La prensa

Tijuana a lab for public safety

Created: 03 September, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
7 min read

    Human Rights violation cases are sprawling in Tijuana against military officials and police alike.

    The cases include allegations of arbitrary detentions, coerced confessions, torture and even intimidation against those denouncing such abuse.

    The cases where first documented in Tijuana, but many others have followed from all over the country. They include allegations of military abuses against local cops under arrest for suspicion of collaborating with organized crime. But other cases report city police officers illegally detaining and torturing civilians with the support of the local police chief.

    These cases are being closely followed by international human rights organizations and the US legislature because their veracity seems to support the argument against the current public safety strategy and the so-called war on drugs.

    The most recent case was the detention of 62 local and state police officers by military personnel. They are suspected of collaborating with organized crime and where paraded to the media before boarding military planes to a then undisclosed location.

    One of the handcuffed detainees managed to struggle with one of the officers and point the officer’s gun to his own head, screaming he would rather be shot than be under military custody once more.

    The officer was one of many cops arrested last November, held for 40 days and then released without any criminal charges.

    His sister and a hundred other relatives stood outside State offices demanding to know the location of those detained. She said her brother was tortured by military and she fears it will happen again.

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    “I’m afraid they will beat them, torture them, and make them sign confessions for stuff they didn’t do…despite the fact I know he is innocent, I’m still fearful he will battered as he was battered the last time.” she said.

    The case has been brought forward for the National Human Rights Commission, in charge of investigating all allegations against federal authorities.

    According to the Baja representative, Gabriela Navarro, they have documented 169 cases of abuse, most of them against the military; about half of them have been accepted.

    “We are still waiting for verifiable proof of their commitment to the process” Navarro explained, “we need charges brought forward against specific officers and military doctors who many times don’t document the detainees injuries; we need them to start taking anger management classes and the most important part is to pay the victim”.

    Torture and abuse cases are not only happening at the federal level, there are a growing number of allegations against local police in Tijuana, whose head is military, Lieutenant Colonel Julian Leyzaola Perez, a controversial character who is both loved and hated since he came to office three years ago.

    The Baja State Human Rights Commission, headed by Heriberto García García recently presented a case of five citizens arrested shortly after a series of attacks against police officers.

    According to García’s investigation, the men were tortured by Leyzaola himself and other officers in the old city jail, known as “La Ocho”.

    “Some had electric shocks applied to their bodies, causing blisters, others had concussions and one of them had some bruising on his thorax where one can even see a boot…there is proof of asphyxia, use of plastic bags…” García explained.

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    The investigation ended with a series of recommendations for Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos, including the immediate replacement of Leyzaola, —who has allegations against him in three other cases—. The recommendations have been rejected by the Mayor and have now advanced to the Federal level.

    Ignoring Human Rights investigations is fairly common in Mexico, Human Rights Commission and the prosecutions based on their findings are not mandatory and are perceived as having “no teeth”.

    In one of the worse cases, involving the chief of public security, involved a dozen police officers having just been released from Tepic, Nayarit Federal Prison after being held for 17 months.

    None of them were formally accused of any crime or wrong doing and right after being released they filed a complaint against military officers claiming torture, beatings and being held without communication with their relatives.

    Among those released was ex-police commander Miguel Angel Mesina, who claims he is now fearful for his life and the well-being of his daughter Blanca, who had to flee Tijuana after publicly defending both her father and other torture victims.

    Blanca claims a city patrol car followed her around for months and she was threatened by an armed man.

    “The man held a gun to my head and said “what´s up Blanquita, didn’t we agree you would stop pointing fingers? Do you want to lose a loved one? I would kill you right now if it wasn’t for the fact your case is now international and because elections are coming up…” she remembered.

    Right after that incident she decided to leave.

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A public safety lab

    For Transborder Institute director David Shirk, the Tijuana case is emblematic of the national public safety debate, as it is an example of the risks involved when military are part of the pubic safety strategy.

    Shirk explains many sectors of Mexican society approve the use of torture against organized crime and many have shown their support for Leyzaola against his accusers.

    “I believe the use of torture is never justified, even against organized crime” Shirk said, “when the government starts using that type of tactics it dissolves the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate use of force and the government is reduced to using the same tactics therefore losing legitimacy”.

    The legitimacy that can be lost is not only that of the federal government but of the military, a highly respected institution until it got involved in public safety.

    “What we’ve seen is that by involving military in civilian positions they have been susceptible to corruption and abuse of power just as any other human being, especially in a context where narcos have the strength to threaten officers, their partners and even their families, creating a difficult situation where its hard to resist the drug traffickers’ influence” adds Shirk.

    These cases are being close-ly followed by the US government officials who want to make sure the funds they are sending to Mexico are not being used against the Mexican population.

    Shirk considers these cases as being closely followed by others, such as Human Rights Watch and WHOLA, they are text-book cases of what can happen when on the one hand there are clear triumphs against organized crime, but on the other there is a great risk of Mexican authorities tempted to violate human rights in the name of public safety.

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    “These cases contribute to a growing sentiment amongst many experts and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that this war has failed, it simply could not be won and it has had a devastating effect on democracy and human rights in Mexico” Shirk claims, “it is only a drop on the bucket of insecurity in Mexico, but it a drop that comes to support the arguments against the current strategy”.

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