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Tijuana police officers claim they were tortured by Mexican Army

(TIJUANA, Mexico) More than 50 people — mostly police officers — have come forward in the past 10 months claiming they were tortured or abused by the Mexican Army in Baja California.

According to family members of victims still in custody, the abuses are still happening in Baja and other Mexican states despite the knowledge of Mexican authorities and two major human rights organizations — the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International.

Francisco Javier Sanchez, coordinator for the Citizen Observatory of Human Rights in Baja California, said that four cases were presented at a panel hearing at the Inter-American Commission, a division of the Organization of American States, based in Washington, D.C.

The four cases share similar claims of abuse: Arrests by the Mexican Army, detentions without procedure or warrants in military facilities, torture, ill treatment and solitary confinement.

According to Sanchez and testimony, the first case in March involved 25 local police officers that were arrested by the Chief of the Tijuana Police Department, Julian Leyzaola. Without notice, the cops were taken to a Mexican Army camp and detained there for five days. In those five days, their families talked to them and sent letters, providing evidence to prove that they were beaten, tortured and interrogated. They remained chained and handcuffed during the entire time they were in detention. They also said that while being tortured they were forced to make false confessions about alleged crimes.

Forty-one days later, on May 7, they were taken to a federal courthouse in Tepic, Nayarit and told the judge that they had been tortured. The judge did not order the implementation of the Istanbul Protocol, which requires a medical report of those who claim they were tortured, and to establish whether or not there is proof. It is obligatory in Mexico. The cops, including one female, are still in detention in a Mexican federal prison.

Three other separate cases involved four civilians that were arrested in Rosarito, seven detectives from the Baja California Attorney’s Office that were arrested in Mexicali and a fourth case with 11 cops.

Sanchez said that the torture complaints were not heard by the Mexico Attorney’s Office (PGR), the Mexican Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) or the Baja California State Commission for Human Rights (PDH).

Despite possible repercussions from government authorities, three human rights organizations — the Mexican Commission for Promotion of Human Rights, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights of the Northwest and the Citizen Observatory of Human Rights — took the cases to the Inter-American Commission in May.

The commission convened for a hearing that was attended by officials from the Mexican Department of State, Foreign Affairs, and the Mexican and Baja California Security Offices.

“At the hearing, the (officials) replied verbally to the complaint, but truthfully there was no answer from the authority, not even a sign of interest to investigate the cases, or recognize that there is a complaint that is important to investigate,” Sanchez said. “There was no interest on the part of the Mexican authorities to hear the cases.”

Sanchez, who served as Baja California Human Rights Ombudsman from 2006 until earlier this year, said that this situation is a regression for human rights in Mexico that started when the Mexican Army was ordered to get involved in activities of local police departments.

“We are not against combating drug trafficking and organized crime, in which the Army collaborates with civilian authorities. But this partnership has to be tailored to the law and must respect the physical safety of the people,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez also said that the Citizen Observatory and the other human rights groups are not arguing whether the alleged victims are innocent or guilty. He said that they are focused on stopping torture as a practice to investigate crimes.

“We want to eliminate the torture tactics imposed by the Mexican soldiers in Baja California,” Sanchez said. “They need it if they are looking to have a real war against drugs and organized crime. It seems unfortunate that this supposed fight involves such practices. These accusations make us doubt the legality of the behavior of the Army in police activities.”

Amnesty International in Mexico recently published a report of a fifth case of human rights violations perpetrated by Mexican Army soldiers, with a total of 35 victims. The report included the torture of the 25 police officers in Tijuana and the four civilians in Rosarito.

The group believes that the cases illustrate an overview of human rights violations perpetrated by the Mexican Army and that have been ignored by the Mexican authorities.

“He never came back”

For the past 10 months, Maria Cristina Zapien, 46, has cried alone at night. Her husband and the father of her four children, Alberto Avila Flores, was taken and tortured by the Mexican Army, she said. Flores was a Tijuana police officer for more than 20 years. He never had a bad behavior report.

“My husband was taken away on March 31. One day he went to work and then he never came back,” she said. “I searched for him and three days later, I found him in an Army camp. When I saw him, him and all the other cops, were beaten and tortured. He received CPR twice. They made him sign a lot of papers and he did not understand what was written on them.

“Later the soldiers told me that the papers stated that he accepted illegal money from drug dealers. They should go and check my home and see the way we live. Right now we continue struggling, we have no lawyer, do not have money, we don’t have anything.

“They are still there, in prison, and we do not know what to do. Nobody believes us about what happened,” Zapien continued. “We have no evidence. When we saw them at the military facilities, (the soldiers) only let us talk for five minutes in custody. And the doctors tried to make a professional examination 20 days later, when the signs of the torture were gone.”

Amnesty International reported that during Flores’ initial detention, the 25 cops said that at the Army base they were subjected to constant torture and other mistreatment by Army personnel to try to obtain false confessions and information to implicate other police officers and agents in crimes, or to sign statements without reading them.

According to testimony of the police officers arrested, they were tied around their head, hands, knees and feet with duct tape for several days, were not given food for three days, repeatedly beaten, suffocated with plastic bags on their heads and received electric shocks in their feet and genitals.

Tania Navarro is SDNN’s Tijuana correspondent

What is The Istanbul Protocol?
The Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, commonly known as the Istanbul Protocol, is the first set of international guidelines for documentation of torture and its consequences. It became an official United Nations document in 1999. The Istanbul Protocol is intended to serve as a set of international guidelines for the assessment of persons who allege torture and ill treatment, for investigating cases of alleged torture, and for reporting such findings to the judiciary and any other investigative body. Source: Wikipedia.