Thank you very much, Mr. Chair, and good afternoon, committee members. It's a pleasure to be here with you once again.
You will hear very little from me, because it's obviously most important that you hear from our two guests, who have come from afar. I'll just say a few words of introduction, and at the end I'll sum up with just a handful of key recommendations.
I want to introduce our two guests by sharing with you briefly a powerful personal moment I had during a human rights mission to Mexico last September. As part of Amnesty's ongoing Stop Torture campaign, I was there with a delegation that was doing some prison visits. I found myself in a maximum security prison in the state of Nayarit. I was there to visit not a kingpin in a Mexican drug cartel but a prisoner of conscience and a survivor of torture, Ángel Colón. At that time he had been imprisoned for nearly six years, unjustly. He had been severely tortured. He had experienced massive racism and discrimination.
Yet even with all of that, during that prison visit he touched me deeply with his sense of grace and his abiding confidence that justice would prevail. I was thrilled when five weeks later we received the news of his freedom. I couldn't be more thrilled that we now have an opportunity to have him with us here in Canada. He has been speaking to audiences in Toronto and Halifax, where we had our annual general meeting this year. It's so wonderful that he has now an opportunity to be here with you.
With him is Luis Tapia, a remarkable, very dedicated human rights lawyer in Mexico City with the tremendous human rights organization Centro Prodh—the “dh” standing for “human rights”—who has worked tirelessly on Ángel's case. Even though Ángel is free, as you'll hear from both of them, that does not mean the case is over. He still is struggling for justice for what he's been through. Both of them remain committed to curtailing torture more widely in the county.
I'd like to turn things over to Ángel, and then Luis.
My name is Ángel Amílcar Colón Quevedo. I am former president of an organization in Honduras representing the Garifuna people, who in 2001 were declared by UNESCO as a heritage group.
Honduras is going through an economic crisis. Because of the violence, the seizure of lands in communities, and another whole series of events, there has been migration from Honduras northwards to the U.S. and also to Europe, mainly Spain and Italy. Those are the reasons why I had to migrate from Honduras at that time. Because of the cancer that had struck my son, and that eventually killed him, I left Honduras on January 7, 2009, headed for the United States in order to earn money and try to find some way to be able to get my son out of the country so they could operate on him.
On March 9, 2009, the police detained me in Tijuana in a building where I presented myself as a former president of an Honduran association. The state police at that time, when they held me, connected me with this black organization, a criminal group in Mexico, and identified me also with a group of narco-traffickers. I was asked on a number of occasions whether I was a leader. I said, yes, I am the ex-president of OFRANEH, and I'm headed for New York.
First, a number of individuals kicked me, and then they punched me. I was further struck as I walked up a small hill. They kicked me in the shins and the knees. They took me to the police station and held me in preventive detention. I was held 20 minutes, and I was taken out of the building towards the city. Then I was brought back, and once again they beat me up. They gave me to the federal detention centre, where I was held in a room, an office. Then I had to go to the bathroom, which was covered with blood. I was sat down, and they continued to beat me.
I had cuffs on my hands and feet, I was lying on the ground, and they put a bag over my head to try to asphyxiate me. They questioned me. They wanted me to give them information on who I was delivering drugs to in the city. They wanted to know the names of people who worked for me, who bought the drugs from me, and how I got the drugs into Mexico. They wanted to know how I worked all of this and how I managed to get through Central America. They wanted me to tell them about all the various locations we had laboratories—in Colombia, for example—and they wanted information on the number of people involved.
I said, “How can I tell you about things I don't know?” But they continued to hit me. I said, “Tell me what you want me to say and I'll cooperate, but I really don't know anything of what you're asking me.” For a little while they left me alone. Then in a parking lot, shirtless, I was thrown onto the pavement. They dragged me and took me to an office of the attorney general of Mexico, where I was held for four hours. I asked the public prosecutor whether I could make a call to the embassy of Honduras, and I was told I had no rights, no right to a call.
He denied me the call, and I was transferred to the second military zone. That was roughly between four and five in the afternoon. From 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. next, they had me in a little room where people came and went. My wrists and my ankles were tied together. They had me lying down on the ground, and once again they put a bag over my head. There was somebody sitting on my knees. Sometimes there was somebody standing on my back and somebody else jumping on my stomach in order to try to get the air out of my lungs. So they jumped and they put the bag on my head while they jumped on me. Since I wasn't telling them what they really wanted to know and find out, they then put a towel over my face and they threw a lot of water over my face. When I tried to breathe, of course, I was choking on the water that they were throwing over me.
There were more than 60 people detained at that time who were also being tortured. I witnessed how they were also tortured by electric prods. There was a lot of yelling and shouting and crying, and many people defecated in their pants. It was total pestilence in there. It stank. Prior to that, I was also put into a room where there were a number of other detainees also cuffed at the wrists and ankles, and a great number of military personnel. My torture continued because they were accusing certain people of being homosexuals and wanted to see sexual acts. They made me take off my shirt and I had to clean the shoes of other detainees whose shoes were covered in blood. They were playing what we call “the blind rooster” with me. They were asking me to do military positions, which I was unaware of. Everybody laughed at me, and even other detainees were also laughing at the spectacle.
They treated me wrong. The passport didn't have a visa in it, but I had my bank book with me as well. I had $5,000 cash in my pocket and they stole all of that from me. From all of my belongings, nothing was declared by those who detained me and jailed me.
Then they took me out of the second military zone and they took me to a private residence belonging to los AFI, and they said that here they were going to be holding me, but there was a confrontation in the parking lot between the attorney general's investigating agents and the police, and then I was transferred to the 48th battalion where I was held for 40 days. They said that they were going to bring me to Mexico City and I would be held for another 40 days at the detention centre in Mexico. Then afterwards they brought me to the maximum security prison, Nayarit, and I was detained there. The bad treatment continued in the jail and I denounced this treatment.
My family heard from me only after I had been detained for 18 months and had requested information from the State of Honduras. I found out that my son, in the meantime, had died, my mother had died, my oldest nephew had also died, an aunt of mine had died in the meantime. During all of my detention, I was not allowed to make phone calls. The letters I wrote were not allowed to leave. In fact, they were seized.
Organizations learned about me because I wrote, through other people, to London and to Amnesty International, because I had some friends who were detainees, and their wives got the information from the Internet on Amnesty International. I wrote a letter and somebody brought it to London, and Amnesty International contacted me through their offices in Mexico and other allied organizations.
Of course, this is how I also came into contact with the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center in Mexico. I said that I had no money to pay for lawyers, because lawyers were charging up to $100,000 for defence and, of course, I didn't have that kind of money.
After all of these events I tried to set up a defence process, but I knew that my own public defender, who had been present in torture sessions at 2 o'clock in the morning in the centre, appeared at 8 o'clock in the morning as my defender, so I couldn't trust my lawyers. I went through five public defenders, because instead of defending me, they were doing what the public prosecutor's office was asking them to do. I denounced the various tortures I had undergone and the public prosecution didn't really want to set up a process for me.
After some four years since I had denounced their torture, and thanks to the report that we made to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez undertook to visit me and set up a report on me. Only then did the Mexican state initiate an investigation of my torture.
Today justice has taken place with my liberation, but it doesn't end there. My court case against the Mexican state is on hold because they never wanted to apply the Istanbul Protocol. They were accusing me and saying, according to the information taken by the police agents, that those people aware of the facts were no longer part and parcel of the process. They had checked my hands for gunpowder residue. They were sure that I had fired a weapon. They said that I was using weapons. They said there were also drugs in my possession, and they wanted me to show the drugs, and they said that my fingerprints were on these bags. They took my fingerprints and they found that they were not actually present on the bags. My fingerprints were different.
An expert came and took dictation in a book and compared my handwriting with the letters supposedly written in a number of transaction books for drugs and once again they noted that my handwriting was not the same as that found in their log books. Therefore, none of the accusations showed that there was a link between me and all of these other events they claimed I was involved in.
The police were actually shooting the night I was held, and they never really assessed to see whether any bullets were fired outside the building from within, or whether the shots were fired into the building from outside.
I ask Canada and the Canadian people to support me in my attempt to reveal the truth and to obtain justice, because the humanitarian crisis in Mexico today is enormous.
The investigation on my case is being held up because the Mexican army doesn't want to provide information on who was in charge that evening.
On damage reparations, I will leave the details to my lawyer. He can speak to this.
Thank you very much.
First of all, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak here on Ángel's case and on the human rights situation in Mexico, knowing that your committee is studying and reviewing what is happening in Mexico.
Today there's a severe human rights crisis in the country. Serious violations of human rights are taking place, and they have increased dramatically. The case of Ángel Amílcar Colón is not a coincidence. There are explanations in that policies have militarized safety under the heading of the so-called fight against drugs. Certain behaviours have become generalized, as was reported by the UN special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, after his recent visit to Mexico. As well, there are forced disappearances of individuals in many areas throughout the country, as the United Nations committee on forced disappearances indicated in January of this year.
As to torture, I would like to share with you our dramatic figures with regard to denunciations of torture. In just three years, the national ombudsman reported, he received 7,000 complaints of torture. These include the torture of innocent individuals, such as in the case of Ángel Amílcar. In other words, in the face of a lack of serious investigation, the use of torture has become, in Mexico, a method of investigation in order to carry forward procedures based on a simple declaration obtained under torture.
This serious crime affects vulnerable groups, as happens with migrant groups crossing Mexico, but it also affects women through the terrible practice of sexual torture, as in the case of Claudia Medina, a lady from Veracruz who was tortured by the Mexican navy in Veracruz. It is documented that military forces, in the navy and pretty much all of the police forces throughout the country, are involved in sexual torture when they're holding a woman. This happens in pretty much all of the cases.
As to the forced disappearance of individuals, according to official information from the secretariat of internal affairs in Mexico, contained in the national data register for people who are lost or disappeared, as of January more than 25,000 individuals have disappeared in Mexico. During the current administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, some 10,000 individuals have disappeared. In other words, in just two years and a couple of months, this large number of individuals has been lost in Mexico. Organizations in civil society in Mexico have compared their list of denunciations with the official list of the government: they matched in only 10% of the cases registered.
During this serious crisis, we saw also the disappearance of the students of Ayotzinapa. This is a pragmatic example I'm giving you, and it's not isolated. There is collusion between Mexican authorities and organized crime. Students between the ages of 18 and 22 years, who were getting ready to become teachers, were disappeared by the state.
Now, some eight months after the event, with the help of two international independent experts, such as the Argentine forensic anthropology team and the group of specialists designated in order to review this case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, we see that there have been serious inaccuracies in the investigation. The Mexican authorities to date haven't yet clarified what happened on the 26th and 27th of September, 2014. That's why the intervention of these independent groups, in this case, is of fundamental importance as well as the support received from the international community, and in this specific case from the Canadian government.
With regard to extrajudicial executions and massacres, they have grown exponentially in number, linked to the war against drugs. In many cases, there has been intervention by the authorities as though what was occurring was an internal conflict.
On June 20 last year in Tlatlaya State 22 people were killed. In an initial statement the government of the state said that it had been a conflict between groups and that the military personnel had acted in self-defence. However, the national ombudsman made a recommendation concluding that between 12 to 15 people were executed out of court by the Secretary of National Defence.
There is evidence of other possible summary executions in Apatzingán, where 16 people were killed on January 6, 2015, and there's also the case in Tanhuato in Michoacán, where 42 people were killed. It's important to note that investigations must be held in Mexico that are independent, because the legitimacy of state authorities has been lost because we have seen that there have been these summary executions.
With regard to criminal violence the state has responded with more criminal violence, detaining people, torturing innocent people as well, and executing people. There is a lack of funds and they execute civilians in this internal war. According to the overall index of impunity in 2015 from the Impunity and Justice Research Center, Mexico is next to last on the list of the 59 member states of the United Nations that have information and sufficient statistics to calculate the levels of impunity within the country. What this means is that there is only one country that is higher on the list of countries of impunity than Mexico.
According to a report that was issued last month by the International Institute of Strategic Studies with its headquarters in London, IISS, Mexico is the third ranked country in terms of armed conflict. It's only behind Iraq and Syria.
Finally, I would like to say that the Canadian government has close ties with Mexico and that is why we are here today to talk to you about Ángel Amílcar's case. We request that in his case the Mexican government be requested to investigate what happened on March 9, 2009, when Ángel was tortured and we want to know who was responsible for that torture.
We would also like for measures of non-recurrence to be applied not only in his case but also to prevent such cases from ever occurring again. For us there is a great concern because we know the Canadian government is also very concerned about human rights. We would like to have a response. We would like to see recognition of the severe human rights crisis that is present in Mexico. This is a first step toward changing the situation.
There is no other way of dealing with the situation. It is very necessary for Canada to see its relationship of cooperation with Mexico in a way that is conditioned by concrete steps by Mexico to respect the human rights of Mexicans or in Mexico.
Thank you very much.
It's an honour to be subbing on your committee today, but it's a shocking story that we're hearing. It's shocking and moving to hear what Mr. Quevedo has gone through.
I have friends and family in Mexico, and I have visited there many times. What I hear on the surface is that in the judicial system there might be a police officer taking a little bribe for a speeding ticket and that, but never have I ever heard anything of this calibre.
You talk about 25,000 people missing, the executions, mass graves. This is almost like Argentina, from years past, where something like this was happening. It's what usually happens with dictators and the military being in charge. You can compare it to Syria and places like that.
What's going on? You have a democratic society in Mexico. You have people elected. You have a president. I mean, the whole system is there. Does it all boil down to the fact that they have passed over the judicial system to the military?
My other question would be on Guatemala. Do they have no capacity to worry about their citizens in another country who are being treated like this? Is there anything that can be done?
My last question is, as Canadians, what should the final message be to these two countries? It's both countries, and there are probably more than those two countries that are being affected throughout Latin America because of this.
Maybe I could just briefly highlight some key recommendations that we feel the Canadian government should be taking up.
The first, as you've heard repeatedly, is that we think it's crucial that there be more explicit and public recognition by the government that Mexico does face a human rights crisis.
The second, picking up on Luis' point, is the need to review our own laws and programs to make sure we're doing everything we can to promote human rights protection and not either overlook or even contribute to human rights abuses. There, I would flag our ongoing concern about the fact that Mexico is a designated safe country of origin in our refugee system, and I would also highlight the importance of making sure there's ongoing review of bilateral cooperation, especially in the security sector, to make sure that human rights protection is a priority and that it's working.
Third, it's very important that Canada, in Mexico City and in Ottawa, regularly be taking up and highlighting individual cases like Ángel Colón's. It's our hope, given that Ángel now has a close connection to Canadians, that his is one case that we'll be able to count on the government to push in order for this next step to go forward: justice.
The last, beyond the individual cases, is also the need for Canada to formulate, in cooperation with groups like the Centro Prodh, a human rights agenda that we're prepared to champion in our dealings with Mexico that pushes for the kinds of legal and institutional reforms that will hopefully get to the point where cases like Ángel's. aren't happening anymore.