Mexican police and soldiers regularly burst into homes, plant evidence and take people's possessions, the official National Human Rights Commission complained Friday, and it said the violations have increased as Mexico's war against drug cartels has grown more intense.
The problem drew renewed attention this week when police searching for an alleged drug-gang boss stormed into the home of a gentle, gray-bearded poet, breaking windows and doors and emptying closets and drawers.
In a rare general recommendation to all Mexican security, military and police agencies issued Friday, the governmental commission says security forces sometimes plant evidence to justify an illegal entry, or cite vague justifications such as receiving an anonymous tip or spotting a person who looked "unusually nervous."
"Illegal searches have become a common practice in many parts of the country, and they reveal a systematic pattern: they (authorities) burst into a home looking for illicit objects, they threaten, injure and detain the occupants, they take valuables or money, they alter evidence," the commission said.
A pre-dawn raid Thursday on the Mexico City home of poet Efrain Bartolome drew widespread media attention. He said police ransacked his house and took a watch, a memory stick and cell phones. Police said they were searching for the suspected leader of a brutal drug gang called "The Hand with Eyes" who allegedly confessed to more than 600 murders. He was captured in a nearby neighborhood.
That raid drew a rare, immediate apology from city officials, who said that cell phone signals had indicated the suspect was in the area of Bartolome's home.
But that kind of quick apology is not the rule, the commission noted.
"Authorities use force against the victims, to make them confess to possessing illegal articles ... and threaten them if they complain about what happened," according to the report.
Despite such pressure tactics, the rights agency said the number of complaints about such searches rose from 234 in 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against drug cartels, to 393 in 2007 and 964 in 2008.
The number of complaints dipped slightly in 2009 to 947 and 826 in 2010, but rose again to an even greater rate of 422 in the first five months of 2011, a pace that would yield more than 1,000 such complaints this year.
In some cases, the commission said, authorities pressure or force people to "voluntarily" agree to searches of their homes.
The commission noted that legal reforms enacted in 2008 made it easier for police to obtain proper search warrants, by asking judges for them in e-mails or other electronic means, and said such warrants should be printed out and shown to homeowners.
The commission also questioned the army's use of British-made GT200 bomb detectors, saying there were of questionable reliability and legality if used without search warrants.
"Going into homes based on the results of GT200, or the seizure of goods or detention of people based on that, should be considered illegal," it said.
The commission issued a nonbinding recommendation that security agencies should establish clear, constitutional rules about searches, obey them and inform the public about their rights during searches.
Speaking of the raid at his house, Bartolome said, "I hope that this error on the part of authorities will serve to help come up with a decent set of procedures for entering peoples' homes."