2003International Reporting

Torture, A Ghost in Mexico's Closet

By: 
Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
June 2, 2002;
Page A01

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PACHUCA, Mexico -- Alfonso Martin del Campo Dodd stood naked in the basement of a Mexico City police station, where he said cops took turns punching him and slapping him, kicking him in the groin and screaming at him.

His sister and her husband had just been murdered in their sleep, stabbed a total of 64 times, and the police wanted Martin del Campo to confess. They waved a typewritten statement in his face and ordered him to sign it. He told them he didn't kill anybody and wasn't going to sign anything.

Then came the plastic bag.

According to Martin del Campo, whose story was corroborated under oath by an officer who was suspended for torturing him, two cops held him by the arms while another put the bag over his head. "That's one minute," he remembers the officer saying. "Next we'll do it for two minutes, then three, until you confess." They put the bag over his head again and again.

"I was sure they were going to kill me," Martin del Campo said.

So naked, bleeding and gasping for breath, he scratched his name at the bottom of a confession he did not write and had never read, admitting to a crime he said he did not commit. Based on that document and no direct physical evidence -- no witnesses, fingerprints, bloodstains, hairs or clothing fibers -- a judge convicted him of the double murder and sentenced him to 50 years in prison.

That was 10 years ago.

Martin del Campo, a U.S. citizen born in Chicago, now sits in prison in this city 40 miles north of Mexico City. His appeals are exhausted. Four different judges ruled that his allegations of torture were irrelevant. Confessions obtained by torture are not necessarily false, they ruled, repeating a conclusion reached frequently by Mexican judges.

The principle that someone charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty does not exist in Mexico. Until 1984, federal law explicitly said a defendant was guilty until proven innocent. Although the presumption of guilt was later removed, it remains the practice -- defendants must still prove their innocence. Martin del Campo could not.

He is 37 now, and his hair is tinged with gray. His father moved to this small city to be near him, and he visits every day; his mother, who lives in Mexico City, comes on weekends. They said losing a daughter was devastating enough, and they want their son back.

"I have been legally kidnapped here, and I want to be free," Martin del Campo said, sitting in his tiny cell. "The worst of this is losing my sister. But I am dead, too. I am dead in life."

Confronting a Dark Legacy

Martin del Campo is a ghost in Mexico's closet, haunting this country as it tries to move beyond a history of authoritarian abuses. Even now, Mexico's record on torture is one of the worst in the world, according to the United Nations, Amnesty International and other groups.

It is a legacy that built up over generations. For much of the 20th century, Mexico was run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Under its rigid system, from the president's gilded office to thousands of rural villages run by strong-arm political bosses, official power was wielded as a blunt and often brutal tool of control.

In a rule-of-law state, the law is a higher authority than the arbitrary actions of any individual, whether a police officer or president. But throughout recent Mexican history, it was the other way around: Party bosses were above the law. Police departments, especially in the countryside, were developed largely as political security forces to support local bosses, and not as investigative law enforcement units to solve crimes.

Fists and kicks and plastic bags have long been standard practice for solving cases. The innocent and the guilty have confessed simply to stop the pain. Prosecutors have been neglected. There has been little need to professionalize them when their chief function has been to present confessions to judges. "They just look for a quick, easy solution to a crime, rather than the truth," said Emma Maza of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center in Mexico City.

Mexican judges have also been part of the system that ruled above the law. The goal has been to keep the political bosses satisfied, resolving cases by whatever means necessary. "To keep their jobs, they have to do what they are told," said human rights lawyer Pilar Noriega. Defense lawyers also have seen little chance to buck the system. Public defenders have been even more poorly trained and less likely to serve their clients well.

The PRI era ended in December 2000 with the swearing-in of President Vicente Fox, who was elected by voters fed up with the abuses and corruption of the PRI system. Fox has promised to clean up Mexico's human rights record, but Amnesty International and even Fox's top human rights adviser, Mariclaire Acosta, acknowledge that torture continues. Acosta said Fox's government was trying to pass new anti-torture laws, train police and soldiers not to beat confessions out of suspects, and enact reforms to prevent judges from accepting torture-induced confessions. But, she said: "Those are still common practices. It's an abomination."

Theoretically, torture is illegal in Mexico. The constitution prohibits "all incommunicado detention, intimidation or torture" and states that confessions made before anyone other than a prosecutor or a judge are not admissible in court. In 1986, Mexico began enacting laws to punish torture, and to make torture-induced confessions inadmissible in court. In addition, in 1987, Mexico ratified a U.N. convention against torture. Fox has invited U.N. human rights officials to set up an office in Mexico.

But Mexico is slow to change, and torture is still a common tool of the authorities. Last month, in Nuevo Leon state, a man suspected of robbing an ATM died of asphyxiation while in police custody. The state attorney general's office said it believed he died as the result of torture, and the case is under investigation. On Wednesday, the Durango state human rights commission concluded that five state police officers had tortured three murder suspects in March. Two weeks ago, the national human rights commission concluded that a suspected kidnapper who died in custody of federal police in March was beaten to death.

The challenge facing Mexico today is not only to enforce the ban on torture but to change the mind-set of a generation of police, prosecutors and judges, whose practices and beliefs were set in an earlier era. Acosta said the government faces enormous obstacles, including decades of official indifference to torture and other abuses. Just as important as preventing torture in the future, she added, is redressing wrongs of the past -- including victims of torture locked away in prisons.

Indelible Night

Sitting in his cell, next to a dirt field where other inmates played soccer, Martin del Campo, who has a round face and a soft voice, recounted the story he has told many times, about the early morning hours of May 30, 1992:

He woke to the sound of his sister, Patricia, screaming his name. She and her husband, Gerardo Zamudio Aldaba, slept in another bedroom in the Mexico City apartment they shared. The two men were partners in two businesses: importing carpets, and operating buses for the city. Patricia, 33, worked as a waitress and took care of the couple's three daughters, then 6, 4 and 2, who were sleeping in the next room.

Martin del Campo ran toward the screams. He was met at his bedroom door by two men with stockings over their heads. They called him by his nickname, Chacho, then, he remembers, they beat him. They forced him downstairs and threw him into the trunk of a car. They drove for about 30 minutes, until the car came to a crashing stop.

Martin del Campo heard the two men get out and run. He said he found a tire iron, smashed out a brake light and saw that he was on a highway, where the car had crashed into the concrete barrier dividing the road. He fiddled with a lock until the trunk popped open.

He flagged down a passing bus and rode it to the first tollbooth, where he ran to some police officers and told them what happened. The police drove him to the crashed car, where they found a bloody knife and started asking questions. They drove him back to his apartment, now surrounded by police cars and ambulances. A neighbor's teenage son told him that his sister and Zamudio were dead.

Police drove Martin del Campo to the station, where, he said, he was taken to a basement room and surrounded by a dozen police officers. The officer in charge, later identified to him as Sotero Galvan Gutierrez, asked him to tell his story. Martin del Campo said he told them everything. They made him tell the same story at least four times. Nobody wrote anything down, he recalled, and there was no tape recorder.

Finally, he said, one officer started hitting him, swore at him and said, "Tell us how you did it -- how did you kill them?"

Martin del Campo said he was shocked. Then all the officers started taking turns hitting and kicking him. They made him strip naked and kept hitting him, some with wet towels wrapped around their fists to leave fewer marks. Eventually, he said, Galvan came to him with a typed statement and demanded he sign. He still refused.

Then came the plastic bag. And he finally signed.

"That made them very happy," he said.

Missing Pieces

The case against Martin del Campo, who had no previous criminal record, was made largely by Galvan, according to the court file. In Galvan's version, described in his investigative report, Martin del Campo was drunk and killed his sister and her husband because he was angry with his brother-in-law over a $70 car repair bill. He waited until the two were asleep, then stabbed them with kitchen knives. He smashed his own head and face, hard enough to cause deep cuts, and staged a phony kidnapping to cover up his crime, Galvan said in the report.

But hundreds of pages of court documents contain no evidence to support Galvan's version. They don't prove Martin del Campo's innocence either. But the record shows blood tests indicate he was not drunk. Lab tests showed that hairs found in the clenched fist of his sister when she died, presumably from her killer, were not Martin del Campo's. There were no witnesses, no blood-soaked clothes. There was no motive offered for why he would kill his sister.

Galvan offered as evidence a reconstruction of the events, based on his theory. Officers brought Martin del Campo back to the apartment, over his objections, and took 85 photos as they made him reach for knives in the kitchen, and forced him to pretend to stab the victims, played by two police officers posing in the bloody bed.

Reenactments are a common technique in Mexican criminal investigations and are often accepted as evidence in trials, although they are based on nothing more than a prosecutor's version of events. The trial judge, and several judges who considered Martin del Campo's appeals, cited the reenactment photos as evidence of his guilt, and an appeals judge called it "convincing" evidence, according to court documents.

Galvan said Martin del Campo was represented by a public defender during thereenactment. But the person listed by Galvan as defender was a police department computer specialist, court documents subsequently showed. The record also shows that a public defender eventually assigned to his case never argued that the confession should be excluded because of torture. An appeals court judge called the confession "the only relevant piece of evidence" against him.

During the trial, Martin del Campo was given the opportunity to question Galvan directly. He asked him if he and other officers had stripped him, beaten him, suffocated him with a plastic bag. The court record shows that, under oath, Galvan acknowledged that he had done it.

But the judge accepted the confession anyway, noting, as the appellate judges also did, that in Mexico, confessions obtained by torture are often still considered as evidence, despite the laws that say confessions obtained by torture are inadmissible.

In April 1993, Galvan shot and killed an unarmed man while on duty. He was convicted of murder, fired from the police force and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After serving five years, he was released for "health reasons."

In October 1994, acting as a result of Galvan's admission in the trial, the Mexico City attorney general's office punished Galvan for violating Martin del Campo's human rights. Although he had already been fired, his punishment was a three-year suspension from the police force. The notice was delivered to him in prison.

Galvan, in response to a message sent through an intermediary, said he would not comment on the case.

Martin del Campo also filed a complaint seeking criminal torture charges against Galvan. But prosecutors closed the case in 2000, saying there wasn't enough evidence, despite Galvan's admission that he had tortured Martin del Campo.

Enrique Flota, a top official in the prosecutor's office, was asked why Galvan didn't face criminal prosecution. "That question has no answer," he said. "It's something that we are going to look into. We are very worried that there were irregularities."

In one sign of the potential for change, the leadership of the city attorney general's office has changed hands since 2000, when a new mayor was elected. In an office that had long been suspected of covering up abuses, several former private-sector human rights activists have been hired to high positions. Flota, for example, was previously a private defense lawyer who specialized in human rights cases.

Flota, who started his job in January, said he and others in his office were just now beginning to confront abuses from the past. They plan a complete review of Martin del Campo's case. "There was a frequent practice of torture and irregularities by the police, we all know that," Flota said. "In this case, we have to find out exactly what happened. We have many doubts about this case."

Flota also said he planned to review why his predecessors never investigated a 1998 complaint filed by Martin del Campo's relatives in which they offered another version of the case. The complaint alleged that Zamudio's family arranged the murders to collect his inheritance. It also alleged that Patricia was killed to prevent her from inheriting her husband's assets, and Martin del Campo was spared so he would be blamed.

The complaint includes documents showing that Zamudio's brother and his mother ended up with all of his assets, as well as Martin del Campo's share of two small businesses in which he and Zamudio were partners.

Martin del Campo, speaking in the fluent English he picked up as a child in Chicago, said no one has ever investigated what he said was the obvious line of inquiry: "In murder cases, the first question you ask is, 'Who benefited?' " he said. "Look at me. Did I benefit?"

Waiting for an End

With no legal appeals left, Martin del Campo has thrown his fate to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, an arm of the Organization of American States, which is reviewing his case to determine if the Mexican judicial system violated his rights. The commission's report is due by the end of the year. If it recommends his release, Acosta said, Fox would find a way to comply.

Martin del Campo has asked the U.S. government for help, but so far it has given him only vitamins and copies of Sports Illustrated, delivered every three months by an embassy official who checks on all U.S. citizens in Mexican prisons.

With 40 years left in his sentence, Martin del Campo passes his days working at a little snack shop in the prison. His father, 68, works alongside him during his daily visits. His mother, 67, spends much of her time trying to find her orphaned granddaughters, who are now 16, 14 and 12. A court awarded her custody of the girls in 1995, but she said Zamudio's family has them and she does not know where they are. "This has all been the worst thing anyone could imagine," she said. "It has been hell."

Earlier last month, Martin del Campo married his longtime girlfriend, Janeth, in the prison. They had been dating at the time of the murders.

At the ceremony, they stood in a bare prison room before a priest, nuzzling and giggling and pledging to spend their lives together. It was almost normal, except that the photographer was a convicted drug dealer and the honeymoon trip was a walk past the guard tower to a prison cell.

"It's not how I'd like it to be," Martin del Campo said. "But time is passing. I've had a lot of years of bad news. Now I want to have children, and a life."


--Researcher Laurie Freeman in Mexico City contributed to this report.