Latin America Investigates

Mexico: Land of Impunity

Investigating an apparent culture of impunity that allows some in Mexican law enforcement to detain and kill at will.

Over the past decade Mexico has been beset by violence, as the state has battled drug cartels and criminal gangs for control of the streets.

But critics say this endemic conflict has created a culture of impunity in law enforcement, with even ordinary citizens now routinely subjected to human rights abuses. So what lies behind Mexico’s troubled relationship with justice?

In Mexico: Land of Impunity journalist and author Diego Osorno teamed up with filmmaker Luciano Gorriti to explore the role of the state in a country where authorities and criminals often appear to play by the same rules.


By Luciano Gorriti

Mexico is not only the colourful country of tacos and mariachi bands, it is also one of the most dangerous places in the world. No one is immune: journalist, student, teacher, criminal or police officer … there is a disturbingly high chance of being tortured, disappearing or being killed.

For the past decade, most of the news that came from Mexico concerned a bloody war on drug-trafficking cartels – launched in December 2006, when the then newly-elected President Felipe Calderon sent 6,500 Mexican Army soldiers to the state of Michoacan to end drug violence there. It subsequently spiralled into one of the most violent confrontations ever between a state and organised crime and has cost well over 120,000 lives.

But in the past few years, new investigations have shown that brutal violence is not only limited to – or directed against – gang members. Elements of the security forces have been accused of using the same tactics to fight any opponent, whether they are dangerous criminals or just teachers’ union members struggling for labour rights. Some authorities, in other words, have developed a flexible attitude to human rights.

Diego Osorno is an acclaimed Mexican writer and journalist who has been investigating this phenomenon for several years. He has shown how crimes against humanity have been dramatically increasing. But doing this work in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for reporters has not been easy and often dangerous. Indeed it remains so today. During the few weeks our crew was filming with Diego in Mexico, we were threatened twice by locals who thought that our presence could be dangerous to them.

Though disturbing for us, this is a regular occurrence for someone researching allegations that the police and armed forces have committed torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings against their own countrymen and women. Diego knows full well that some of the people he investigates would like to silence him, too.

Some of his sources are in an even more precarious and complicated situation, however. During his investigation, Diego managed to gather testimonies from former policemen who had tortured and killed in the name of Mexican state, acting with impunity and knowing, or so they told us, that their backs would always be covered by the authorities.

It was difficult to convince them to give a public interview, but it was even harder to carry it out. For example, “El Diablo”, a former policeman who has been giving important off-the-record information to Diego, postponed his appointment with our camera several times and then, when we had finally made arrangements, he could not make it to the meeting because he was being followed.

He knows in detail what would happen to him if he got caught giving this kind of information to the media. We knew it too, so we had to wait patiently for another opportunity to occur and, of course, we had to agree to keep his identity concealed.

Despite so much brutality, the victims and their relatives still struggle for justice. The proof unearthed by journalistic investigation is impressive, but journalists like Diego are confident of only one thing: that the security forces will continue to enjoy impunity.