"We're going to 'Ayotzinapa' you, and disappear you like they did to them."
This is how Mexican student Juan Daniel López said judicial police officers threatened him during what he described as a nightmarish journey to a maximum security prison. Riot police detained him during a chaotic clearing out of a demonstration on the Zocalo square in Mexico City on November 20.
The verbal threat of receiving an "Ayotzinapa"-style disappearance referred cruelly to the Ayotzinapa Normal School in Guerrero, where 43 students have been missing since a deadly police attack, sparking protests against the government.
López, an 18-year-old high school student, attended the mostly peaceful protest on Nov. 20 in Mexico City along with tens of thousands of others to demand that the 43 disappeared students be returned alive. Mexico's government says the students were probably incinerated by a drug cartel, in a case that came to symbolize the ills of corruption and impunity confronting Mexico.
The massive protest devolved into chaos when either protestors or government infiltrators — depending on who you ask — launched molotov cocktails at Mexico's National Palace. Hundreds of riot police responded by violently evacuating the Zocalo, detaining 32 people. All of them allegedly were nabbed at random.
Most of the detainees were released that night or the next morning, but eleven of them were told they would face federal terrorism charges, and were held for nine days. They have since been released, but authorities are still investigating whether any of the 11 could face a charge of actually injuring the police that reportedly beat and threatened them.
Authorities said terror suspicions were further raised when the detainees used the term "compa," a Mexican colloquialism used to refer to partners or friends, among each other during their time in custody. The "compa" claim led to mocking critiques of the authorities' competence among Mexican users of social media.
Another high-profile student detainee in recent days in Mexico, Sandino Bucio, also claimed that police who snatched him from a street near Mexico's national university last Friday threatened to "Ayotzinapa" him before he was released.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has said "Mexico must change" in response to the Ayotzinapa case. But documented instances of police abuse during the recent demonstrations has brought a new wave of violations of basic rights and acts of state repression, human-rights defenders said.
On Monday night, another large demonstration choked the center of Mexico City, in which scores of riot police confronted peaceful demonstrators and small bands of masked individuals who attacked buildings along Paseo de la Reforma. At least three people were reportedly detained on Monday.
"Instead of taking the [November 20] detainees to a local prosecutor's office, the Mexico City police broke protocol and handed these detainees over to the federal police, who turned them over to the [federal organized-crime intelligence agency]," said Karla Michel Salas, a lawyer who represented López and another man detained during the protest, doctoral student and Chilean citizen Laurence Maxwell.
The 11 detainees were initially charged with terrorism, rioting, criminal association, and attempted homicide. Within 36 hours, all were transferred to maximum security prisons — the men to the state of Veracruz and the women to Nayarit.
But by Saturday, nine days later, authorities admitted they lacked evidence to keep prosecuting the detainees, and freed them, although the alleged suspects could still face one charge: beating up the cops.
'The Mexican government should actually comply with their own laws.'
Mexico City's police department is frequently criticized by local and international human-rights organizations for claims of abusive practices and arbitrary detentions. The Nov. 20 case transformed into a diplomatic incident with the detention of Maxwell.
Foreigners in Mexico are prohibited by the constitution from participating in political activities inside the country.
Maxwell, a 47-year-old native of Santiago, Chile, said he was leaving the demonstration when police grabbed him. His detention led to a binational meeting between Mexican authorities and Chilean lawmakers who travelled to Mexico City to expressly advocate for Maxwell's release.
In Chile, President Michelle Bachelet met with Maxwell's mother at La Moneda, the presidential residence, a sign of how seriously the man's detention was taken in the country.
"I have been politically active since I was 15, since I was raised under a dictatorship, and this was the worst thing that I have suffered in my life," Maxwell, a literature student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said in a press conference Tuesday in Mexico's capital.
"They said that I was the most violent detainee of all, when they had no proof," Maxwell later said to VICE News. "The Mexican government should actually comply with their own laws."
Lopez, the 18-year-old, says he is still in pain from the thirty police officers he estimated took turns beating him during his detention.
"Supposedly the police exist to protect the people, but instead of doing that, they beat us," López said. "The threats were so severe that I'm still scared that they will do something to me, my family, or my girlfriend."
Judicial police also threatened to rape him, dismember him, and toss him along a roadside, Lopez added, all while his hands and feet were bound. "They asked me if I had ever been to UNAM, and I responded 'Of course, it is a public university that anyone can visit,' but with that they wanted to link me to anarchist movements there," he said.
López is a member of an activist squatters movement called the Pancho Villa Independent Front. He maintains that he participated in the protest in a peaceful manner.
The case of the Nov. 20 detainees came as president Peña Nieto's administration has sought to calm the public outcry over the Ayotzinapa killings and mass disappearance. On Nov. 27, Peña Nieto made a national address in which he vowed to strengthen rule of law and policing in the country.
But he also warned demonstrators subtly about engaging in confrontations or vandalizing buildings at public protests.
"It is the obligation of the Mexican government, along with the [police], to guarantee that citizen movements are not overrun by those who act with violence and vandalism," Peña Nieto said during his address, adding that protesters who attack government and private property "are interested in attacking this fundamental freedom, by provoking and realizing acts of vandalism."
An official inside the federal interior ministry, who declined to be named, told VICE News on Tuesday that the president's proposed reforms, sent to Congress this week, would help prevent the kind of abuses the Nov. 20 detainees allege took place.
The official invited the detainees to present their claims in a court of law, and "not in the press."
"We will strengthen all protocols and procedures so that in cases of torture, forced disappearance and extrajudicial executions, the investigations will be opportune, exhaustive and impartial," the official said.
Follow Andalusia Knoll on Twitter @andalalucha.