Images of Mexican authorities humiliating suspected cartel members have been circulated on social media and picked up by some US media sites to the apparent delight of right-leaning press and violence-addled citizen journalists.
As reported by Breitbart News, the videos and photographs of Mexican arrestees being subjected to embarrassing and abusive treatment include male suspects forced to wear women’s underwear and a female suspect with a plastic bag over her head.
According to the reports, the incidents are largely the work of a single marine commander, whom they identify as Erick Morales Guevara. In 2015 Morales Guevara was deployed in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, first in the border city of Reynosa and later in the beach town of Tampico. In both towns, he and his subordinates took aim at local leadership of the Gulf Cartel, and in turn inspired significant rancor from the organization.
Following allegations of corruption, he moved on to Michoacán, where he currently is deployed.
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While reaction from social media consumers was divided, Breitbart’s reporting, which was carried out by “citizen journalists” from the northern states of Tamaulipas and Coahuila, was essentially positive:
Breitbart Texas spoke with various top officials with the Mexican Navy to learn about the exploits of … Morales Guevara, a marine that will sometimes bend the rules but will get the job done… While the persons consulted for this article acknowledge that [Morales Guevara’s] methods are unorthodox, and some not exactly legal, the results speak for themselves. Morales’ team has been behind a series of important arrests along with cash, drug and weapon seizures, that severely impaired the operations of drug cartels, the sources said.
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Such behavior by arresting officers is not entirely uncommon. High-profile Mexican suspects are typically paraded before the camera when taken into custody, and their faces occasionally show bruises. And the positive reaction from Breitbart and others on social media shows that there is clearly an appetite for public denigration of organized crime figures.
To a certain extent, this desire for criminals’ degradation is understandable. For decades, Mexico’s largest criminal groups have made a mockery of the nation’s public institutions, intimidating everyone from government agents to reporters to teachers.
The same groups have often attacked civilians with total impunity. For anyone with an interest in the integrity of Mexico’s democratic society, this longstanding state of affairs is profoundly frustrating, even humiliating, and seeing the figures responsible for it similarly humiliated helps alleviate the sense of impotence.
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But the natural desire for turnabout should not be confused with policies that will address the causes of insecurity. On the contrary, this overly macho approach, based on the idea that the strongest side inevitably wins, is better suited to a cheap action movie than real life. Mexico’s problems demand much more than this narrow, misguided conception of strength: they require intellectual creativity, patience, and willpower.
While there is a substantial difference between dressing a suspect up in women’s underwear and murdering him, dehumanizing suspected criminals is a slippery slope that can lead to more consequential abuses.
In a democracy, respect for human rights should be upheld even when dealing with the nation’s most dangerous criminals. For years, Mexico has struggled to prevent abuses in its conduct of security operations. Cases like the Ayotzinapa student disappearances and the Tlatlaya massacre have gravely undermined the current government’s international standing and its popular support within Mexico.
Even before the Enrique Peña Nieto administration came to power, NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch had provided detailed reports on all manner of violations by security officials in Mexico, from rape and torture to disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
While there is a substantial difference between dressing a suspect up in women’s underwear and murdering him, dehumanizing suspected criminals is a slippery slope that can lead to more consequential abuses. Regardless of where a given action lies on that slope, the government’s pattern of abuses reflects a deep-seated defect that should be resisted in all its forms.
Even beyond the issue of human rights abuses, this willingness to dehumanize suspects is counterproductive. In the short term, it can interfere with authorities’ ability to build source networks, and presumably complicates efforts to interrogate arrestees. It feeds into the abusive policies — mass arrests and widespread pretrial jailing –that have contributed to overcrowding in Mexico’s jails.
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In the long run, this dehumanization creates enduring suspicions of police bodies among the very communities whose cooperation is most needed.
There is some surface logic to the argument that abusing arrestees has a powerful propaganda value. Demonstrating that gangsters are not invulnerable supermen has the potential to erode public fear of the cartels, making it more difficult for them to operate.
But, apart from the question of legality, there is no real evidence supporting the effectiveness of human rights abuses as a law enforcement tool. Rather than being an unorthodox way of undermining gangland mystique, it is a needless concession to collective fear and anger. It is a reflection of the worst human impulses that should be condemned rather than celebrated.