it comes from the argument that many people have been victims of abusive violations, most of which continue in total impunity.”
In spite of the progress that has been made, human rights organizations see these reforms as just one of the necessary steps to counteract unjust practices in Mexico.
José Rosario Marroquín, director of the Prodh Center, told VICE News that the reforms are “a first step in advancing the dialogue on human rights violations.” He added: “It is an important step forward, without which advances cannot be made. This does not imply a change in practices, but it does imply a change that will put us in a better position.”
The law responded to four resolutions made by the Inter–American Court for Human Rights (IACHR) over old torture cases involving the Mexican Government. These are cases in which “responsibility is found to belong to the Mexican Government, and their compliance is obligatory,” Marroquín told VICE News. Mexico was forced to comply with the IACHR resolutions, causing them to implement this reform.
Daniel Joloy, an analyst for Amnesty International, told VICE News that the biggest unresolved issue in military justice is that military disciplinary forces will still be in charge of judging the personnel who violate the human rights of fellow military personnel.