Videos showing city police practicing torture techniques on a fellow officer, dragging another through vomit and jumping on a suspect created an uproar Tuesday in Mexico, which has struggled to eliminate torture by lawmen.
Two of the videos — broadcast by national television networks and displayed on newspaper Internet sites — showed what Leon city Police Chief Carlos Tornero described as training for an elite unit that must face "real life, high-stress situations."
But many Mexicans saw a sinister side, especially at a moment when other police and soldiers across the country are struggling with scandals over alleged abuses.
"They are teaching police ... to torture!" read the headline in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma.
Investigation by human rights commission
The Guanajuato state human rights commission said it had opened an investigation.
One of the videos, first obtained by the newspaper El Heraldo de Leon, shows police appearing to squirt water up a man's nose — a technique once notorious among Mexican police. Then they dunk his head in a hole said to be full of excrement and rats. The man gasps for air and moans repeatedly.
In another video, an unidentified English-speaking trainer has an exhausted agent roll into his own vomit. Other officers then drag him through the mess.
"These are no more than training exercises for certain situations, but I want to stress that we are not showing people how to use these methods," Tornero said.
He said the English-speaking man was part of a private U.S. security company helping train the agents, but he refused to give details.
A third video transmitted by the Televisa network showed officers jumping on the ribs of a suspect curled into a fetal position in the bed of a pickup truck. Tornero said that incident, which occurred several months earlier, was under investigation and that the officers involved had disappeared.
Police face brutal battle with drug gangs
Mexican police often find themselves in the midst of brutal battles between drug gangs: Officials say that 450 police, soldiers and prosecutors have lost their lives in the fight against organized crime since December 2006.
That may have eroded some of Mexico's gains in fighting decades of police brutality through the creation of federal and state human rights agencies and repeated shakeups of police departments.
The uproar in Leon comes at the same time Mexico City police are struggling with a scandal over a botched raid on a disco. Investigators say police forced panicked youths toward an exit that was blocked by other officers. Twelve people were trampled to death, including three officers.
Federal human rights groups are probing several cases of alleged illegal shootings and searches by soldiers.
George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, said practices on the Leon video look like "techniques learned or being taught to extract information from those apprehended by the police" rather than the practices of drug gangs.
He said it shows Mexico still has a long way to go in cleaning up its police.
"The police are just egregiously corrupt, and the corruption tends to be greater the further down the line you get," he said. "In municipalities, there are few constraints."