Drugs

Mexico: Military’s Battle Against Mexican Drug Cartels Terrorizes Civilians

Mexican citizens face the constant threat from organized crime and the force that is supposed to protect them: the military.

JUAREZ, Mexico -- "Alfa," as he wants to be called, remembers his ordeal well. His story is not uncommon in Mexico's drug wars.

"I was kept blindfolded and they stripped off my clothes again and wrapped me in a blanket like a taquito, and they wet the blanket and connected [two] electric wires, one to each testicle. They made sure they were in place and took an instrument that sounded like a small refrigerator or a battery charger and started giving me electric shocks.

"They would also sit me in a chair and cover my head with a plastic bag and close it until I almost suffocated. Then they would remove the bag and let me breath again and begin the questioning."

But Alfa is not talking about Mexico's notorious drug lords. In his testimony to the Chihuahua Human Rights Commission, Alfa is describing being abducted by the military -- the forces that are supposed to protect the civilians in President Felipe Calderón's war against drug cartels.

The body count has dropped since Calderón deployed troops to patrol Ciudad Juárez. But the fear of being arrested for practically no reason, "disappeared" for days, and tortured by the very force that is supposed to protect the population, is on the rise.

Alfa continued his story:

"I was detained very early in the morning by members of the army who got into my house by breaking the front door. Besides arresting me, they searched all my belongings and kept all the valuables for themselves. I remember hearing one of the soldiers ask another one for a gold chain, claiming that it would fit his daughter and would be a nice birthday gift. They didn't find any drugs or anything illegal, but they took a Jeep Cherokee and a Dodge car.

"They blindfolded me and took me to a place where I could hear the sound of helicopters and other military roaming around. I was kept blindfolded for several days, and I noticed that one side got brighter in the afternoons, so I think it was a window.

"I could feel that there were another 10 or 20 other people there. Now and then, soldiers would come inside and start hitting people, saying things like: 'No te hagas pendejo (Don't be a fool). Where are you hiding the drugs for Azucena Street? Or where is the hiding place for [alleged drug dealer] "El Chivo"?'

"They tortured them, but when they got an answer [it seems to me that] they let them go. They started to torture me, and I told them that I could lead them to the place and that the only thing I knew was that they used to sell drugs in the 'hood. But the soldier in charge of the torture seemed to know more, and he would tell me, 'No te hagas pendejo.' "

Between January 2008 and March 2009, the Juarez Human Rights Office has collected hundreds of reports from people stopped at checkpoints or in their homes who claim that the "Operación Conjunta," -- the joint operation of the federal police, municipal police and military forces -- has resulted in violations of their civil liberties.

While the figures suggest that the heavy presence of the military has indeed reduced the number of executions, extortions and kidnappings, it has not been able to eliminate the violence. The difference is that this time, forces in charge of public safety are being fingered as the perpetrators of the crimes once attributed to the drug cartels.

"We went from reporting 20 to 25 killings a month, to reporting 40 killings a day, all related to the drug wars," says Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, chief investigator of the state's Human Rights Commission. Now, he says, "the number of killings has decreased, but the claims of human and civil rights violations have increased, and most of them are attributed to the police and military forces … the very same people in charge of protecting us."

De La Rosa and other lawyers claim that Juárez and other cities subjected to the same military operation are living in a de facto "state of exemption," a legal term that implies that all civil rights and liberties have been suspended, and police and military forces are free to detain and search individuals without cause.

The operation began in March 2008 and is scheduled to end by 2013, but lawyers and local civil rights activists complain that it has not provided results and that the price tag is too high.

"We are supposed to be protected by over 9,000 soldiers and federal police who are strangers to this city, don't know our customs and frankly don't care about our way of life. And now these same forces are stopping us anywhere they please, and arresting people for almost no reason at all!" says Genaro Armendariz, a community leader at a local church in the city's west side neighborhood known as Villa Miseria, roughly translated as Misery Village.

"They stop thousands of people a day, but usually in the very low-income areas of the city. Affluent neighborhoods are hardly visited," says Hector Pedraza Reyes, a professor at the local university.

According to estimates from the local Human Rights Commission, out of every 300,000 people searched by the police, only 10 are arrested, most of them for driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

On April 18, Maria Rosa Ontiveros Garay told local authorities that her son, Jesús Tejada Ontiveros, was arrested "illegally" by members of the army, when soldiers entered his home without a search warrant or any other legal document.

They entered the house at 9:30 a.m. to search for drugs, and kept Tejada Ontiveros' wife and children in one bedroom while they ransacked the house. Ontiveros Garay says the soldiers bound her son and covered his head while they searched the property. Later, Tejada Ontiveros was removed from his home and taken to an undisclosed location where he was allegedly tortured for information about drugs he was suspected to be selling.

Tejada Ontiveros remained sequestered in an undisclosed location for three days, without being able to communicate with his family. On Tuesday, he was finally turned over to the PGR (Federal Attorney's Office), on charges that he was found in possession of 10 bags of cocaine for sale. His lawyer says each bag contained the equivalent of a daily dose for one person.

"He could get up to 10 years in jail, but there is no evidence that he was indeed in possession of the drugs.

"Besides, he was arrested in his home, without a legal warrant or search document to enter the house. They found no drugs there, and he was kept incommunicado for three days before he was turned over to the proper authorities for prosecution," says his lawyer.

The attorney general's office declined to comment about this case, or any other claims, arguing that all cases are currently under investigation.

In the same week, three men declined to testify in front of a judge after being charged with crimes unrelated to their arrest order.

There are hundreds of stories of people being detained in their homes or while driving and charged with drug possession. The majority of them claim that police or soldiers took their valuables, including jewelry, TV sets, electronics or cash, and never reported the seizures, so the owners are unable to get them back.

"I have reports that they opened the fridge and took the food inside," says Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, chief investigator of the state's Human Rights Commission, says in an interview in his makeshift office in a converted two-story house. "We live in a state of constant violations of civil and human rights and the violence doesn't stop."

Luz Elena Mears Delgado, head of the Juárez Human Rights Office agrees. "We just don't have the resources to investigate every claim, but it's nonstop."

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