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Inside Mexico’s Drug War, Americans Allege Abuse

by : NICHOLAS CASEY
Monday July 19, 2010 - 21:22

Inside Mexico’s Drug War, Americans Allege Abuse

By NICHOLAS CASEY

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico—Two Americans were driving back to El Paso, Texas, last December after an afternoon across the border in Ciudad Juárez. A few blocks from the border, they were surrounded by Mexican army trucks and pulled from their Dodge Ram.

Violence escalates in the drug wars in Mexico as a car bomb set off by a cell phone kills at least three people. Deborah Lutterbeck reports. Video Courtesy of Reuters.

Mexico’s military says it found two suitcases full of marijuana in the cab of the pickup truck. Two soldiers later testified that they drove the two Americans to a military compound on the outskirts of town, questioned them briefly, then turned them over to civilian authorities. The Americans were charged with possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

Those two men—Shohn Huckabee, 23 years old, and Carlos Quijas, 36—are being held in a Ciudad Juárez jail. They tell a different story about what happened that night. They say Mexican soldiers planted the marijuana in their truck. When they arrived at the military base, they say, they were blindfolded, tied up, hit with rifle butts, shocked with electricity and threatened with death.

Mexico’s military is leading President Felipe Calderón’s war against the nation’s drug cartels, and Ciudad Juárez has emerged as one of the bloodiest battlegrounds. Nationwide, drug violence has claimed more than 25,000 lives since 2006—with government security forces accounting for an estimated 7% of the dead. In June alone, 103 police and soldiers were killed.

As the death toll rises, however, so have complaints about the military’s tactics in trying to break the drug cartels’ stranglehold on Mexican society. The human-rights office of the state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juárez is located, is investigating some 465 cases of alleged abuse and torture of Mexican citizens by soldiers. Gustavo de la Rosa, the office’s ombudsman in Ciudad Juárez, says he knows of about 70 cases in which soldiers are alleged to have planted evidence, including some involving suitcases packed with marijuana.

Allegations of mistreatment of suspects have caught the eye of the U.S. Senate committee that oversees financial aid to Mexico for its war on drugs. In an internal report, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says it received allegations of serious human-rights violations in Ciudad Juárez last year. The report cites an unidentified young man picked up in El Paso who said he was arrested by the Mexican military in Ciudad Juárez and beaten and shocked. The man said he was released after the military concluded he had no useful information about trafficking, the report says.

Mr. Huckabee says he was subjected to similar tactics. "I believe what was done to me was torture," he said in an interview. "When I did not answer their questions, they shocked me with a wire that was in my hands. My whole body froze up. The pain went from bearable to a point where I couldn’t even talk."

Mexican prosecutors say the two men were caught red-handed. Two soldiers involved in their arrest testified at their trial that they counted 99 packages of marijuana in the suitcases, weighing more than 100 pounds.

Mexico’s Drug Killings

Nearly 23,000 people have died in drug-related violence since 2006, according to the government, with northern border states experiencing the worst of the violence.

Review key events in the fight to break the grip of Mexico’s drug cartels.

Messrs. Huckabee and Quijas say they’ve never been involved with drugs and would never have tried to cross the border with two suitcases of marijuana. During their trial, they produced three witnesses who testified that they saw soldiers put suitcases into Mr. Huckabee’s truck. A verdict is expected this month. Each man faces up to 25 years in prison.

Representatives of Mexico’s military and of President Calderón turned down requests for interviews. In a written response to questions from The Wall Street Journal, the army said it briefly took the Americans to the military compound but didn’t torture them. "We categorically deny that soldiers use these methods, and say their actions are in total adherence to the law," the statement said.

The army previously has dismissed complaints of abuse as the work of people allied with drug traffickers who want to drive soldiers out of Ciudad Juárez. "Many times they make human-rights complaints because they want to limit our capacity for action and besmirch the institution," said Brigadier Gen. Jesús Hernández Pérez, commander of the 4th Artillery Regiment, in an interview late last year.

The Wall Street Journal interviewed nine residents of Ciudad Juárez—some of whom had been convicted of crimes—who said they were tortured by soldiers at the main army camp on the outskirts of the city.

A 33-year-old forklift operator said he had a firearm pointed to his head and was told he would be killed during a 48-hour interrogation. Two brothers, ages 53 and 56, said the military put plastic bags over their heads, shocked them and staged mock executions. A 25-year-old construction worker said soldiers used a Taser to shock his testicles. A 54-year-old diabetic rancher said he was blindfolded, beaten and shocked on his testicles, elbows and hands. He showed a reporter scars.

Between 2006 to 2009, complaints to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission about the military grew tenfold, to about 4,000, including allegations of robbery, rape, torture and killing. The allegations threaten to undermine public support for President Calderón’s military campaign against traffickers. Some 50,000 soldiers now patrol the country.

In its statement, the military said it doesn’t use torture under any circumstance. In Mexico, soldiers answer to their own military court system and not to civilian authorities, which means states can’t prosecute them for abuse.

The case of the two Americans comes as political tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border have risen over issues such as illegal immigration and the trafficking of U.S. firearms into Mexico. Under the 2007 Merida Initiative, the U.S. agreed to provide Mexico with $1.3 billion to fight drug traffickers, including more than $420 million for the Mexican military. U.S. lawmakers have threatened to withhold 15%—nearly $200 million—if there are human-rights violations or other problems.

Mr. Huckabee grew up in El Paso. Friends recall he didn’t have much taste for Ciudad Juárez, which before the escalating violence was known locally for teenage partying. On weekends, he was likely to be found hunting with his father or riding his dirt bike in the desert.

When he was 18, he borrowed money to start a small construction company, Site Solutions, a business that consumed much of his time. In 2008, he got married.

Records searches in El Paso County and in New Mexico reveal that Mr. Huckabee had been charged with speeding and illegal dumping, but contain no indication of involvement with drugs. The records showed no criminal trouble for his close friend Mr. Quijas, whom Mr. Huckabee had gotten to know on construction jobs.

On Dec. 18, Mr. Huckabee finished work midday and prepared to head to Ciudad Juárez to take his father’s pickup truck for some inexpensive repair work, he and his father say. With him was Mr. Quijas, who says he had asked for a ride across the border to visit an ill grandfather.

Mr. Huckabee says he dropped Mr. Quijas off around 1 p.m., then drove to a repair shop and waited there. The repairs were finished around sunset, close to 5 p.m., according to the mechanic who did the work.

Mr. Huckabee says he made his way through rush-hour traffic and found Mr. Quijas at Abraham Lincoln Street, not far from the Bridge of the Americas leading into Texas. Around 6:40 p.m., the two say, they were passing Los Caballos, a well-known monument of running horses, when their car was surrounded by three Mexican military trucks.

"They grabbed us and threw us under a bench" in the back of a truck, says Mr. Huckabee. Their shirts were pulled over their heads as blindfolds, they say. The soldiers drove about a half hour to a military compound.

The two Americans were ordered out. Mr. Huckabee says a soldier pulled his wedding ring off his finger. (Neither the ring nor a cellphone taken earlier have been returned, he says.) The two men were separated. Each was examined by a doctor.

Mr. Quijas, who speaks both Spanish and English, says his eyes were wrapped with medical gauze. An interrogator, he says, asked him about the whereabouts of various people, using nicknames he didn’t recognize. He says his interrogator threatened that some other men would force him to talk.

Mr. Quijas was moved to another room, he says, where his hands and feet were tied. He was wetted down with water, and he could hear the hum of a machine, he says.

Then someone shocked him with a metal rod on his testicles, neck, legs, back and anus, he says. He was taken back to the interrogator, questioned, then shocked again, he says.

Elsewhere, Mr. Huckabee, who speaks little Spanish, was being questioned, too. He was still blindfolded. His interrogator, he says, put objects in his hand, including what seemed to him to be drug paraphernalia, and asked him, in broken English, where they came from. He says he replied that he didn’t know. Soldiers struck him repeatedly with the butt of a rifle, he says. Someone put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, he says, but it wasn’t loaded.

Briefly, the two Americans were put together in a cold room. Then, Mr. Huckabee, still blindfolded, was taken away again, he says. He says he heard a voice telling him, in fluent English, that he had been caught with marijuana, cocaine and guns. He says he was told to put a wire into his hand.

When he denied knowing about the marijuana, he says, he was shocked. He was shocked repeatedly during the questioning, he says. "They said they could electrocute me if I didn’t answer the truth," he says.

Court documents say the two men were booked between midnight and 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 19—roughly five or six hours after the time they say they were arrested. They were charged with drug possession and transferred to the municipal prison.

The following day, in a statement entered into the court record, Mr. Huckabee said he had been hit by soldiers and given "electric shocks." He says he discussed his treatment when visited by a U.S. consular officer on Dec. 19. A U.S. official says Mr. Huckabee didn’t mention mistreatment until Dec. 28.

American officials say U.S. consulates see numerous cases every year of Americans arrested in Mexico, and the consulates don’t get involved in defending them. Consular officials informed Mr. Huckabee’s family that they couldn’t represent their son or offer legal advice.

Neither Mr. Huckabee nor Mr. Quijas made a formal complaint with U.S. or Mexican authorities, saying they feared retaliation by soldiers then working at the jail. In the trial, they accused their captors of torture. The soldiers denied doing so.

Two medical examinations describe the condition of the Americans following their arrest. The first, conducted by a military doctor the night they were detained, found "no apparent harm" on either man. The military said the exam took place at 10:45 p.m.

Another doctor, Dr. Hugo Tabares, examined the men at 2:50 the following afternoon, after they were handed over to civilian authorities. He found bruising on both men, according to a report he filed that day. He reported a reddish-brown bruise on Mr. Huckabee’s chest and several bruises on Mr. Quijas’s right arm and left leg.

In a brief interview in his office, Dr. Tabares said there were "various bruises" on Mr. Huckabee’s body that "could have been caused the previous day." He declined to speculate on the cause of the injuries. In a statement to the court, on Feb. 3, Dr. Tabares said the bruising had been "caused by a blunt instrument or object."

The military said in its statement to the Journal that it didn’t know of Dr. Tabares’s exam and had no comment on it.

In the Mexican judicial system, testimony isn’t given in an open courtroom before a jury, but in office cubicles in front of lawyers. Typically, neither the judge nor the defendant is present. The judge rules based on the transcript and case file.

The trial of the two Americans unfolded in scattered hearings over the past six months. Two soldiers involved in the arrest testified that they searched the vehicle because the Americans were "acting nervously." The search, prosecutors said, turned up the two suitcases filled with a substance that later testing showed was marijuana. Prosecutors said it belonged to the two men.

Testimony from three Mexican witnesses at the scene—people who said they didn’t know the Americans—contradicted the army’s version of events.

José Antonio Bujanda, 21, told the court on Feb. 26 that he saw soldiers pull over Messrs. Huckabee and Quijas while he was washing windows of cars lined up to cross the bridge into Texas. He said he saw soldiers plant the suitcases in Mr. Huckabee’s gray Dodge Ram.

"The two soldiers went to their own truck. I saw them take out two suitcases, then put them in the gray truck," he said.

Abraham Antero Torres, a 19-year-old candy seller, testified that he saw the same. "The military men that were behind took out two black traveler’s suitcases and put them into the Ram, and that was it," he said.

A third witness, Fernando Monsiváis, another window washer, told the court: "The soldiers put the suitcases in the truck, the young men’s truck."

Mr. Bujanda was shot and killed in front of his home by an unknown assailant on July 2. Attempts to reach Messrs. Torres and Monsiváis to comment were unsuccessful.

Alejandro Dominguez, a fingerprint expert hired by Mr. Huckabee’s family, testified in March that the marijuana packages showed no signs of his fingerprints.

Court transcripts show a contradiction between when the Americans say they were arrested, at 6:40 p.m. on the road, and the official military account, which puts the time three hours later in a parking lot alongside the road. Under the military’s timeline, the pair were arrested, taken to the base, then immediately taken to civil authorities, as Mexican law requires, leaving no time for lengthy interrogation.

A record of Mr. Huckabee’s cellphone calls that evening, provided by his family, appears consistent with his account. The bill shows calls made throughout the day, ending at 6:38 p.m., minutes before he says he was arrested.

Mr. de la Rosa, the ombudsman of the state human-rights office in Ciudad Juárez, offers one theory about why the truck was stopped. A Mexican relative of Mr. Quijas whose name is similar, he says, is believed to be involved in the drug trade in town. Mr. de la Rosa speculates that the arrest may have been a case of mistaken identity. Mr. Quijas, who says he doesn’t know his relative well, says that when he arrived at the jail, other inmates confused him with the relative.

Mr. de la Rosa says that if the soldiers confused Mr. Quijas with his relative, they wouldn’t necessarily be inclined to turn him loose once they discovered his true identity. Winning a conviction, he says, would undermine potential complaints from the two men about abuse.

In its statement, the military said there was no confusion over the men’s identities.

As they await a verdict, the two Americans share a cell with four other prisoners on the second floor of the Ciudad Juárez Center for Social Readaptation. The crowded facility houses some dangerous men. In June, three prison employees were shot by gang members.

Mr. Huckabee says defending himself in a foreign land hasn’t been easy. A translator recruited for one hearing this spring, according to the transcript, said: "I don’t speak English very well." The hearing continued.

Mr. Huckabee has been through five defense lawyers, none of whom speaks English. One lawyer who reviewed the case said recently he believed that crimes result from "demons entering the body and taking control, as Paul says in the Bible." One of his lawyers was shot and wounded in May, while exiting the prosecutor’s offices.

—José de Córdoba contributed to this article.



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