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Three Dozen Tijuana Police Officers Accuse Chief And Army Of Torture

A Collaboration Between KPBS and TijuanaPress.com

Special Coverage By KPBS and TijuanaPress.com

Border Battle Continues

Audio

Our series "Border Battle" Continues today with a story about alleged torture. Three dozen Tijuana police officers accuse the city’s police chiefs, and soldiers in the Mexican Army of using torture to try to force them to confess their ties to organized crime.

Our series "Border Battle" continues with a story about alleged torture. Three dozen Tijuana police officers accuse the city’s police chiefs, and soldiers in the Mexican Army of using torture to try to force them to confess their ties to organized crime.

Tijuana's police Chief Julian Leyzaola is on a crusade to rid his force of corruption.

When he inherited the corporation two years ago, he says officers carried extra cell phones that drug cartels had given them. For drug bosses, freeing their people was just a phone call away.

Leyzaola says the drug cartels paid many officers so well to be their eyes and ears, that police salaries were more like tips. “We’ve arraigned about 140 or 150 police for their criminal activity.”

Leyzaola’s work has earned him high praise on both sides of the U.S. Mexico border. Roberto Quijano, who leads one of the most important business groups in Tijuana says, “Leyzaolas has done what many police officers hadn’t done in many, many years. He has the integrity, preparation and guts to fight for our community.”

While for some Leyzaola is a hero, for others, he’s a despot. “He’s inventing criminals. He grabs whoever and says he belongs to a cartel, to make people think he’s cleaning up the streets,” said Blanca Messina, whose father has been a Tijuana policeman for 22 years. She shows off recent photos of Tijuana’s Mayor Jorge Ramos and her father engaged in a firm handshake, the Mayor congratulating her father for his service to the city.

With a sense of incredulity, Messina said two months after the photo was taken, the Mayor’s Director of Public Security arrested her father for allegedly working for a drug cartel, “They used plastic bags so they’d incriminate themselves and their colleagues. They asphyxiated them multiple times. Some lost consciousness. And my dad had a heart attack.”

Blanca said it all began one afternoon last March. Leyzaola and his second in command, Gustavo Huerta, told her father and three other officers they were being taken to the military base for questioning. Blanca said her father and the other police asked to see a warrant. There wasn’t one. Huerta reportedly warned them not to make a scene and the officers were taken away. “They blindfolded them. They took them to a room. In that room, there was a federal prosecutor who asked questions.” Also in that room, according to Blanca, were more officers who had been arrested.

KPBS and Tijuanapress.com obtained legal depositions of the 25 officers that were detained that week. One after the other claims they were repeatedly beaten or had electric shocks applied to their genitals, among other punishment. A military doctor revived them when they passed out. Soldiers told the officers if they died, their bodies would be thrown on the side of a Tijuana highway, where drug cartels often dump people they execute. The soldiers said they’d make the officers’ deaths look like cartel hits. The officers were forced to sign statements they weren’t allowed to read. Sometimes they were blank pieces of paper, they said.

After 40 days, authorities put the group on a plane. They were flown to a prison in central Mexico where they remain.

Of the more than 140 officers Leyzaola has detained, at least 36 claim they were tortured. They and four civilians took their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington D.C..

Human rights cases against the Mexican Army are mounting. They come as President Felipe Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of troops to crackdown on drug cartels in two years ago. A recent report by Amnesty International calculates the number of complaints have nearly quadrupled in the last year-and-a-half compared to the previous two years.

Baja California’s former human rights prosecutor, Francisco Sanchez Corona, spoke at the Commission hearing. He said the Mexican government has the responsibility to fight corruption but cannot use torture to do so. “There’s a pattern of impunity in the face of this torture. Government officials discourage people from filing and pursuing complaints,” he said.

Leyzaola, who officers claim was present during the torture, said the claims are bogus. “One has to understand criminal organizations’ economic power and threats can corrupt any institution. So, it may be the criminal groups are using human rights organizations for their own benefit.” The Army Commander in charge of Tijuana, Alfonso Duarte, also rejects the accusations. “It’s a defense mechanism by fake human rights groups intended to discredit our work.”

The officers’ arrests have hit many families economically. Losing the police salary has meant some have had to sell homes and cars and take extra jobs to make ends meet.

Mauricio Alexander, the husband of a 32-year-old officer, who is in jail with Blanca’s father said, when his wife gets out, they may give up life in Tijuana altogether, “She has relatives in Chula Vista. We’re thinking or moving there so life will be a bit calmer. My wife is scared. She feels like the government isn’t defending her. She doesn’t want to know anything about what’s going on in Tijuana.”

Some of the imprisoned officers’ families say they’ve been pressured to shut-up about their human rights claims. Blanca said one night shortly after she returned from Washington D.C., two cars followed the wife of an officer and forced her to stop. “A man got out and told the woman we should back off. And they told her to tell me to just leave things be.”

But Blanca said she won’t stop until she’s cleared her father’s name, no matter what threats she faces.

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