a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports government entities or their agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, often with impunity. The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) is responsible for independently investigating security force abuses, including killings, and can issue formal recommendations for prosecution. State human rights commissions investigate state police forces and can issue similar recommendations. State and federal prosecutors are independent of the executive branch and have the final authority to investigate and prosecute security force abuses. Organized criminal groups were implicated in numerous killings, acting with impunity and at times in collusion with corrupt federal, state, local, and security officials.
On May 4, Giovanni Lopez died in police custody after police allegedly beat him for three hours. Municipal police officers from Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos, Jalisco, arrested Lopez for resisting arrest and transported him to their precinct after witnesses said he intervened when police attempted to arrest his neighbor. On June 5, the governor announced three municipal police officers had been arrested for Lopez’ death.
On July 3, the newspaper and website El Universal presented a video of soldiers in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, which showed them approaching a truck after a gun battle with suspected cartel members. One of the soldiers discovered a combatant still alive and subsequently received orders to kill the wounded person. A total of 12 persons died in the encounter: nine suspected cartel members who allegedly initiated the gun battle with the army patrol and three bound and gagged kidnapped victims the cartel members were transporting in their trucks when the firefight broke out. The Prosecutor General’s Office and the Secretariat of National Defense launched separate investigations into the incident.
As of September the six federal police agents accused of murder and attempted murder of 16 unarmed civilians in Apatzingan, Michoacan, in 2015 remained in pretrial detention, pending conclusion of the trial.
Environmental activists, the majority from indigenous communities, continued to be targets of violence. In January, Homero Gomez, an indigenous and environmental rights defender, went missing and was later found dead (see section 6, Indigenous People). As of October 15, no suspects had been arrested.
Criminal organizations carried out widespread killings and other illegal activities throughout the country. On April 3, a clash between La Linea cartel and the Sinaloa cartel left 19 persons dead in Madera, Chihuahua.
There were reports of numerous forced disappearances by organized crime groups, sometimes with allegations of state collusion. In its data collection, the government often merged statistics on forcibly disappeared persons with missing persons not suspected of being victims of forced disappearance, making it difficult to compile accurate statistics on the extent of the problem.
Investigations, prosecutions, and convictions for the crime of forced disappearance were rare. According to the Attorney General’s Office, from October 2013 to August 2018, courts issued eight convictions and 17 acquittals for forced disappearance, and another 18 sentences were in the appeals process.
At the federal level, the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for Forced Disappearances was investigating 980 cases of disappeared persons, while other federal offices were investigating 1,000 additional cases as of August, according to the human rights organization SERAPAZ. Some states made progress investigating this crime. From January to July 2019, prosecutors in Veracruz State opened 573 investigations into disappearances, but family members alleged the prosecutors undercounted the actual number of cases.
In February a federal judge in Monterrey sentenced five marines to 22 years in prison and ruled the secretary of the navy should publicly apologize for the 2013 forced disappearance of Armando Humberto del Bosque Villarreal in Colombia, Nuevo Leon. Hunters found the body of del Bosque in a forest outside the naval base two months after he disappeared. The sentences were the first against the armed forces in Nuevo Leon. On December 2, a judge reversed the sentence for failures in the formulation of the accusation, finding that the marines should have been tried according to the General Law on Forced Disappearances of Persons approved in 2017 and not the federal penal code, which was repealed with the passing of the previous rule.
The federal government and states continued to implement the 2017 General Law on Forced Disappearances. By December all 32 states had met the requirement to create state search commissions, according to the National Search Commission (CNB). Through a nationwide assessment process, the CNB revised the government’s official number of missing or disappeared persons repeatedly during the year as additional data became available. As of December the CNB reported there were 79,658 missing or disappeared persons in the country. Some cases dated back to the 1960s, but the vast majority occurred since 2006. The year 2019 had the second-highest number of cases on record, with 8,345 reported missing or disappeared, up from 7,267 cases reported in 2018. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) commended the government for providing a more accurate accounting and urged the government to strengthen efforts to investigate and prosecute cases.
Nationwide, the CNB reported the exhumation of the remains of at least 2,361 persons in 1,413 clandestine graves between December 1, 2018, and November 30, 2020. In July the CNB reported that between January 2006 and June 2020, officials located 3,978 clandestine graves and exhumed 6,625 bodies. The same report noted that between December 1, 2018, and November 2020, of the 894 bodies identified, 506 were returned to families.
In July the CNB launched a public version of the National Registry of Disappeared and Missing Persons. Between January and June, it received 5,905 reports of missing persons and located 3,078 alive and 215 deceased. In December 2019 the government created the Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification to bring together national and international forensic experts to help identify 37,000 unidentified remains held in government facilities, but as of September it was not fully operational.
During the year the government raised the CNB’s budget to $32.8 million, a 55 percent increase over the 2019 budget. Nonetheless, according to NGOs, the state search committees often lacked the human and financial resources to fulfill their mandate. For example, those in Campeche, Sonora, Tabasco, and Tlaxcala had fewer than five employees on staff, according to an NGO assessment of human rights in the country. Civil society and families of the disappeared stated the government’s actions to prevent and respond to disappearances were largely inadequate and lacked sufficient resources to address the scale of the problem.
On June 26, the bodies of 14 persons were found in Fresnillo, Zacatecas. The state prosecutor general’s office transferred the remains to the Zacatecan Institute of Forensic Sciences, but as of October no arrests had been made.
Jalisco disappearances data remained under scrutiny as more mass graves were discovered. The NGO Mexican Center for Justice for Peace and Development criticized Jalisco’s recordkeeping practices for complaints related to disappeared persons, accusing the Jalisco Prosecutor General’s Office of lacking a methodology for data collection and not being transparent in information sharing. The NGO tallied 2,100 unsolved disappearances from July 2019 to August 2020 (and 9,286 persons unaccounted for overall since the 1960s). The Jalisco Prosecutor General’s Office and the Jalisco Forensics Institute were unable to process increasing numbers of cases, with dozens of sets of human remains discovered during the year.
In November authorities announced the discovery of 113 bodies in a mass grave in El Salto, Jalisco. As of December relatives were able to identify 30 of the bodies. Another mass grave was being excavated in Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos, Jalisco, where 25 bodies were found.
The federal government created a National System for the Search of Missing Persons as required by law but as of August had not established the required National Forensic Data Bank. The Prosecutor General’s Office owned a previous genetics database, which consisted of 63,000 profiles, and was responsible for the new database. The previous platform lacked interconnectivity between states and failed to connect family members effectively to the remains of their missing relatives.
Investigations continued into the disappearances of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Iguala, Guerrero, in 2014. Victims’ relatives and civil society continued to criticize handling by the Attorney General’s Office of the original investigation, noting there had been no convictions related to the disappearances of the 43 students. On July 7, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced forensic scientists at the University of Innsbruck conclusively identified the remains of one of the 43 disappeared students, Christian Alfonso Rodriguez Telumbre. This was the first identification made in the case in more than five years.
In June 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office created the Special Unit for the Investigation and Litigation of the Ayotzinapa case. As of October the unit brought charges against former officials for failing to conduct an adequate investigation and using torture to coerce confessions but had not charged anyone for the disappearances of the students.
In March a federal judge issued an arrest warrant for Tomas Zeron, who led the investigation of the case by the former criminal investigations unit in the Attorney General’s Office at the time of the students’ disappearances. Zeron was wanted on charges related to his conduct of the investigation, including torturing alleged perpetrators to force confessions, conducting forced disappearances, altering the crime scene, manipulating evidence, and failing to perform his duties. He was believed to be in Israel, and the government requested that the Israeli government issue an arrest warrant and extradite him.
Also in March a federal judge issued arrest warrants against four government officials and a marine for torturing detainee Carlos Canto Salgado and obstruction of justice in the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case. In June the Prosecutor General’s Office arrested Jose Angel Casarrubias, also known as “El Mochomo,” a leader of the Guerreros Unidos cartel that allegedly collaborated with security forces to disappear the students. A judge later ordered his release due to lack of evidence, but the Prosecutor General’s Office detained him again shortly thereafter on separate organized-crime-related charges. As of September the Prosecutor General’s Office detained the head of the Federal Investigative Police, Carlos Gomez Arrieta, who handed himself in, and another high-level official, Blanca Alicia “N” from the Public Ministry, who allegedly tampered with evidence. On November 12, authorities arrested Captain Jose Martinez Crespo, the first arrest of a soldier in the case and one of the officers in charge of the army battalion in Iguala the night of the disappearances. Prosecutors charged him with forced disappearance and colluding with the Guerrero Unidos cartel. By December the Federal Prosecutor’s Office had requested 101 arrest warrants related to the case, of which 63 were issued and 47 carried out, leading to 78 arrests.
In August 2019 a judge dismissed charges against Gildardo Lopez Astudillo for his alleged role in the Ayotzinapa case after finding the evidence collected against him was obtained through torture and arbitrary detention. The Prosecutor General’s Office appealed the dismissal, and as of October the decision was pending.
As of November no alleged perpetrators of the disappearances had been convicted, and 78 of those initially accused were released due to lack of evidence, generally due to irregularities in their detention, including confessions obtained through torture.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Federal law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as the admission of confessions obtained through illicit means as evidence in court. Despite these prohibitions, there were reports of security forces torturing suspects.
In November 2019 the NGO Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights released a 12-year study on torture, which registered 27,342 investigations from 2006 to 2018. There were 10,787 federal investigations and 16,555 state-level investigations, of which 50 resulted in sentences, 15 of which were later exonerated.
Between January and August 20, the CNDH registered 25 complaints of torture and 132 for arbitrary detention. The majority of these complaints were against authorities in the Prosecutor General’s Office, Federal Police, Interior Ministry, and the navy. As of April, 20 of 32 states had specialized prosecutor’s offices for torture as called for by law.
On July 27, Adolfo Gomez was found dead in his jail cell in Chiapas. Authorities declared Gomez hanged himself, but his family said his body showed signs of torture. Gomez was arrested with his wife Josefa in an operation that authorities stated uncovered a trafficking ring of 23 children, but later evidence showed the children were all members of the same extended family and were with their relatives. In August the Chiapas State Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed Gomez committed suicide and announced the arrest of the director and two penitentiary center employees accused of flagrant omission in their duty of care. The accused were released shortly after.
Impunity for torture was prevalent among the security forces. NGOs stated authorities failed to investigate torture allegations adequately. As of January 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office was investigating 4,296 torture-related inquiries under the previous inquisitorial legal system (initiated prior to the 2016 transition to an accusatorial system) and 645 investigations under the accusatorial system. A 2019 report by the Prosecutor General’s Office stated it brought charges in one torture case during that year. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) signed an agreement with the government in April 2019 to provide human rights training to the National Guard, but as of October the OHCHR reported no training had been carried out.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions in prisons and detention centers were often harsh and life threatening.
Physical Conditions: According to the Federal Prison System, as of June there were 210,287 inmates in 295 state and federal facilities with a designed capacity of 221,574. Some prisons were undersubscribed while others were overcrowded. According to online media El Economista, 46 percent of prisoners shared a cell with five or more other inmates and 13 percent shared a cell with 15 or more inmates. The state of Baja California had the highest number of overcrowded cells.
The CNDH’s 2019 National Diagnostic of Penitentiary Supervision reported that state prisons were understaffed and suffered from poor sanitary conditions as well as a lack of opportunities for inmates to develop the skills necessary for social reintegration. The report singled out Guerrero, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz as the states with the worst prison conditions. The CNDH noted significant understaffing at all levels in federal prisons, which affected access to programs, activities, and medical services and promoted segregation of inmates.
Organized criminal groups reportedly continued to oversee illicit activities from within penitentiary walls. The National Prison Administration reported that during an enforcement operation from May to July, it detected nearly 15,000 cell phones in use in 21 prisons around the country and cancelled 16,500 cell phone numbers. On February 20, authorities transferred 27 inmates from Nuevo Laredo’s state prison to Altamiro Federal Prison, according to the Ministry of Public Security in Tamaulipas. This followed an earlier transfer of seven prisoners from Nuevo Laredo to federal prison on January 29. Experts believed the transfers were likely an attempt to break cartel control of Nuevo Laredo’s prisons.
According to civil society groups, migrants at some detention centers faced abuse when commingled with gang members and other criminals.
As of August 17, a total of 2,686 prisoners had contracted COVID-19, 263 had died of the disease, and 3,755 were released to prevent further contagion, according to the NGO Legal Assistance for Human Rights. In response to a civil society organization lawsuit, a Mexico City court ruled authorities must implement COVID-19 detection and preventive health protocols for detainees and their families in prisons in Mexico City and psychiatric wards nationwide. As of September only three states had complied with all or nearly all the court-mandated health measures, according to the NGO Documenta.
The CNDH, in its report on COVID-19 measures in holding facilities, found most detention facilities could not comply with social distancing measures or several other health recommendations due to lack of space, personnel, or equipment.
NGOs alleged the National Migration Institute (INM) failed to take effective steps to stop the spread of COVID-19 among migrants. After initial criticism the INM released or repatriated migrants in its detention facilities to mitigate the spread of infection.
Administration: Authorities did not always conduct investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment. In September the NGOs Citizens in Support of Human Rights and Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the governor of Nuevo Leon urging investigations into reports of abusive conditions in the state’s prisons as well as the deaths of three inmates during the year. The NGOs noted only one of the three deaths was being investigated. As of October the governor had not responded to the letter.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by the International Committee of the Red Cross, CNDH, and state human rights commissions.
In January more than 20 NGOs and international organizations stated the INM denied them entry to migratory stations to access migrants who arrived in a caravan on January 18-21, preventing independent oversight and denying information to the NGOs. The INM resumed granting access after public criticism.
Improvements: Federal and state facilities continued to seek or maintain international accreditation from the American Correctional Association. As of August, six state facilities received accreditation, raising the total number of state and federal accredited facilities to 98. The six states demonstrated compliance with numerous standards, including written policies and procedures ensuring continual staff training and increased accountability of staff and inmates.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
Federal law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court, but the government sometimes failed to observe these requirements. Between January and August, the CNDH recorded 132 complaints of arbitrary detention.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The constitution allows any person to arrest another if the crime is committed in his or her presence. A warrant for arrest is not required if an official has direct evidence regarding a person’s involvement in a crime, such as having witnessed the commission of a crime. In a 2018 report, Mexico Evalua, a domestic think tank, determined 90 percent of all arrests fell under this category. This arrest authority, however, is applicable only in cases involving serious crimes in which there is risk of flight. Bail is available for most crimes, except for those involving organized crime and a limited number of other offenses. In most cases the law requires detainees to appear before a judge for a custody hearing within 48 hours of arrest, during which authorities must produce sufficient evidence to justify continued detention. This requirement was not followed in all cases, particularly in remote areas of the country. In cases involving organized crime, the law allows authorities to hold suspects up to 96 hours before they must seek judicial review.
The procedure known in Spanish as arraigo (a constitutionally permitted form of pretrial detention employed during the investigative phase of a criminal case before probable cause is fully established) allows, with a judge’s approval, for certain suspects to be detained prior to filing formal charges. Following the introduction of the accusatorial justice system, however, there was a significant reduction in the number of persons detained in this manner, falling from more than 1,900 in 2011 to 21 in 2018.
Some detainees complained of a lack of access to family members and to counsel after police held persons incommunicado for several days and made arrests arbitrarily without a warrant. Police occasionally failed to provide impoverished detainees access to counsel during arrests and investigations as provided for by law, although the right to public defense during trial was generally respected. Authorities held some detainees under house arrest.
Arbitrary Arrest: Allegations of arbitrary detentions persisted throughout the year. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and NGOs expressed concerns regarding arbitrary detention and the potential for it to lead to other human rights abuses.
The Jalisco State Commission for Human Rights reported at least 118 complaints against police for arbitrary detention, forced disappearance, and abuse of power after statewide protests on June 4-9 following the death of Giovanni Lopez, who died in municipal police custody in Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, and authorities did not always release promptly those detained unlawfully. The accusatorial justice system allows for a variety of pretrial measures, including electronic monitoring, travel restrictions, and house arrest, that reduced the use of the prison system overall, including the use of pretrial detention. The law provides time limits and conditions on pretrial detention, but federal authorities sometimes failed to comply with them, since caseloads far exceeded the capacity of the federal judicial system. Violations of time limits on pretrial detention were endemic in state judicial systems. The OHCHR documented cases in the states of Mexico and Chiapas in which detainees remained for more than 12 years in pretrial detention. A constitutional reform passed in February 2019 increased the number of crimes for which pretrial detention is mandatory and bail is not available, including armed robbery, electoral crimes, fuel theft, and weapons possession.
Reports indicated women suffered disproportionately from pretrial detention. As of June, 54 percent of women in federal prison and 46 percent in municipal and state prisons were in pretrial detention, while 39 percent of men in the federal and local judicial system were in pretrial detention, according to a report from the Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection. In October authorities announced they would comply with the recommendation of the OHCHR’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and release Brenda Quevedo Cruz, who had spent 11 years in prison without trial. Quevedo Cruz remained in detention at year’s end.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, court decisions were susceptible to improper influence by both private and public entities, particularly at the state and local level, as well as by transnational criminal organizations. Authorities sometimes failed to respect court orders, and arrest warrants were sometimes ignored. Across the criminal justice system, many actors lacked the necessary training and resources to carry out their duties fairly and consistently in line with the principle of equal justice.
In 2016 all civilian and military courts officially transitioned from an inquisitorial legal system based primarily upon judicial review of written documents to an accusatorial trial system reliant upon oral testimony presented in open court. In most states alternative justice centers employed mechanisms such as mediation, negotiation, and restorative justice to resolve minor offenses outside the court system.
Under the accusatorial system, judges conduct all hearings and trials and follow the principles of public access and cross-examination. Defendants have the right to a presumption of innocence and to a fair and public trial without undue delay. Defendants have the right to attend the hearings and to challenge the evidence or testimony presented. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law also provides for the rights of appeal and of bail in most categories of crimes. Defendants have the right to an attorney of their choice at all stages of criminal proceedings. By law attorneys are required to meet professional qualifications to represent a defendant. Not all public defenders were qualified, however, and often the state public defender system was understaffed. The administration of public defender services was the responsibility of either the judicial or the executive branch, depending on the jurisdiction. According to the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, most criminal suspects did not receive representation until after their first custody hearing, thus making individuals vulnerable to coercion to sign false statements prior to appearing before a judge.
Defendants have the right to free assistance of an interpreter, if needed, although interpretation and translation services into indigenous languages were not always available. Indigenous defendants who did not speak Spanish sometimes were unaware of the status of their cases and were convicted without fully understanding the documents they were instructed to sign.
The lack of federal rules of evidence caused confusion and led to disparate judicial rulings.
On July 29, legislators approved a law making all judicial sentences public. The increased transparency could discourage discriminatory and arbitrary sentences, according to various NGOs.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Citizens have access to an independent judiciary in civil matters to seek civil remedies for human rights violations. For a plaintiff to secure damages against a defendant, authorities first must find the defendant guilty in a criminal case, a significant barrier due to the relatively low number of criminal convictions.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such practices and requires search warrants. There were some complaints of illegal searches or illegal destruction of private property. By law the government legally collected biometric data from migrants.
According to the NGO Freedom House, “Researchers continued to document cases of journalists, human rights lawyers, activists, and political figures targeted with Pegasus spy software. After denying they existed, in February 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office provided evidence of Pegasus licensing contracts in 2016 and 2017.” Freedom House also reported that by March 2019 Citizen Lab and domestic NGOs had documented at least 25 cases of journalists, human rights lawyers, activists, and political figures being targeted with the Pegasus software, which is sold exclusively to governments. A 2019 study by WhatsApp and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found the government continued to use Pegasus.