MEXICO CITY — International human rights officials are demanding an investigation into the brutal sexual assaults of 11 Mexican women during protests a decade ago — an inquiry that would take aim at President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was the governor in charge at the time of the attacks.
The demand is part of a multiyear examination by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights into abuses during a 2006 crackdown ordered by Peña Nieto on San Salvador Atenco, a town in Mexico state where demonstrators had taken over the central square. During the operations, which left two dead, more than 40 women were violently detained by the police, packed onto buses and sent to jail several hours away.
The case was brought by 11 women to the international commission, which found that the police tortured them sexually. The women — a mix of merchants, students and activists — were raped, beaten, penetrated with metal objects, robbed and humiliated, made to sing to entertain the police. One was forced to perform oral sex on multiple officers. After the women were imprisoned, days passed before they were given proper medical examinations, the commission found.
"I have not overcome it, not even a little," said one of the women, Maria Patricia Romero Hernández, weeping. "It is something that haunts me and you don't survive. It stays with you."
For Peña Nieto, the human rights commission's call for an investigation is another blow to a presidency under siege. Corruption scandals and continued violence have already dragged his approval ratings to the lowest of any Mexican president in a quarter-century. His invitation of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate reviled in Mexico for his statements critical of Mexican immigrants, plunged his administration even further into controversy.
The assaults are also a reminder of countless other cases in the country that remain unresolved, including the haunting disappearance of 43 college students two years ago. International officials contend that the investigation into that case was actively undermined by Peña Nieto's government.
The president's office noted that the commission did not accuse Peña Nieto of wrongdoing or explicitly name him as a target of the investigation into the sexual assaults. Beyond that, his office said, legal cases in Mexico that have thoroughly investigated the attacks have never held him responsible.
"There is no one who can point to an order permitting the abuse of force," said Roberto Campa, the undersecretary for human rights in the Mexican Interior Ministry.
But the international commission found Mexico's efforts to investigate the abuse insufficient so far. Instead, it demanded a much more thorough inquiry to uncover responsibility across the entire chain of command, which would most likely make Peña Nieto part of the investigation because he ordered the crackdown.
It also called for disciplinary or criminal action against any authorities who contributed to the denial of justice for the women.
The commission delivered its findings last week to the Inter-American Court, an independent judiciary with legal authority over Mexico. If the court agrees with the commission, it can order Mexico to broaden its current inquiry into the case, a requirement that could force the state to investigate its own president.
The commission suggests that the state government under Peña Nieto had sought to minimize and even cover up the events. Perhaps the most lurid example is whom the government chose to prosecute: Rather than go after the police who committed the sexual torture, the state initially prosecuted the women instead. Five were imprisoned for a year or more, on charges like blocking traffic, detentions the commission found arbitrary.
Days after the episode, the state denied the accusations of the women, essentially calling them liars. Peña Nieto told a local newspaper at the time that it was a known tactic of radical groups to have women make accusations of sexual violence to discredit the government. Others in his administration made similar claims.
Since then, while the government has acknowledged the veracity of the accusations, not a single person has been convicted of any crime related to the assaults in Atenco. Most recently, five doctors charged with ignoring evidence of sexual abuse had their cases dismissed.
The case is an example of the lengths victims must go to in pursuit of justice in Mexico. The women endured more than 10 years of threats, intimidation and psychological trauma. They watched as men who assaulted them walked free.
But by refusing to drop the case, the women pushed it to an international level, making it a symbol of the broken rule of law in Mexico and the widespread impunity that ensures it never heals.
While it is unlikely that Peña Nieto's government will conduct an investigation into whether he knew of or covered up the assaults, the admonition of an international body is a deep embarrassment for him.
Having been presented to the court, despite several attempts by the Mexican government to delay and derail it, the case offers a rare opportunity for accountability in a country where only a tiny percentage of crimes are ever solved. The women refused to settle the case for years, with legal assistance from the human rights organization Centro Prodh, turning down promises of free homes and scholarships. In interviews with all 11 victims, a fundamental desire emerged: a public reckoning of what happened to them and who ordered it.
The residual trauma of the assaults has marked each woman differently. For some, family and friends offered a way to recover, if not entirely, and move on with their lives. A few found ways to connect their struggle to the broader push for justice and rights in Mexico. But others found no such comfort, with time's passage a useless salve.
"I could never tell my son and my father of the fact I was raped by not one but several policemen, because they would have gone mad," Romero said. "I didn't want to inflict even more pain on them. We had suffered enough."
The assaults, prosecution, imprisonment and stigmatization borne of sexual violence would come to define the next 10 years for the women of Atenco. In interviews, they described their lives as split in two: the women they were before the episode, and who they became after.
Those in school at the time quit college and never returned. All struggled with intimacy. Mothers watched their children abandon them, frustrated and fearful of the endless campaign for justice. Fathers turned their backs on daughters, embarrassed by the abuse and the public fight that followed. Partners, too, moved on, unable to adapt to the trauma of a survivor of sexual assault.
"I made the conscious decision to survive, to be alive and well today, to feel pretty again, to love me and see me in the mirror and recognize the person I saw," said Patricia Torres Linares, 33, who quit her studies for a political science degree after the assault. "It was that they stole from me, my way of being, of loving, of feeling. I was tender and sweet before, afterwards I became cold, and distant."
For some, a sense of shame, even responsibility, for what happened clouded their relationships with others and their own sense of identity. Survival became their metric of success, a tangible progression to mark the days.
"It hurts to know that the Claudia of before Atenco is gone," said Claudia Hernández Martínez, 33, who abandoned her studies at the prestigious National Autonomous University of Mexico after the assault. "Now, I am scared all the time. Scared of everything. Scared of going out on the streets, of expressing my own ideas, for people to know what happened in Atenco."
"At the end of these 10 years, I wonder: What have I done in all this time?" she continued.
She paused, staring at the floor.
"Well, I guessed I just survived," she said, wiping a stray tear. "And I think it's understandable. It was understandable that I cried, that I thought about killing myself, that I cried so much, and that I am now here."
The assaults coincided with the beginning of a challenging period in Mexican history: the start of the drug war.
Since 2006, more than 150,000 people have been killed and an additional 27,000 have vanished, disappeared without a trace. The violence comes at the hands of the cartels, who wield enormous influence in the country, and the government's deadly response to it.
The case of Atenco, however, bears few of the complexities that accompany violence between armed groups. And yet justice in even the most basic form has been elusive.
Nearly two dozen individuals charged with abuse of authority have been acquitted at trial or on appeal, including an officer charged with forcing one of the victims to perform oral sex on him.
"That has been the hardest, most enraging part of this entire process," said another of the women, Ana María Velasco Rodríguez, 43. "I was full of anger, thinking nothing happens, even when you find the guilty party, the very person who attacked you, they walk away free."
In recent years, with the Inter-American Commission looking into the case, the government has renewed its efforts to pursue those involved. But officials have pursued low-level officers, either failing or refusing to investigate those higher up the chain of command. The most senior individual charged to date is the police commander who oversaw the use of the buses — where the abuse occurred — to transport the women to prison, though a judge recently found insufficient evidence to order his arrest.
While the government argues that it has gone after those responsible, after years of stagnation, the commission found its efforts both late and inadequate. Thirty-four low-level officers were on trial as of August, wending their way through a slow and unpredictable court process that has failed to appease the victims.
This April, almost exactly 10 years after the events of Atenco, Peña Nieto paid the town a visit. The event was covered widely in the local news media, including the speech Peña Nieto gave before a crowd of women and children.
Neither the president nor the local reports made a single mention of the protests, the deaths or the rapes.
Instead, the visit and its coverage focused on Children's Day, and the president's new initiative to spread preschool to all of the nation's children.