Former Baja California human rights ombudsman Francisco Sánchez spoke before the commission, saying that the Mexican government has the responsibility to fight corruption but cannot use torture to do so. A report released by Amnesty International around the same time calculated that the number of complaints of abuse by the Mexican Army had nearly quadrupled in the year and a half prior compared to the previous two years combined.
Blanca Mesina, the daughter of one of the 25 officers detained and tortured in March 2009, also testified before the commission. One of the more outspoken opponents of the abuses, Mesina wrote a letter that was published in three papers denouncing the mistreatment of her father, who was honored by Mayor Ramos two months before being detained.
“[Leyzaola] is inventing criminals,” Mesina told KPBS-FM. “He grabs whoever and says he belongs to a cartel to make people think he’s cleaning up the streets.”
After making her father’s case known, Mesina was followed by police cars and received multiple death threats, according to a story from KPBS-FM and tijuanapress.com. She was held at gunpoint in a convenience-store parking lot by what appeared to be a special forces officer. According to an Amnesty International report, the man told her: “This is the last time that I am going to warn you to stop filing complaints in Tijuana. There are many contacts, and I don’t think you want to lose someone close to you. If I don’t kill you now it’s to avoid a scandal around the elections and because your case is already known internationally.” He then kissed her on the cheek and left. Mesina fled Tijuana and went into hiding in central Mexico with human rights lawyer Silvia Vázquez. Vázquez had received similar threats for her denunciation of Leyzaola’s overzealous purification of the police force.
Mesina’s father Miguel and 12 fellow officers were released for lack of evidence this August, 17 months after their arrest. When Miguel demanded his job back, he was denied it.
More than 50 officers have since come forward claiming that soldiers abused them in the presence of Leyzaola and Huerta. A relatively new practice called arraigo allows authorities to detain suspects for 40 days while they are being investigated. The Amnesty International report criticized the Mexican government and civilian authorities for not investigating abuse cases, saying the Mexican military lacks transparency in its judicial system.
Sánchez, now coordinator for the Citizen Observatory of Human Rights in Baja California, is reported in a December 2009 San Diego News Network story as saying that the torture complaints were not heard by the Mexico attorney’s office, the Mexican Commission on Human Rights, or the Baja California State Commission for Human Rights. He called the situation “a regression for human rights in Mexico that started with the militarization of municipal police departments.
“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,” Sánchez said. “There was no interest on the part of the Mexican authorities to hear the cases.”
Officers who claim to have been abused receive little sympathy in Tijuana, according to the New Yorker. Terrified residents assume accused cops are guilty and are glad that something is ostensibly being done to make the city safer. Others believe the persecution of officers is little more than a show put on for the United States to justify the billion-plus dollars it gives to fight drug-trafficking organizations and corruption in Mexico as part of the Mérida Initiative. Clark notes that accusations of torture at the hands of authorities are no longer surprising to the people of Mexico. He has taken 500 torture cases over the past 25 years, only 1 of which resulted in charges.
Leyzaola, meanwhile, denied allegations of abuse, saying in a KPBS-FM story: “One has to understand, criminal organizations’ economic power and threats can corrupt any institution. So, it may be the criminal groups are using human rights organizations for their own benefit.”
He claims simply to arrest suspected officers and deliver them to the army at the Morelos barracks in Tijuana. Alfonso Duarte, the army general formerly in charge of Tijuana, also rejected the claims, calling them defense mechanisms by fake human rights groups intended to discredit their work.
Despite the accusations, Leyzaola was appointed deputy secretary of public safety for Baja California on December 6. Governor José Osuna is quoted in a KPBS-FM story as saying, “I recognize Julián Leyzaola’s work.”
The indictment last July of 43 alleged narco-traffickers on both sides of the border showed that the battle against drug rings is far from won. Among the arrested was the Baja California state attorney general’s top liaison to U.S. law enforcement, Jesús Quiñónez, who was alleged to be working for the largely dismantled Arellano Félix organization. Three weeks earlier, Quiñónez and Leyzaola had attended a Fourth of July party given by Steven Kashkett, the U.S. consul-general in Tijuana, at which Kashkett praised Leyzaola’s work.
Regardless, Leyzaola’s term did see results. One officer estimates crime in the city’s seedy Zona Rosa district to be down by 80 percent, according to a November National Public Radio report. Only four officers were assassinated on duty in 2010. Gruesome gang-style public-murder displays are much less common than they were when Leyzaola took office, as are car thefts and home invasions.
“The day I took office, there were five kidnappings,” Leyzaola told Finnegan. “The city was totally degraded, totally controlled by organized crime. Convoys of Escalades and Suburbans full of armed men were rolling around these central streets, killing with complete impunity.” Now the narcos “are no longer big groups in SUVs using AK-47s but just a couple of guys in old cars with pistols.”
“This isn’t the police of three years ago,” General Duarte told KPBS-FM following the landmark October seizure of 134 tons of marijuana. “Now it is a police that confronts criminals.”