TANQUIAN DE ESCOBEDO, MEXICO —
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 $5 million was withheld on account of Mexico's human rights record, the U.S. State Department in September recommended to Congress that full funding be restored.
However, there is still widespread impunity. 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, and nobody has been charged in Soni's case.
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."
The Mexican marines and defense department did not respond to requests for an interview. 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.
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.
Soni had far more resources than most victims of torture. He had a politically active family and connections in the human rights world.
November 9, 2013, was not the first time marines visited his home. Almost five months earlier, 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.
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, Soni told his captors, "I have government protection.... 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.
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.
Even today, there has been no justice for Soni and the others. They were held on weapons and drug charges. They spent more than a year in prison without trial until a judge in March 2015 threw out the case.
From the day of their arrest through the day their release was signed, 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.
Soni's older nephew, Evanibaldo Larraga Galvan, still has a lump on his neck where a marine grabbed and choked him that morning. And 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."