CHRISTOPHER SHERMAN, E. EDUARDO CASTILLO, AP
TANQUIAN DE ESCOBEDO, Mexico (AP) — When Juan Carlos Soni Bulos heard his front door being smashed in one November morning, he frantically scrolled through his phone to call for help.
Outside the human rights activist's bedroom window, a Mexican marine in a black mask and helmet trained a rifle on him. "Drop the phone or I'll shoot," he said.
The marines blindfolded him, bound him and took him with four relatives and friends to a dimly lit, windowless warehouse. Then hours of torture began, Soni says — beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation, sexual abuse. He heard his teenage nephew scream as they applied electric shocks to the boy's ribs.
Soni's tormenter said, "This is going to make you not want to defend rights anymore."
In the face of strong international condemnation, Mexico says it is taking steps to stop the use of torture by its security forces. After the United States withheld $5 million on account of Mexico's human rights record, the U.S. State Department in September recommended to Congress that full funding be restored. The nearly $2.5 billion Merida Initiative pays to equip and train Mexican security forces and support justice system reforms.
However, there is still widespread impunity around the use of torture by security forces. From December 2006 through October 2014, the Attorney General's Office registered 4,055 complaints of torture, nearly one-third of them against the military. Yet over almost the same period, only 13 police and soldiers were sentenced for torture. Nobody has been charged in Soni's case.
Also, one in five reports on torture cases filed by Mexico's National Human Rights Commission between 1994 to 2014 were against marines, according to the nonprofit Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. But none of those sentenced over roughly the past decade were marines. The marines and the defense department did not respond to requests for an interview.
Soni had far more resources than most victims of torture. He had a politically active family and connections in the human rights world. In the late 1990s, he worked as an international human rights observer for the United Nations in Guatemala. When he returned to Mexico, he continued to work in the indigenous communities of the Huasteca region.
November 9, 2013, was not the first time marines visited his home in central Mexico's San Luis Potosi state, a lush landscape of sugarcane fields, rolling hills and waterfalls. Almost five months earlier, on June 22, 2013, Soni was driving home from teaching in the early afternoon when his sister called to tell him to stay away; marines and federal police were at the house.
That day they grabbed Luis Enrique Biu Gonzalez, Soni's gardener, who also lived at his home. They beat him and asphyxiated him with a plastic bag, Biu says. A marine pointed a pistol at his head, asked if he was gay and threatened sexual violence, all the time demanding to know where Soni was.
The marines took Soni's computers, which held records of human rights cases he documented. They returned in the middle of the night. With the house empty, they grabbed whatever they had not carried off in the first raid.
Soni does not know exactly why the marines targeted him. It could have been the human rights complaints he helped people file against them and other security forces in the area. Or somebody with influence might have perceived him as a political threat.