Seven years have passed since Mónica was savagely tortured by the Mexican authorities. By 17 May, she will have been deprived of liberty for seven years, awaiting sentence. An alliance of international organisations is defending her.
Mónica’s nightmare began when she went out to buy tiles with her husband and brother and they were stopped by the police in Torreón, a city in the North East of Mexico, and asked to accompany the officers to the police station. What they were told would be a simple and routine control procedure, turned into 14 hours of continuous torture. From the moment they arrived, different police officers began to violently attack them. Some of them forced Mónica to undress and repeatedly raped her, forcing her brother and husband to watch. Some hours after the torture began, Mónica’s husband died from his injuries. Mónica was also forced, under threat that her young children and her mother would otherwise be hurt, to sign a declaration incriminating herself for crimes she had not committed, and for which she was sent to prison, where she continues to be held to this day.
"A simple and routine control procedure, turned into 14 hours of continuous torture"
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. The very opposite is true, as this case reflects a situation which is widespread in Mexico. Structural discrimination against women, misogyny that is tolerated and permeates all sectors of society and a lack of recognition of, or lack of will to recognise, the specific means by which women are attacked and tortured, are just some of the elements that enable incidents such as this to be repeated every day. In fact, the Centro Prodh, Mónica’s legal representatives, have received information about more than 110 cases of women survivors of different forms of sexual torture at the hands of the State, and who have criminal proceedings open against them based on forced confessions.
This case is therefore emblematic of a situation that is massively silenced, like all situations that affect women in unique and disproportionate ways.
The OMCT has been following Mónica’s case for some time now. A year ago, we sent a private letter urging the judge in the case to take into account international standards related to torture. On 23 January, we once again expressed interest in the case, this time preparing an amicus curiae brief (an expert report from a third party interested in the proceedings) before a national court in Mexico, detailing State obligations in cases of sexual torture and the duty to refrain from using declarations based on torture as evidence.
I would like to highlight the fact that we are talking about sexual torture in this amicus, because it is important to clearly spell it out, and raise awareness of this form of gender-based violence that disproportionately affects women, and which OMCT addresses frequently in its reports to the UN Committee against Torture, such as the one on Mexico. It is also important to make plain how serious it is that this violence has been perpetrated by State agents and that it remains unpunished.
"Sexual torture continues to be one of the least prosecuted crimes both nationally and internationally."
Torture is not gender-neutral. That is to say, inflicting violence upon another person is not done randomly. The bodies, sexual organs and sexuality of men and women are abused in ways meant to cause the most damage and suffering possible. In the case of women, this form of torture has become commonplace, through the use of rape and other forms of sexual violence (forced nudity, unwanted touching and molestation, etc.) as a way of exerting power over women, to humiliate and dehumanise them, either alone or in front of their family or community. This is what happened to Mónica, when her body was used as a means to also cause pain to members of her family. Gender has also a considerable impact on the consequences of torture, and the availability of and access to remedies.
Sexual torture continues to be one of the least prosecuted crimes both nationally and internationally. It tends to be justified, trivialised or directly denied. Sir Nigel S. Rodley, former United Nations Special Rapporteur against Torture, has recognised that “when rape or sexual assault against a woman constitutes a method of torture, the possibility that the torturer acts with impunity is usually greater than in the case of other methods of torture”.
So what can we do about this?
The law is a useful tool to advance the rights of women, above all when it is used strategically to bring together efforts that enable us to reach beyond a single case and focus on the existence of a generalised situation of abuse.
The Centro Prodh’s litigation, supported by actions carried out by the OMCT and other organisations, is one example of this. These actions have included trying to get the case transferred from the courts in Torreón and to take Mónica’s story and the general issue to other legal forums in other countries. This is meant to raise awareness of and make visible what is happening and to show deep concern, but also to strengthen the litigation as much as possible.
Sexism exists throughout the world. As a result, women’s voices have been traditionally silenced. Justice systems (many of which are staffed with men and/or privileged women) often do not listen to the experiences of women, especially those most vulnerable because of their age, socio-economic status, ethnicity, etc. As a result, they do not understand these women and make decisions in cases based on misconceptions, prejudices and gender stereotypes. Even when women overcome all of the social and economic obstacles to reach the courts and have the opportunity to articulate their needs, gender stereotypes act as a barrier and judges cannot listen to their needs, or in many cases do not want to.
"Judges need to listen to the voices of women and to understand that crimes like torture are human rights violations"
This is where an important role can be played by human rights defenders: by guaranteeing that access to justice is not hampered in sexual torture cases like this, and by challenging legal stereotypes in each case of gender-based violence they work on. That is to say, to advocate so that judges are able to listen to the voices of women and to understand that crimes like torture are human rights violations.
I hope that the outcome of Mónica’s story will offer a successful example of the way in which a judge was able to look at the case from a gender perspective. There is a growing movement of organisations and individuals that refuse to continue tolerating the denial of women’s rights. If we want justice to be fair, it must be a gender-based justice and we will continue, step by step, to achieve small victories in different parts of the world, until one day we can say that we live in a fair world, where women are free from torture and other forms of violence.
*I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the organisations who supported the presentation of this amicus brief: Redress; Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights; TRIAL International; Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA); Women´s Link Worldwide; Alianza Iniciativa de Mujeres Colombiana por la Paz; APRODEH; CPTRT; CCJ; COMISEDH; COFADEH; COFAVIC; CODEHUPY; Corporación Humanas; FCSPP; MTM, Observatorio Ciudadano and Xumek, as well as all those organisations that work day by day so that sexual torture ceases to be a habitual practice perpetrated against women. #MónicaLibre
Teresa Fernández Paredes is OMCT’s human rights advisor for Latin America. This blog post was first published by lamarea.com
Update: Mónica Esparza was freed in March 2020 and all charges against her were dropped one year later.