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Jailed Tijuana Police Back On Street, Not On Beat

(A collaboration between KPBS and Tijuanapress.com)

Audio

Aired 8/30/10

The case of 13 Tijuana police who were jailed for a year-and-a-half calls into question the Tijuana police chief's unprecedented crusade to fight police corruption.

Tears roll down Miguel Mesina's cheeks as he tells the story of his arrest and alleged torture. Mesina is one of 13 officers detained for suspected ties to organized crime, who were freed a year-and-a-half later for lack of evidence. Mesina insists he's an honest cop and that drug traffickers threatened to kill him twice for refusing to work for the cartel.
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Above: Tears roll down Miguel Mesina's cheeks as he tells the story of his arrest and alleged torture. Mesina is one of 13 officers detained for suspected ties to organized crime, who were freed a year-and-a-half later for lack of evidence. Mesina insists he's an honest cop and that drug traffickers threatened to kill him twice for refusing to work for the cartel.

Five Tijuana police officers went to city hall to ask for their jobs back. But, Tijuana's Mayor has banned from the force all officers arrested for alleged ties to organized crime, even if prosecutors fail to find evidence against them.
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Above: Five Tijuana police officers went to city hall to ask for their jobs back. But, Tijuana's Mayor has banned from the force all officers arrested for alleged ties to organized crime, even if prosecutors fail to find evidence against them.

Tijuana's Mayor, Jorge Ramos, says officers arrested for alleged ties to organized crime will never work as police again, even if they're exonerated, because he says the police should be free of suspicion. Ramos backs his Chief of Police, who more than three dozen officers accuse of torture.
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Above: Tijuana's Mayor, Jorge Ramos, says officers arrested for alleged ties to organized crime will never work as police again, even if they're exonerated, because he says the police should be free of suspicion. Ramos backs his Chief of Police, who more than three dozen officers accuse of torture.

Mesina says his knee is still swollen 16 months after he was beaten at Tijuana's military base during an interrogation that lasted for days. He says he had an existing knee problem that soldiers aggravated by beating his legs, sitting on them and pushing him out of the back of a military vehicle.
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Above: Mesina says his knee is still swollen 16 months after he was beaten at Tijuana's military base during an interrogation that lasted for days. He says he had an existing knee problem that soldiers aggravated by beating his legs, sitting on them and pushing him out of the back of a military vehicle.

Tijuana police chief Julian Leyzaola refuses to comment on the liberation of 13 police officers he arrested a year-and-a-half ago for supposedly working for drug cartels. Leyzaola has repeatedly denied all torture charges. For the last two years, he's lead an historic crusade to root out police corruption.
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Above: Tijuana police chief Julian Leyzaola refuses to comment on the liberation of 13 police officers he arrested a year-and-a-half ago for supposedly working for drug cartels. Leyzaola has repeatedly denied all torture charges. For the last two years, he's lead an historic crusade to root out police corruption.

Blanca Mesina, Miguel's daughter, has risked her life to help take the Tijuana police offcer's torture claims to the Interamerican Commission on Human RIghts. Mesina fled Tijuana after a series of death threats which culminated, she says, when a man put a gun to her head and told her to drop the case.
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Above: Blanca Mesina, Miguel's daughter, has risked her life to help take the Tijuana police offcer's torture claims to the Interamerican Commission on Human RIghts. Mesina fled Tijuana after a series of death threats which culminated, she says, when a man put a gun to her head and told her to drop the case.

Thirteen Tijuana police who were jailed for a year-and-a-half for allegedly working for drug cartels have been freed. There wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute them. The case has called into question what had been seen as an unprecedented crusade in Tijuana to fight police corruption.

Miguel Mesina had been home from jail for less than 24 hours. He’s a big man. Though, he says he lost more than 40 pounds behind bars.There, he shared a cell with four other police officers.

Mesina smiles because he’s free. But his tears are not far away.

“The mistreatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo, we suffered practically the same. Humiliation, beatings…they put a gun to my chest and said, ‘You’re done. We are going to kill you and dump your body in the street to make it seem like a drug cartel hit.’ All I could think of was my family,” says Mesina as he wiped his eyes.

Mesina had been a Tijuana policeman for more than three decades. He was arrested in March of 2009 along with 24 other officers.

At the time, Tijuana’s police chief, Julian Leyzaola, was in the midst of an aggressive campaign to root out corruption on his force.

The chief and Tijuana’s mayor pointed to the arrest of this group of police as an example of how they were regaining control of the force. Drug cartels had held sway over it for decades.

Mesina says Chief Leyzaola and his second in command delivered him to a military base.

That’s where Mesina claims he and the others were tortured in Leyzaola presence.

“The soldiers said, ah, you want be a tough guy? Well, go for it. And they asphyxiated me. After a couple of rounds, they saw it wasn’t going to get me to talk. So, they tried to get me to sign a confession they’d written. I said no. They beat me more. I felt a sharp pain in my chest. My vision got cloudy and I passed out,” recalls Mesina.

Mesina thought he had a heart attack. They took him outside, propped him up against a tree and gave him some water. But he says that was all the medical attention he received.

Eventually, he and the other two-dozen officers were flown to a prison in southern Mexico. Thirteen of them were freed a few days ago.

Just five, including Mesina, dared return to Tijuana, where many consider Chief Leyzaola a hero. The five want their police jobs back. But Tijuana’s Mayor, Jorge Ramos, says no. He instists, “The Municipal police should be absolutely free of any suspicion.”

Ramos has helped kick 450 officers off the force for alleged ties to organized crime. He claims that as one of his major successes.

Mesina calls it a witch-hunt. He doesn’t think it's coincidence that his arrest came four days after he took up the case of a fellow officer who’d been wrongly accused of corruption.

Jose Maria Ramos studies public safety at COLEF, a think tank in Tijuana.

He thinks it’s illegal for the city to ban Mesina and his colleagues from the force and says the government’s tactics may be counterproductive.

Nevertheless, many people are willing to accept them.

“People are so desperate because of all the kidnappings and mutilation they justify those kinds of practices, “ says Ramos.

But David Shirk, who directs the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego, says that attitude is risky, “If the government stoops to the level of torture and intimidation, the same level that organized crime groups use, the government is no better.”

Shirk says this case exposes the weakness of the Mexican government’s strategy in the drug war and of one of the war’s leading men Chief Leyzaola. “Bringing in a strong man to sort of take the lead and play Batman is not necessarily the best way to accomplish counter-corruption on a police force. You need to have effective internal investigation and those mechanisms are frankly not as well developed in Mexico as they should be,” Shirk points out.

The highest human rights court in the Western Hemisphere, The Interamerican Commission, is investigating the 25 police officers’ torture claims.

One persistent advocate for these officers is Miguel Mesina’s daughter, Blanca.

She’s in hiding because her life was threatened. “A man put a gun to my head. He even called me by name. What happened, Blanquita? He said, we agreed you’d quit complaining. We know people…you wanna die? You wanna lose a relative?,” he said.

Even so, Blanca is still fighting for her father and the other officers who remain in jail.

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