Indigenous Mexicans tortured in migrant crackdown win public apology

Nina Lakhani
Photograph: José Luis González/Reuters

Four indigenous Mexicans who were illegally detained and abused by immigration agents during a US-backed crackdown have received a rare public apology by the Mexican government for the ordeal.

The group were on a bus of seasonal farmhands in central Mexico when apprehended in 2015 by immigration agents who targeted them because of their physical features, clothes and limited Spanish.

The agents accused the four of being undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, but they were indigenous Tzeltal Mayans from the poor state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, where 25% of the population speak an indigenous language.

Related: Mexico tortures migrants – and citizens – in effort to slow Central American surge

Shortly after the ordeal, the Guardian revealed that three of the four – siblings aged 15 to 24 – were taken to a detention centre in Querétaro in central Mexico and held for eight days. One of them, then aged 18, was beaten and given electric shocks until he agreed to sign a deportation document admitting they were Guatemalan, even though he cannot read or write.

The siblings narrowly avoided being expelled from their home country after the fourth – the older sister’s boyfriend – alerted a human rights organization.

On Thursday, Mexico’s current immigration (INM) chief admitted they were subjected to human rights violations as a result of racial profiling.

“On behalf of the National Migration Institute, I offer this public apology, for the transgression of their human rights, for the damage to their image, honor and dignity caused by the actions of the migration agents,” said Francisco Garduño Yáñez.

Six immigration officials, who have not been named, were suspended for two to four weeks for their role in the abuse, Garduño said.

The apology does not mention torture, even though the Human Rights Commission in Mexico City concluded that Alberto suffered post-traumatic psychological symptoms as a result of being tortured.

“I really thought I was going to die, so I signed lots of sheets of paper – but I can’t read or write so I didn’t know what I was signing,” Alberto told the Guardian through a translator in 2016.

At the time, the INM denied the incident ever happened.

As part of its package of reparation measures, the INM has also pledged to stamp out racial profiling by training agents in cultural sensitivity and human rights: “The institute is committed to ensuring that human rights violations like these do not happen again,” Garduño said.

The youngest victim, now 19, welcomed the news. “Good. That means my younger brothers and sisters will be able to travel to Sonora to work,” she told the Guardian through her lawyer.

The supreme court will soon rule on the constitutionality of the current migration law, which permits agents to employ racial profiling on Mexican citizens who may not know the law, speak Spanish – or who are simply afraid of authorities, said Gretchen Kuhner, the director of Institute for Women in Migration (Imumi), one of the organizations representing the victims.

Kuhner said: “The case demonstrates a larger pattern of abuse by INM agents who use racial profiling to harass indigenous and other Mexicans. In the current crackdown, Mexicans are even more vulnerable to these types of abuses by immigration agents and the new national guard.”

In recent months, thousands of troops have been deployed to help the INM detain migrants as part of a controversial deal in which President Andrés Manuel López Obrador agreed to stop more migrants reaching the US border to avoid punishing US trade tariffs.