US citizen's Mexican torture case holds police abuse up to scrutiny

Ronald Wooden, an American citizen, won a court order for a criminal investigation into a beating he says he received from police in Mexico's southern city of Taxco.

Marco Ugarte/AP
American craftsman Ronald Wooden pauses during an interview in Mexico City. Mr. Wooden told the Associated Press he was beaten for four hours in 2013 by police in the southern Mexico city of Taxco. His case recently prompted a judge to issue a court order calling for an investigation.

When he was beaten for four hours by municipal police in Mexico, an attack that he says began as dispute with a threatening neighbor, Ronald Wooden almost gave up hope.

“They beat me for close to four hours. Some would get tired and then others would come in. They were going to kill me and disappear me," Mr. Wooden told the Associated Press. He says he suffered lasting injuries from the 2013 beating by police in the southern city of Taxco, where he had moved with his Mexican-born wife to open a blacksmith workshop. 

Rights advocates from the United Nations to Amnesty International say that such torture is not unusual. Wooden, however, is an American citizen, and recently won a court order for a criminal investigation into the beating. Those circumstances could help provide a window into the many cases of police abuse that human rights experts say are too often left uninvestigated and unpunished. 

“This opens a new road, little explored and little used" to force authorities to investigate thousands of torture complaints in Mexico, Mario Santiago, a lawyer for the human rights group Idheas, which is representing Wooden, told the AP.

In 2013, when Mr. Wooden says he was beaten by police with fists and rifle butts, there were 1,165 complaints of torture received by the Federal Attorney General Office in Mexico, Amnesty International reports. Only 199 cases were under investigation.

In Wooden’s case, police arrested him for being drunk and disturbing the peace, allegations he denies.

Instead, he told the AP, the beating came because of a neighbor, a former police officer who claimed to belong to a local drug cartel, threatened Wooden with a machete and demanded protection payments.

The city’s police have earned a notorious reputation for brutality. Taxco’s former police chief, Eruviel Salado Chávez, was arrested last month on charges of organized crime and kidnapping. He has been accused of having close ties to Guerreros Unidos (Warriors United), the cartel Wooden says his neighbor claimed to belong to.

A year and a half after Wooden’s arrest, the federal government disarmed the whole force because of brutality complaints and replaced them with federal officers. 

Wooden’s case is now moving forward thanks to a federal judge’s order on June 30, which requires Mexico’s government to open a formal criminal investigation into the case.

A 2014 investigation by the governmental Human Rights Defense Commission in Guerrero state found that Taxco police illegally detained him, lied, and contradicted themselves about his injuries.

Finding that the American had been covered in bruises, scrapes, and cuts, it ordered municipal authorities to punish those responsible and pay reparations, the AP reports, but there was no further action until this year.

"Part of what has protected me is that I'm a foreigner, and I have no fear," Wooden said. "What happened to me has happened to other people ... Whole families have disappeared in those situations."

Signs of progress on addressing police torture have often been limited. In April, Mexico's Senate approved a bill to expand the definition of torture, and use GPS tracking to help prevent abuse by security officials. But it has limitations, including that an arresting officer is required to activate a GPS device themselves when a suspect is apprehended.

“For dirty cops bent on beating up their detainees, it appears that there are any number of ways to get around the new provisions, most obviously failing to report arrests until after inflicting whatever violations they want to on the arrestee,” notes InsightCrime, a nonprofit journalistic organization focused on organize crime.

A 2014 ruling by Mexico’s Supreme Court also attempted to limit the practice of arriago, a constitutional amendment allowing suspects in organized crime cases to be held for up to 80 days without being formally charged. Some rights groups insist that it needs to be abolished all together, however. 

In 2015, a UN report on torture recommended that Mexico get rid of arriago, investigate suspects before arresting them, hold officials accountable for investigating torture, and improve victims' medical examinations. 

With Wooden's investigation pending, Mr. Santiago, the human rights lawyer, is now focused on preventing future cases. 

“There is no investigation, these go unpunished. What happened to him happened to a lot of people," he told the AP. “What we are looking for is structural changes, so these abuses don't continue to happen.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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