Clandestine Detention Centers in Mexico

During Felipe Calderón’s War on Drugs systematic human rights violations have been documented. Now testimonies confirm the suspicions that clandestine detention centers are operating in Mexico. We don't know how many, but we can determine who is operating them—organized crime and the Mexican Army and Marines.

December 14, 2011


“There were a lot of people, around a thousand people, mostly men, mostly young. They tortured, raped, killed. They did whatever they wanted to whomever. Day after day. I served them for months. Then, a day like any other, they let me go with a warning: don't say anything or we'll kill you and your family.”

This statement comes from a survivor of a clandestine detention center run by the Mexican Army in a certain border state. For obvious reasons, the person's identity will remain anonymous.

Another testimony: “It was like a sports center, a gymnasium. We were all blindfolded, but when they beat me, the blindfold moved and I could see. We were stripped on arrival. They hung me up by my hands to beat me with a wooden plank. I thought they were going to kill me. There were many of us. I could only hear the screams and cries of the others. They told me: ‘One already died on us. Do you want to be the next? Cooperate. Say the Marines rescued you,’ the captors demanded. ‘Say you’re a Zeta, that you sell drugs, that you're with organized crime,’ ” recalls Daniel Rodríguez Morales who was detained in a door-to-door operation by the Marines in the San Pedro 400 neighborhood in San Pedro Garza García, Nuevo León, and is now jailed in the Apodaca prison.

One more: “They kidnapped us between Ciudad Victoria and Matamoros. They came at us from a rural intersection. They said they were Zetas. That we were going to work for them. They took us to an encampment in the bush where they were holding other people—all men. To entertain themselves, they would kill people, one by one. They had us there for months, until I escaped,” says a migrant from San Luis Potosí who was searching for a brother in the morgues along the border.

And finally: “They came into the houses in the middle of the night. They took them to the Motel California in Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas. That's where they had set up a barracks for the Marines. The ones they let go say they were torturing in that place and they saw how people would die,” assures a relative of a missing person from Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo León.

These testimonies and others confirm the suspicions that clandestine detention centers are operating in Mexico. We don't know how many, but we can determine who is operating them—organized crime and the Mexican Army and  Marines.

Throughout history, concentration camps have been used in different countries to lock up political dissidents, ethnic groups, religious minorities and people of a particular sexual orientation. It's important to point out that unlike camps for prisoners of war, concentration camps are used to lock up non-combatants, without trial or individual guarantees.

During Felipe Calderón’s War on Drugs systematic human rights violations have been documented. The army has racked up more than 5,000 abuse reports and the Marines continue to blaze a path of abuses and military impunity. In both instances, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and non-governmental organizations have documented cases of torture, summary executions, and forced disappearance.

Where do the people detained without a warrant by the Army and the Marines end up? Apparently, in a clandestine detention camp. They install them wherever; in a sports center like in San Nicolás de los Garza, Nuevo León; in a rodeo ring like in Hidalgo, Coahuila; or in a transitory motel like in Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas.

Since Calderón decided to order the Army into the streets, the national territory has become covered in improvised barracks. They're set up for several months anywhere in the country. They're moved around from motels to ranches or fairgrounds, leaving a trail of cases of forced disappearances.

The unlawful confinement of citizens occurs amid the complicit silence of many: members of Congress, senators, judges, police investigators, journalists, and officials from different levels of government. The majority of them prefer to look the other way. But the cases abound. Some estimates put the number of missing persons at more than 30,000. There are no statistics, much less official numbers. Faced with state indolence and governmental inaction, the cases of disappeared persons accumulate among the civil society organizations dedicated to the defense of human rights.

These secret facilities used by organized crime and the armed forces shared the modis operandi of the systematic disappearance of persons. They existed in Argentina during the military dictatorship. From 1976 to 1983 there were around 15 clandestine detention centers, divided into two categories: the Detainee Gathering Facilities, with the capacity for holding, torturing, and executing a large number of people, and the Transitional Facilities which had a provisional organization structure to hold the disappeared-detainees while they were transferred to other clandestine centers.

The plan in Felipe Calderón's drug war includes forced disappearances, torture, and summary executions of civilians. If the generals and admirals focus on violating constitutional rights under the pretext of the fight against organized crime, they become common criminals with official authorization. Where there are clandestine detention centers, there are also paramilitaries and where there are paramilitaries, there are death squads. And in the Mexico of today, we are dealing with this triad of death.

The conclusions of the September 26–30 visit from an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights investigator: The government of Felipe Calderón is not applying the necessary measures to search for and investigate the thousands of cases of disappeared persons. “Forced disappearances are what most concern this investigation because it is the most atrocious of crimes as it affects the victims and puts the victim's family through the worst type of anguish,” said special investigator Rodrigo Escobar Gil.

To end up in “narco-kitchens,” the vulgar term for the extermination camps in Mexico where bodies are cooked and dissolved in acid or incinerated, the disappeared first have to have passed through Clandestine Detention Centers. How many are out there? Where are they located?

Before his passing in 2011 Holocaust survivor Jorge Semprún summed up his terrible experience in Germany’s Buchenwald concentration camp: “Do you know what the most prominent thing is for someone who has come through a camp? Do you know exactly what it is? Do you know what is so important and terrible that it is the only thing that cannot be explained? The smell of burning flesh. What can you do with the memory of the smell of burning flesh? It's inside of my head, vivid, the most overwhelming smell of a concentration camp. I can't describe it. It's a smell that will go with me as it has already gone with others.”



Sanjuana Martínez is a Mexican freelance journalist based in Monterrey, Mexico. Her work can be found at This article was originally published in Spanish in the Mexican journal, October 3, 2011. Translated for NACLA by Shannon Young. More of Young’s work can be found at See also, "Nowhere to Turn: Sex Trafficking in Nuevo León, Mexico," by Sanjuana Martínez, August 25, 2011.

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