TANQUIAN DE ESCOBEDO, Mexico (AP) – When Juan Carlos Soni Bulos heard his front door being smashed in one November morning, he frantically scrolled through his phone to call for help.
Outside the human rights activist’s bedroom window, a Mexican marine in a black mask and helmet trained a rifle on him. “Drop the phone or I’ll shoot,” he said.
The marines blindfolded him, bound him and took him with four relatives and friends to a dimly lit, windowless warehouse. Then hours of torture began, Soni says – beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation, sexual abuse. He heard his teenage nephew scream as they applied electric shocks to the boy’s ribs.
Soni’s tormenter said, “This is going to make you not want to defend rights anymore.”
In the face of strong international condemnation, Mexico says it is taking steps to stop the use of torture by its security forces. After the United States withheld $5 million on account of Mexico’s human rights record, the U.S. State Department in September recommended to Congress that full funding be restored. The nearly $2.5 billion Merida Initiative pays to equip and train Mexican security forces and support justice system reforms.
However, there is still widespread impunity around the use of torture by security forces. From December 2006 through October 2014, the Attorney General’s Office registered 4,055 complaints of torture, nearly one-third of them against the military. Yet over almost the same period, only 13 police and soldiers were sentenced for torture. Nobody has been charged in Soni’s case.
Also, one in five reports on torture cases filed by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission between 1994 to 2014 were against marines, according to the nonprofit Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. But none of those sentenced over roughly the past decade were marines. The marines and the defense department did not respond to requests for an interview.
Soni had far more resources than most victims of torture. He had a politically active family and connections in the human rights world. In the late 1990s, he worked as an international human rights observer for the United Nations in Guatemala. When he returned to Mexico, he continued to work in the indigenous communities of the Huasteca region.
November 9, 2013, was not the first time marines visited his home in central Mexico’s San Luis Potosi state, a lush landscape of sugarcane fields, rolling hills and waterfalls. Almost five months earlier, on June 22, 2013, Soni was driving home from teaching in the early afternoon when his sister called to tell him to stay away; marines and federal police were at the house.
That day they grabbed Luis Enrique Biu Gonzalez, Soni’s gardener, who also lived at his home. They beat him and asphyxiated him with a plastic bag, Biu says. A marine pointed a pistol at his head, asked if he was gay and threatened sexual violence, all the time demanding to know where Soni was.
The marines took Soni’s computers, which held records of human rights cases he documented. They returned in the middle of the night. With the house empty, they grabbed whatever they had not carried off in the first raid.
Soni does not know exactly why the marines targeted him. It could have been the human rights complaints he helped people file against them and other security forces in the area. Or somebody with influence might have perceived him as a political threat.
Soon after the June raid, Soni sought advice from his contacts at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They told him to get help from the Mexican government’s protection program.
Soni was enrolled in the program as of June 26, 2013, government records show. He had assurances from the Attorney General’s Office there would be no more trouble. The government programmed an emergency “panic” number into his cell phone.
“It gave me some peace of mind,” he recalls thinking.
On the morning he was taken, Soni was trying to find the panic number. It was too late.
Even in its own assessment, the U.S. State Department notes that “there continue to be serious, ongoing challenges in Mexico, including reports of law enforcement and military involvement in forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, the reported use of torture, impunity and violence and threats against journalists and human rights defenders.” In its recommendation to restore funding, the State Department cites several measures taken by the government, but Soni’s case suggests they do not go far enough:
— The U.S. mentions the Mexican government’s program for protecting human rights defenders and journalists, known colloquially as “the mechanism.” But Soni was enrolled in that program five months before the marines took him anyway.
— The U.S. cites the autonomous National Human Rights Commission, which investigates and reports on human rights abuses. That body only issued its report on Soni’s case in late September, nearly three years later. It concluded there was mistreatment, but not torture, without making any reference to the hours the victims spent in the warehouse. The victims’ lawyers are now litigating those omissions.
— The U.S. points to a new law against torture that passed the Mexican Senate in April and still needs to pass the lower chamber. But even though torture was already illegal in Mexico last year, the human rights commission still received 628 complaints of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and 49 of torture by government officials.
— The U.S. pays special attention to a more transparent justice system Mexico has implemented in all 32 states and at the federal level. But a study released by two prominent Mexican think tanks in October found that even when injuries caused by abuse were documented, judges in one state did not order investigations or throw out evidence.
The U.S. Embassy offered comment in a statement.
“Mexico has launched an ambitious effort to modernize and reform its law enforcement and justice system,” the statement said, noting that the recommendation was based on specific criteria established by Congress. “We are committed to supporting Mexico’s own efforts to increase respect for human rights.”
Mexico’s Interior Department deputy secretary for human rights, Roberto Campa, said eradicating the use of torture is a top human rights priority for the government, and he expects to see a significant increase in sentences against those responsible. He also noted that under Mexico’s new justice system, evidence obtained through torture is thrown out.
“For many years there were police forces that considered torture as an investigative method,” he said.
At times through tears, Soni and the others recounted what happened to them in the garden of his home, now surrounded by a tall fence and numerous surveillance cameras paid for by the government.
As the marines led Soni away, he asked to pause before a wooden figure of Jesus outside his front door. Steered toward its base, Soni knelt, kissed its feet and prayed: “Lord, only you know where they are taking me. Help me return well.”
Then a marine shouted, “Enough already, bastard!” and dragged him to his feet by a handful of his long hair.
Later, as marines drove him to the warehouse, Soni told them he was in the protection program. “I have government protection,” Soni said to his captors. “You’re making a mistake.”
“Yes, you’re very influential, you son of a bitch,” came the response.
In the warehouse, they were forced to kneel on the concrete floor, he recalls. When their blindfolds were removed, they saw people dressed in black. One took their photographs with a tablet computer and blindfolded them again.
The marines rubbed a gel on their hands and told the men to touch some baggies and metal objects — apparently setting them up to have their fingerprints on weapons and drugs. When the men resisted, they were punched and kicked.
Biu, who was also taken, recalls the Marines giving them electric shocks, especially when they got to Soni.
“Now we’re going to give it to fatty to see if he can take it,” one marine said in reference to Soni.
“No more! No more!” Biu heard him scream. “Tell the truth,” the marine shouted back. They held the probes near Biu’s ear so he could hear the humming current.
Soni says the marines beat him, gave him electrical shocks and did things he does not want published.
“Everything, everything,” he says.
There has been no justice for Soni – and many others.
In April, a video circulated that showed soldiers and federal police torturing a young woman. In it, a female military police officer yanks on the woman’s hair and pokes a rifle barrel against her head. A female federal police officer also pulls a clear plastic bag over the woman’s head and holds it until she nearly passes out.
It led to an unprecedented public apology from Mexico’s defense secretary, but the victim remains in prison on weapons charges.
Soni and the others were also held on weapons and drug charges. They spent more than a year in prison in the western state of Nayarit without trial until a judge in March 2015 threw out the case.
From the day of their arrest through the day when the judge finally ordered the charges be dropped and signed their release, the men never once saw the judge. Soni hopes that this will change under Mexico’s new justice system, where both sides will have to present arguments and evidence in open court. His case is now being handled by a special unit created a year ago to investigate torture.
All the men bear scars from the experience, and some prefer not to speak about the details of their torture. Soni’s older nephew, Evanibaldo Larraga Galvan, still has a lump on his neck where a marine grabbed and choked him that morning.
Luis Edgardo Charnichart Ortega, a teacher and childhood friend of Soni’s who was sleeping over that night, asks, “Is there even sufficient punishment to pay for all the damage done?”
Charnichart has struggled to work since his release.
“My mind, the psychologists say, they still have it,” he recounts. “After they take you, nothing of you can remain. That is their objective, make you disappear, plant death inside you and leave it to consume you until the end of your days.”