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Study: Torture Still a Problem in Mexico's Jails, but Incidents Have Declined - 2003-04-23

A survey of Mexican government doctors reveals that torture is still common in the country's jails, although probably less frequent than five years ago. A U.S. human rights group conducted the survey at the request of the Mexican government.

Physicians for Human Rights in Boston says torture and ill treatment of detainees continue to be pervasive in Mexico. It bases its assessment on anonymous surveys of 184 national and state government forensic doctors, part of whose job is to evaluate detainees when they are first held and when they are released.

Physicians for Human Rights researcher, Dr. Vincent Iacopino, says about half of the doctors reported that torture is a serious problem for detainees in Mexico.

"For example, the federal-level physicians indicated that in the last year, they estimated that between 1,600 and approximately 5,000 detainees had alleged torture and/or ill treatment," he said. "The results were similar among the state physicians that we had surveyed. It is a very extensive practice."

According to the survey results published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, these numbers mean that between five and 18 percent of Mexican prisoners were tortured in the year before the 2002 survey. However, Physicians for Human Rights says it is encouraged that the Mexican federal doctors noted a decline in the number of occurrences of torture from five years earlier.

Dr. Iacopino says the survey took place at the invitation of the Mexican attorney general, the nation's chief law enforcement official, as part of a broader effort to eradicate torture in Mexico. The country is a signatory to the 1999 Istanbul Protocol, a set of United Nations guidelines for detecting torture, reporting it and holding torturers accountable.

"This being one of the first times a government had approached us to implement such standards, I was quite skeptical of this being window dressing [insincere]," he said. "I've learned in a very short period of time that that is not the case, that this is a serious effort to address the problem on many different levels."

Amnesty International data show that torture and ill treatment of detainees occur in more than half the world's countries. Dr. Iacopino says Mexico is unique in addressing the issue as it undergoes a transition to more open politics. He suggests that Mexico can serve as a model for other governments.