The man who once held Mexico’s most senior law enforcement position has been arrested on charges of torturing a suspect in custody. If even Luis Cárdenas Palomino—who once earned a citation as “Mexico’s best police officer”—was abusing suspects, what does that say about the rest of the country’s police officers?
The truth is torture has become a common feature of Mexican policing. We’ll dig deeper into the question of torturing detainees and how it’s done in a moment but it’s also crucial to look at why cops think they can get away with it.
Palomino’s arrest is just the latest in a long string of incidents that point to staggering levels of corruption among Mexico’s police and military.
Palomino’s old boss Genaro García Luna is currently in prison in the U.S. for taking bribes and trafficking narcotics. Less than a year ago, Mexico’s one-time defense minister, General Salvador Cienfuegos was also arrested on drug-smuggling charges in Los Angeles, although he was eventually released at the behest of the Mexican government.
U.S. prosecutors have also brought similar charges against Palomino himself, claiming that he took millions of dollars from Joaquín “El Chapo” Gúzman’s Sinaloa Cartel. The arrest of these three top-level officers is roughly equivalent to, say, ex-Defense Secretary Colin Powell, ex-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and ex-FBI Director James Comey all being incarcerated—which might cause quite a stir in the U.S. In Mexico, however, nobody bats an eye, because corruption is the norm instead of the exception.
““Torture will never disappear.”
— High-ranking police commander.
“It did not surprise me about Palomino [being arrested] because he was a thug from a very early age,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“He was implicated in murder and he was never charged. He was given a high-ranking position for one reason: his willingness to engage in wholesale corruption and keep his mouth shut.”
Dr. Robert Bunker, a research director at the security consulting firm Futures LLC, calls the corruption among Mexican security forces “systemic.”
“This ‘narco-cancer’ has gone deep into the marrow of state and turned it into a fragile wraith-like entity—a hollowed-out creature that is increasingly losing its ability to even pretend to exert sovereign authority domestically,” Bunker told The Daily Beast.
Vigil agrees: “Many individuals look at a government position as a superhighway to enrich themselves. The mentality is that everyone is taking bribes so why shouldn’t I do the same.”
Grave human rights abuses by security forces are also troublingly common in Mexico today. Military and police forces stand accused of multiple massacres and extrajudicial killings over the last decade, including the murders of migrants and innocent families. And there is now ample evidence that both the police and military were involved in the infamous disappearance of 43 students in the town of Iguala, in 2014.
And the charges of torture against Palomino are far from an isolated incident. A report by Human Rights Watch found that “members of security forces systematically use torture to obtain forced confessions and information about criminal groups.”
“Torture is committed on a grand scale, and it will never disappear, because our institutions lack the resources and capacity to prosecute someone for what is done through torture,” said a high-ranking police commander, who agreed to speak to the Daily Beast only on condition of anonymity.
While stating he does not condone torture or abuse of detainees of any kind, the commander also suggested that the increasingly violent nature of Mexico’s drug war could push some officers to veer outside the law when seeking information from suspects.
“We have total disorder now, with the number of organized crime groups growing. They move freely on land, sea, and air, and control entire regions of the country. This is a real war now. So that no part of Mexico is safe.”
“All of Mexico’s security forces have used torture since their very inception and it has become normal for them,” said the DEA’s Vigil. “They look at it as an easy way to solve cases and don’t understand that it is a violation of human rights or that anyone will confess when tortured.”
One of the preferred methods of torture, Vigil said, is the chicharra, or cattle prod, which is often applied to the victims genitals. He added that waterboarding or even beating of prisoners—sometimes to death—are also commonplace.
“Basic [torture] techniques can include the use of bladed instruments, pliers, and clippers, but fire, water, and electrical-based approaches can also be readily applied,” Bunker said.
Such practices can result in fatalities to prisoners, in which case the bodies are often dumped across state lines, as Mexican law does not allow for interstate jurisdiction by police forces. The result is that “any investigation quickly goes away,” said Vigil, who was the DEA’s bureau chief in Mexico for more than a decade.
“The torture is not just physical. It can also be psychological,” the police commander said. “Sometimes families are threatened or detained. So that people admit to crimes they never committed. And we’re not just talking about the police. The army, the navy, the marines, the national guard [which replaced Palomino’s Federales]—all of them continue to practice torture.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—who is often known by the sobriquet AMLO—proclaimed Palomino’s arrest as a major victory for law and order.
“He was detained because impunity no longer exists,” said the president, whose time in office has been marked by a number of tactical errors related to the fight against organized crime, including ordering one of Chapo Guzmán’s sons to be released after soldiers had captured him.
“AMLO is providing Palomino as a sacrificial offering for international and domestic political gain,” said security analyst Bunker.
“It is laughable to even suggest that [Palomino’s arrest] will end impunity and corruption in Mexico,” he said. “The conviction rates in Mexico are abysmal… Mexico has low political capacity, weak institutions, skyrocketing homicides, and has lost control of regions of the country. The societal rot has now advanced so far that at this point Mexico’s future trajectory looks rather grim.”
Vigil agreed, saying that: “Corruption is tolerated and is endemic at every level of the government. There is no question many other high-ranking, active-duty officials are now on the payroll of the drug cartels.”
Despite AMLO’s claims to the contrary, Vigil believes that twin problems of graft and impunity are in fact growing worse “as the cartels become more powerful and violent” across the country.
“The drug trade is a multi-billion dollar business in Mexico,” Vigil said, “and that translates to a lot of hands being greased.”