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Tijuana Police Accuse Chief And Army Of Torture

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GLORIA PENNER (Host): Our series ‘Border Battle’ continues today with a story about alleged torture. Three-dozen Tijuana police officers accused the city’s police chief and soldiers in the Mexican army of using torture to try to force them to confess their ties to organized crime. KPBS border reporter, Amy Isackson, and Vicente Calderon, editor for, our partner in this series, bring us this report. ISACKSON: Tijuana’s police chief, Julian Leyzaola, is on a crusade to rid his force of corruption. When he inherited the department two years ago, he says the drug cartels paid many officers so well to be their eyes and ears that police salaries were more like tips. JULIAN LEYZAOLA (Tijuana’s Director of Public Safety): We’ve arraigned about 140 or 150 police for their criminal activity. ISACKSON: Leyzaola’s principal ally in the fight is the Mexican army. They're going after the corrupt cops and also organized crime. The police chief’s work has earned him high praise. Roberto Quijano leads one of the most important business groups in Tijuana. ROBERTO QUIJANO (President, COMPARMEX): He has done for our community what many police officers hadn’t done in many, many years. I think he has the integrity, he has the preparation, and he has the guts to go ahead and fight for our community. VICENTE CALDERON (Editor, While for some Leyzaola is a hero, for others he’s a despot. BLANCA MESSINA (Daughter of Tijuana Policeman): He’s inventing criminals. He grabs whoever and says he belongs to a cartel to make people think he's cleaning up the streets. CALDERON: Blanca Messina’s father has been a Tijuana policeman for 22 years. Here Tijuana’s mayor Jorge Ramos congratulates him for his service to the city. Two months later, Blanca says her father was arrested for allegedly working for a drug cartel. MESSINA: 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. CALDERON: She and the relatives of three-dozen officers have joined forced to announce this alleged abuse. ISACKSON: Blanca says it all began one afternoon last March. Leyzaola and his second in command told her father and three other officers they were being taken to the military base for questioning. Blanca says her father and the other police asked to see a warrant. There was no warrant but they were taken anyway. MESSINA: They blindfolded them. They took them to a room. In that room there was a federal prosecutor who asked questions. ISACKSON: Also in that room, according to Blanca, were other officers who’d been arrested. CALDERON: KPBS and obtained legal depositions of the 25 officers that were detained that week. One after the other claims they were beaten or had electric shocks applied to their genitals, among other punishment. A military doctor revived them when they passed out. Soldiers told them if they died, their bodied would be dumped on the highway. Their deaths would be made to look like cartel hits. The officers were forced to sign statements they weren’t allowed to read. ISACKSON: After 40 days, authorities took them from the military base to the airport. Miguel Messina, Blanca’s father, and the rest of the group were flown to a prison in central Mexico. And that’s where they remain. On November 5th, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission heard the case of Miguel, 35 other police, and four civilians. The Mexican army faces more and more human rights complaints. They come as President Felipe Calderon has deployed tens of thousands of troops to crack down on drug cartels. CALDERON: Baja California’s former human rights prosecutor, Francisco Sanchez Corona, spoke at the commission. He says the Mexican government has the responsibility to fight corruption, but cannot use torture to do so. FRANCISCO SANCHEZ CORONA: There's a pattern of impunity in the face of this torture. Government officials discourage people from filing and pursuing complaints. CALDERON: Leyzaola, who officers claim was present during the torture, says the claims are bogus. LEYZAOLA: One has to understand criminal organizations’ economic power and threats can corrupt any institution. So maybe the criminal groups are using human rights organizations for their own benefit. CALDERON: The army commander in charge of Tijuana, Alfonso Duarte, also rejects the accusations. ISACKSON: Since the hearings, some of the imprisoned officers’ families say they’ve been pressured to shut up. Blanca says one night two cars followed the wife of an officer and forced her to stop. MESSINA: A man got out and told the woman we should back off. And they told her to tell me to just leave things be. ISACKSON: But Blanca says she won’t shut up until she's cleared her father’s name no matter what threats she faces. Amy Isackson, KPBS News. CALDERON: Vicente Calderon, PENNER: And joining me now to discuss the latest news on the war on drugs south of the border are Amy Isackson and Vicente Calderon. Welcome to you both. What fine work you do. Vicente, lets start with Julian Leyzaola, the police chief. How many police officers did he remove from the force over suspicion of corruption with drug cartels? CALDERON: Between 140 and 150. There may be other officers who left on their own will because they thought they were being investigated. The number they got rid of in general is over 400, but between 140 and 150 are under investigation. PENNER: Out of how large a police force? CALDERON: About 2,300 between 2,200. PENNER: Ok, I won’t do the math but that’s a substantial amount. CALDERON: Its very important if you take into consideration the hierarchy of the positions they were, some of them. The second in command is among the group that is in jail because of suspicion of ties to organized crime. PENNER: Alright we’ll talk about that. Those allegations of torture are being taken by several human rights organizations. Amy, tell us about some of the organizations. What are they doing, how did the allegations get to them in the first place? ISACKSON: Two Baja California human rights organizations have taken up the cases by these three-dozen officers and four civilians as well, as well as a group in Mexico City. And the claims came to them because Blanca Messina, who we saw in the piece, says that she tried to go to the local authorities but her claims either fell on deaf ears or she was encouraged not to pursue them. So she went to these non-governmental organizations and they’ve taken up the cases. They filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is one of the highest human rights courts in this western hemisphere. And the commission held a hearing about public safety and human rights and the drug war in Tijuana. They're investigating. They're particularly concerned about a practice called ‘origo’ in Mexico, which is a relatively new law that allows authorities to hold someone for 40 days, detain them while they investigate and try to get evidence against the person. They’re concerned about the conditions that these people are being held in as well. And Amnesty International also released a recent report criticizing Mexican government and civilian authorities for not investigating these human rights cases, and saying that the Mexican military has a lack of transparency in their judicial system and doesn’t have a willingness to have people investigate it. PENNER: Ok but police corruption has been a serious problem in Tijuana. And considering that, how difficult is it for the families of these officers, which have been detained or theoretically tortured, to get the attention of the public about these cases? CALDERON: It’s very difficult because people assume immediately if it’s a cop, he much be guilty from the start. So that’s a big problem were seeing with these cases. And by now, since we have given the voice to the people who are complaining, I compare this with the Patriot Act. Do you remember the beginning of the war with Iraq? PENNER: Sure. CALDERON: Everybody was afraid they’d be singled out as a non-patriot because they were speaking against the war. Well this is what's happened. If you criticize the strategy of President Calderon using the military, or the way Leyzaola is doing things, you almost look like you are in favor of the drug traffickers. And this has been problematic also for the families, and that’s why they ended up on Washington. PENNER: What about the judicial system? How has that responded to allegations of human rights abuses? CALDERON: Not really. Even the Mexican President Calderon is basically ignoring these claims and he's basing his strategy against drug traffickers and the participation of the army helping them. I need to be very clear here. I believe that the Mexican military has been fundamental to the progress – arguable or not – the progress they are doing against drug trafficking. And that chief Leyzaola is doing things, as we saw, that many people think are unprecedented. But they way they are doing, I think needs to be looked at. PENNER: Ok well I thank you very much Vicente Calderon, Amy Isackson.