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“It Took Twenty Lives To Get Us To This Place.”

Says Border Civil Rights Advocate About CBP Announcement On Use of Force Policies
Anastasio Hernandez Rojas surrounded by agents

In the wake of a federal report released last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced Wednesday new measures to address a trend of lethal beatings and shootings by Border Patrol agents in the last three years. Civil rights advocates were encouraged by the announcement but said the agency still has a long way to go to institute real change.

U.S. CBP said it will give agents more non-lethal weapons options, better training in use of force tactics and conduct better tracking of excessive force complaints. The agency also said it will begin a pilot program to install mounted video cameras in patrol cars and provide lapel cameras for agents.

Since 2010, at least 20 people have been killed by U.S. Border Patrol agents, which spurred Congressional leaders to request a review last year of the agency’s use of force policies. Besides a report released last week by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, U.S. Customs and Border Protection also underwent an internal review as well as an independent external review by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum.

In the DHS OIG report, reviewers noted that many agents and officers in the field “do not understand use of force and the extent to which they may or may not use force.”

In a press statement Wednesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection clarified its use of force policy. “CBP agents and officers may use deadly force only when the agent or officer has a reasonable belief that the subject of such force poses an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the agent, officer or to another person.”

Congressional leaders requested an investigation of U.S. CBP after viewing footage aired in April 2012, during the PBS show “Need to Know “ of an unarmed and subdued man being beaten by border agents. The video shot at night on the San Diego-Tijuana border shows Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a Mexican migrant, being tased and kicked by a group of as many as 20 U.S. Border Patrol agents on the U.S. side of the border fence. Hernandez died from his injuries.

Christian Ramirez, director of the nonprofit Southern Border Communities Coalition, said the agency’s acknowledgment that it has a problem is a good first step but that a lot more needs to be done. “It took 20 lives to get us to this place,” he said. “The agency has taken a bold first step but a whole lot of work still needs to be done not just by CBP but also by Congress to ensure that someone is at the helm of the agency to make sure these changes trickle down to the agents in the field.”

In the last five years, the agency has had four commissioners, Ramirez said, and suffered a number of corruption scandals, as well as numerous allegations of using deadly force on unarmed migrants. “We have a very serious problem when Congress continues to focus on border enforcement but there are no steps taken to make sure we have good strong leadership at CBP to change the culture of an agency that has become accustomed to abuse and a lack of transparency.”

On Wednesday, Ramirez and his organization met with the interim director of U.S. CBP, Thomas Winkowski, and White House staff to express their concerns. Ramirez said the meeting went well. “The White House is taking reform at the agency seriously and CBP is finally acknowledging that it has a problem,” he said. “We’re getting there, but it’s going to take some time. The agency needs strong, consistent leadership from the top to make real change happen.”

Screen shot from Need to Know
Anastasio Hernandez Rojas surrounded by agents

The Department of Homeland Security has released a much-awaited report after a spate of fatal shootings and beatings by Border Patrol agents.

Unfortunately, the report generated by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General is as opaque as the agency it’s supposed to critique. The report focuses mostly on streamlining and better categorization of excessive force incidents by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The report also points out that the agency, after “several deadly force incidents,” conducted field audits in 2012 and found that “many agents and officers do not understand use of force and the extent to which they may or may not use force.”

This is more than obvious. Congressional leaders requested the report after viewing shocking footage of a man being beaten to death by border agents that aired in April 2012, during the PBS show “Need to Know.” The footage shot at night on the San Diego-Tijuana border shows Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a Mexican migrant, being tased and beaten by a group of as many as 20 U.S. Border Patrol agents on the U.S. side of the border fence. Hernandez is lying face down on the ground, his hands tied behind his back, screaming in Spanish, “Help me, please, help me.”

“I think I witnessed someone being murdered,” Ashley Young, the woman who shot the video said during the “Need to Know” episode “Crossing the Line at the Border.” In May 2010, Young had been crossing back into San Diego after sightseeing in Tijuana when she heard Hernandez screaming. When the agents didn’t stop beating him, Young took out her camera and began videotaping the assault.

Hernandez died a few hours later. The San Diego medical examiner called his death a homicide. The coroner’s report said Hernandez suffered a heart attack, had five broken ribs, a damaged spine and bruising all over his body.

The Border Patrol said Hernandez had “become combative” and that batons and a stun gun were used to “subdue the individual and maintain officer safety.”

None of the agents were charged for his assault or homicide, and the furor over his death largely subsided until John Carlos Frey, a documentary filmmaker from California, was able to locate Ashley Young and convince her to come forward with the footage for the April 2012 documentary.

The footage of Hernandez’s brutal beating could not be ignored. Congressional leaders wanted answers.

“I believe that CBP policies need a full review, followed by appropriate reforms. Any ambiguity or lack of accountability that could lead to violence must be eliminated,” said New York Congressman José E. Serrano in a press statement, after demanding a review of the agency along with 15 other congressional members.

We still don’t have those answers. The best that can be said for the report is that it shines a light on an agency that is notoriously averse to any type of scrutiny. It does maddeningly little to explain the disconnect between the agency’s written policies and practice by border agents in the field.

For instance, the report states that since October 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has made a concerted effort to train its agents in using “less-lethal devices” (their words) such as pepper spray. The agency also requires that agents get certified every year in using Tasers. Since 2010, the agency has also had a unified use-of-force policy for its agents in the field.

Yet since these changes were instituted in October 2010, eleven people have been fatally shot by agents—six of them on Mexican territory. If you count 2010, the tally is twenty.

And this is during a time when assaults against agents are on the decline. Both Customs and Border Protection and the report’s authors note that since 2010, assaults against agents have decreased. Still, on average at least five people are killed every year by agents in the field. What we want to know—and what this report doesn’t tell us—is why.

Screenshot of the USA Now website
Screenshot of the USA Now website.

In the midst of a growing security crisis in Mexico, the McAllen-based USA Now Regional Center offered Mexican families with money an escape: Invest $500,000 in South Texas and get a legal permanent resident card in the United States. But the offer may have been too good to be true.

In mid-July, agents with the FBI raided USA Now and confiscated luxury cars it says were purchased with investors’ cash. A warrant filed in federal court alleges that Marco Ramirez and his wife, Bebe Ramirez, the owners of USA Now, were running a Ponzi scheme, defrauding foreign investors of millions of dollars.

USA Now opened for business in McAllen in April 2011 and was designated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as an EB-5 investor program. Congress created the EB-5 program in 1990, providing U.S. residency visas as an incentive to foreign entrepreneurs willing to invest $1 million in a business that created 10 or more jobs, or $500,000 for an economically distressed or rural area.

For years the program has been underutilized because of onerous paperwork and confusion about changing immigration requirements. But in 2007, with the economic crisis expanding and credit drying up, U.S. companies began to take a second look at the program and its pool of foreign investors. The security crisis in Mexico provided the willing participants. By 2011, there were more than 300 regional centers like USA Now nationwide, according to the Associated Press, up from 11 in 2007.

In a 2011 interview with the Observer, Marco Ramirez said the company had more than 200 investors and another 100 waiting to invest. “Because of the insecurity crisis in Mexico, they’re no longer coming to visit, they’re coming to migrate,” he said. “And they’re also seeing an economic opportunity because of the economic crisis in our country.”

At the time, Ramirez was heavily advertising a program in Mexico called “Texas for Sale,” emphasizing to wealthy Mexican investors the benefits of buying foreclosed homes in Texas at cut-rate prices. In an FBI affidavit filed in federal court, a McAllen-based lawyer (and U.S. citizen) alleges that Marco Ramirez offered to help him buy back his foreclosed properties. The lawyer gave Ramirez $470,000, but $50,000 was allegedly used to buy Ramirez a 2011 Dodge Ram pickup instead of the foreclosed properties, according to court records.

No charges have been filed in the case, but the FBI investigation is ongoing. The company’s lawyer, Tony Canales, told the local newspaper the Monitor that the investigation is “wrong on the law and wrong on the facts. There’s a lot of things to explain,” he said. “They’re going to want explanations, and we’re going to give them explanations.”

U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman Speaks after the sentencing Thursday
Melissa del Bosque
U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman speaks to the media on Thursday.

(Updated 4:58 p.m.) Francisco Colorado Cessa, Jr. and Ramon Segura Flores appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Austin Friday afternoon in the same clothes they had worn to court the day before. And this time they wore shackles.

The two were arrested in a parking lot near the courthouse Thursday evening on charges of conspiracy to bribe U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks who is presiding over a Zetas money laundering case involving Francisco Colorado Cessa Sr.

The 25-year old university student Colorado Cessa Jr. and 52-year old Ramon Segura, a CPA and founding business partner of ADT Petroleum Services along with Colorado Cessa Sr., will be held without bond for two weeks until their detention hearings, said Judge Andrew Austin Friday afternoon. Both men could face five years in jail if found guilty. Colorado Cessa Sr. who was sentenced to 20 years by Judge Sparks for his role in the Zetas money-laundering scheme Thursday could also face additional jail time for the alleged bribery attempt, according to the criminal complaint filed in court.

(Original Story) The Zetas money laundering trial at a federal courthouse in Austin took another dramatic turn late Thursday with the arrest of Francisco Colorado Cessa’s business partner and his son, for attempting to bribe the judge presiding over the trial.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks sentenced Cessa to 20 years in prison for money laundering on Thursday. Later in the day, Colorado Cessa’s business associate Ramon Segura and Francisco Colorado Cessa Jr. were arrested for attempting to bribe Sparks.

Segura had testified in court early Thursday in Colorado Cessa’s defense. But behind the scenes, federal prosecutors say Segura and Colorado Cessa’s son approached someone they believed to be close to the judge and offered more than $1 million in exchange for a lesser sentence for the 52-year-old Colorado Cessa.

In May, Colorado Cessa was found guilty of helping the Zetas launder money by buying racehorses in the United States, a scheme the Observer detailed in August.

U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman said federal agents first learned of the bribery plans in August through jailhouse phone calls between Segura, Colorado Cessa and his son. FBI agents set up a sting, and a confidential informant posed as a confidant of Judge Sparks who could pass the bribe along to the judge.

The two men were arrested in the parking lot outside the federal courthouse Thursday. They will be arraigned today by a federal magistrate judge in the same federal courthouse where co-conspirators in the Zetas money laundering scheme are being sentenced.

Pitman said Friday that Judge Sparks was unaware of the bribery attempts or the federal sting set up to catch Segura and Colorado Cessa’s son. “He had no idea,” Pitman said. “In the United States we respect the rule of law and won’t tolerate corruption and lawlessness.”

U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman Speaks after the sentencing Thursday
U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman speaks to the press after the sentencing Thursday

(UPDATED 4:18 p.m. Friday) U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks continued the sentencing phase in the Zeta money laundering trial Friday morning. Austin Horse trainer Eusevio “Chevo” Huitron received the harshest sentence Friday of eight years for his participation in the money-laundering scheme. Zulema Treviño, wife of Jose Treviño, was sentenced to three years probation for money laundering and their 22-year old daughter Alexandra received two year’s probation after being found guilty last May on one count of failing to report a felony.

In court, U.S. Assistant Attorney Douglas Gardner said government agents had received information that some members of the Treviño family believed that Zulema and Alexandra were responsible for Jose’s guilty verdict. “I just want to say that Zulema provided no information to the government in this case,” Gardner said.

Alexandra wiped tears from her eyes as the judge sentenced her to two years probation. “She was just 17-years old when the conspiracy started,” her lawyer Frank Ivy told the judge. “And this will affect her for the rest of her life.”

(ORIGINAL STORY) Jose Treviño Morales, the brother of one of Mexico’s most feared drug cartel leaders, stood before a federal judge Thursday in Austin to plead for leniency in the sentencing phase of his trial. But in the end he received the maximum sentence of 20 years for money laundering.

The 46-year old Treviño was found guilty in May of leading a sophisticated scheme first devised by Los Zetas in 2008 to launder millions of dollars in drug money through the U.S. quarter horse racing industry. Federal prosecutors described the scheme as a “shell game by the defendants involving straw purchasers and transactions worth millions of dollars in New Mexico, Oklahoma, California and Texas to disguise the source drug money and make the proceeds from the sale of quarter horses or their race winnings appear legitimate.” Using these methods, Jose Treviño amassed nearly 500 horses, some of them the most expensive and coveted bloodlines in quarter horse racing.

On Thursday, Treviño, wearing a striped prison uniform and shackles, was allowed to address the courtroom before being sent to federal prison. He told United States District Judge Sam Sparks that he should not be judged by the actions of his brothers Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the leader of Los Zetas, now incarcerated in Mexico, or Omar Treviño Morales who is still at large. “I am not a Zeta,” he said. “I’ve worked hard all my life.”

His attorney Kirk Lechtenberger said the 46-year old had been “touched with the same paint brush” as his brothers throughout his trial, which had hurt his chances of being given a lighter sentence. “Jose is not Miguel or Omar,” he said. “He’s no Zeta.”

But prosecutor Douglas Gardner said Jose Treviño, with his clean criminal record and U.S. citizenship, played a crucial leadership role in laundering millions in drug proceeds for Los Zetas by buying, breeding and selling expensive race horses in the United States. “He was the director of the U.S. subsidiary of Los Zetas,” Gardner said. “He took money covered in blood and the source of it was his relationship with his brothers.”

In June 2012, Treviño was indicted along with his wife and daughter and 15 other collaborators including wealthy Mexican businessman Francisco Colorado Cessa who also received a 20-year sentence Thursday for his role in the money laundering scheme. Colorado Cessa owned a petroleum services company in Veracruz Mexico called ADT that U.S. prosecutors say was used by Los Zetas as a front to make drug money appear legitimate when buying race horses in the United States.

“You were not just buying horses but also participating in their (Los Zetas) activities,” Judge Sparks said. “You decided to participate and you were smart enough to know better.”

Also on Thursday, Fernando Solis Garcia, 30, received a lesser sentence of 13 years for his role in the money laundering scheme. Garcia purchased horses at auctions in the United States and made sure that stables, trainers and other maintenance costs for the horses were paid on time.

U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman said he and other federal agencies that participated in the investigation were “drawing a line in the sand” when it came to Mexican cartel operations in the United States. “This prosecution and the sentences imposed today should send a clear message to those who would attempt to import their brand of corruption and violence into the United States.”

On Friday several other co-conspirators in the money laundering case will be sentenced including Treviño’s daughter and wife.

Anabel Hernandez
Anabel Hernandez

Mexican investigative reporter Anabel Hernandez has spent years combing through government documents and cultivating sources in law enforcement, the military and the drug world. She’s come to the conclusion that Mexico’s drug war can’t be won. Corruption is so deep and systemic within the government institutions charged with fighting narco-trafficking that it’s become a “war for drugs, not against drug trafficking,” she says.

Hernandez’s 2011 bestseller Los Señores del Narco was a sensation in Mexico. It linked former President Felipe Calderon’s powerful head of security forces, Genaro Garcia Luna, with the country’s top drug capos, including Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. In 2012, Hernandez was awarded  the Golden Pen of Freedom by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers for her work in exposing government corruption.

Because of her work, the 42-year old journalist and her family have lived with round-the-clock bodyguards provided by Mexico City’s government since 2010. Now her book has been translated into English and will be released as Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers on September 10 by the UK publishing house Verso. This fall, Hernandez will tour the United Kingdom and the United States to promote her book. I spoke with her recently about Narcoland and her crucial investigative work in Mexico on government corruption and drug trafficking.


Texas Observer: What is the status of your security situation right now? I heard that the Mexican government had announced it would take away your bodyguards.

Anabel Hernandez: Last March the government of Mexico City decided to take away my bodyguards but thanks to the French government and other governments intervening I was allowed to keep them. The worst thing that I am living with now are the death threats. In June, someone left decapitated animals in my house as a warning.

TO: Do you have any idea who might have done this?

AH: I think it’s because I am still investigating and writing about the corruption of Genaro Garcia Luna. He’s not heading the Secretariat of Public Security anymore, he now lives with his family in Miami but all of his key people are still in control in Mexico. [The agency was dissolved in January 2013 by the current president and recreated as the National Commission of Security].

TO: Can you talk more about who Genaro Garcia Luna is and his power within Calderon’s presidency and the role he played in the current security crisis in Mexico.

AH: When Felipe Calderon started his presidency [in 2006], he announced his war on drugs. The head of that war was Genaro Garcia Luna; it wasn’t the army. Garcia Luna lead the government strategy and his institution, the Secretariat of Public Security, received the most money in the war against drugs. This institution got involved with drug traffickers. They didn’t just protect narcos, they helped them traffick drugs in international airports in Mexico City, Tijuana and Cancun for instance. The Federal Police helped the Sinaloa Cartel put drug shipments in airplanes and take them off planes when they arrived. I think it was one of the biggest lies of the Calderon government because he knew what Garcia Luna was up to. Many people told him. The general prosecutor has documents with many testimonies about Garcia Luna and his team’s corruption. But Calderon didn’t want to stop them. I think it’s because he was part of it.

TO: In your book, the soon-to-be-released Narcoland, you spent five years investigating the relationship between drug trafficking and the Mexican government as far back as the 80s. What you describe sounds like a mafia state. Is that what Mexico has become?

AH: I started the book in 2005 after visiting the Golden Triangle [Durango, Sinaloa and Chihuahua]. I went because I wanted to write an article about kids being forced to work in the marijuana and opium poppy fields. But then I discovered that these kids even as young as seven or eight-years-old were proud of their work in the fields because in this region of Mexico at least 90 percent of the families are dedicated to growing marijuana and poppies. These little kids wanted to be part of the family business. It was a shock for me. I went back to Mexico City and wrote the article. Afterward a lawyer contacted me. He was representing a man who worked at the maximum security prison where Chapo Guzman had escaped [in 2001]. He had been thrown in prison because of Chapo’s escape and he wanted to tell his side of the story. So I went to the jail and met with him and what he told me really opened my eyes. He gave me a large file with thousands of documents and I went home and read it. I realized that Chapo Guzman had been one of those little kids in the Golden Triangle helping his father in the marijuana fields. I wanted to know how an almost illiterate child had grown up to be one of the most powerful drug lords in the world and that’s when I started my investigation.

TO: So you followed his trajectory from a small child to the most powerful drug lord in Mexico?

AH: Yes. When he was in prison he had money to pay for women, parties and to bribe the guards because of his cousins the Beltran Leyvas but he wasn’t a powerful person. He had lost all of his smuggling territories and his business. So, it was a big surprise for me to see after his escape from jail and his joining with the Sinaloa Cartel again that he became very powerful in a very short time. I wanted to know why? And I discovered that it was because he had the protection of the federal government.

TO: Was it surprising to you as you learned more about how complicit the government was in the drug business?

AH: It was like swimming in dark waters. I did so many interviews with law enforcement, military officials and so many people involved in the drug world. I spoke with members from each of the cartels and got their stories and cross checked them with documents and other testimonies and that’s how I wrote Narcoland.

TO: And the more you learned the more dangerous it became for you I can imagine.

AH: Yes. Many of my sources were killed and others jailed. I think I stayed alive because I denounced and made public the threats against my life. I made public the death threats from Garcia Luna.

TO: In your book you speak of the abject poverty in the Golden Triangle where families view growing marijuana and poppies as their only means for survival. Has the Mexican government done anything to alleviate this poverty and offer other solutions?

AH: No. I really don’t think that the Mexican government wants to fight against drugs. Because when you go to the Golden Triangle you don’t see the government there. They’re not interested in starting programs to offer the poor people another option, another crop like corn or beans that they can grow. The government isn’t there or offering any alternatives.

TO: Why hasn’t the government done anything?

AH: Because it’s a business and I think illegal drugs globally is a huge business that moves the economies of many countries in many parts of the world. When I talk to the lawyers for instance of some of these large drug capos they explain, ‘Anabel you have to see it like a business’.

TO: Did it surprise you that they talked to you openly about the business?

AH: Well, it wasn’t easy. But I insisted with them that I wanted to understand more about narco-trafficking. “They said, ‘don’t do it. You’re a woman and you have children and it’s not a good idea.’ But I kept insisting and finally they opened the doors. In Mexico, many people think if you want to talk with drug traffickers you have to go to these remote areas where they are hiding out. But most of my interviews are in major cities. Narco-traffickers are not hiding from anybody. They are everywhere and in the best restaurants and staying at the finest hotels.

TO: You also write about the Iran-Contra scandal in your book and the nexus between Mexican drug dealers and the CIA. Can you talk more about that?

AH: There was a very important trial in California of Juan Matta-Ballesteros. Many of the testimonies talked about ties between the CIA and the drug dealers in Mexico such as Rafael Caro Quintero, who as you know was just released from jail in Mexico.

I have an idea that I can’t get out of my head. If the CIA was involved with Mexican drug lords during the Iran-Contra years why wouldn’t it happen again? Who knows? I discovered in 2011 ties between the DEA and Sinaloa Cartel in the trial with Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla in Chicago. The proof is in the testimonies and files in that case. The DEA is a different agency but it’s a similar scenario where the government gets involved with drug cartels. How many other cases are there out there that we don’t know about?

It’s impossible to think that this very huge elephant— tons of cocaine, tons of marijuana — just walks over the border and goes to Chicago, New York or Los Angeles and nobody sees it. It’s not possible. For instance, there are many houses used in the U.S. to count drug proceeds. Counting that money can take weeks and nobody sees it? It’s not possible. I really think the problems we have in Mexico some of the responsibility lies with the U.S. government and U.S. drug consumers.

TO: Here’s a question that’s often asked. Would legalizing drugs help?

AH: Well, I’m not an expert on that issue. As you know the drug cartels don’t just sell drugs; they have a lot of different types of illegal businesses, like human trafficking. If you make drugs legal there are still the other businesses.

TO: What do you think about the new presidential administration of Enrique Peña Nieto. Can he improve things?

AH: I really don’t know yet, it’s still to soon to say. But what I do know is that all of our institutions are corrupted — the army is penetrated by drug cartels, the federal police and the general prosecutors office. Peña Nieto can’t fight against anything without cleaning them up first. Then you need to make a strategy, but if he doesn’t clean the institutions nothing will work. We don’t have anything to fight with against the drug cartels.

TO: Fighting such deep systemic corruption sounds really difficult. Wasn’t much of this corrupt system allowed to grow under the PRI — the same party that Enrique Peña Nieto belongs to? How do you clean everything, who’s going to do it?

AH: Right. Only people who aren’t corrupt can do it. The problem is that Peña Nieto became president in a controversial election. A few have proved that in his campaign were signs of laundering money. And his presidential election had the least votes in the history of Mexico. So his presidency is very weak. He is part of the PRI, which is the same  corrupted party but it has weakened. Its institutions are weak and so is the country.

TO: It used to be that the PRI told drug cartels what to do, but it seems the relationship has changed.

AH: Yes it has reversed. That’s the big difference. The cartels don’t do something because Enrique Peña Nieto wants it. It’s not like it was before in the 70s or 80s.

TO: What do you make of the recent release of Rafael Caro Quintero?

AH: I think it is a really bad sign for Peña Nieto’s presidency. I recently published an article in Proceso where I found documents in court that show Peña Nieto knew one week before Caro’s release that he would be released and his administration didn’t stop it. They didn’t advise the U.S. government either so that they could request his extradition. They kept silent. And when Caro Quintero got out of jail Peña Nieto acted surprised but they knew in advance.

TO: It does seem like the old PRI doesn’t it?

AH: Yes, that’s what I think. It’s a very bad sign for the Peña Nieto presidency and I think it will have consequences. Not only with the U.S. government but also with Mexican society because no one believes that corruption wasn’t involved in his release.

TO: This is off topic but what do you think about the proliferation of self-defense groups in Michoacan and Guerrero. Is it a natural response to the government’s failure to protect people and to the systemic corruption? This to me seems to be a turning point in the drug war. I was curious what you thought about it.

AH: I have been investigating the issue, and I don’t have a conclusion yet but I think I’m close. What is happening in Michoacan and Guerrero is almost the same thing. There have been self-defense groups in these areas for many years, even before the war against drugs. The people vote for these community defense groups, and the groups don’t wear masks because they have nothing to hide. And they use rudimentary, old weapons.

Now, suddenly we have these self-defense groups carrying high caliber weapons and wearing masks that seem to come out of nowhere. I think some of the self-defense groups really are from the communities but others are from the drug cartels. And I have information that other self-defense groups have been put there by the government.

TO: Are the government self-defense groups working in tandem with the drug cartel groups or separate?

AH: That’s what I don’t know yet—if they are the same or separate. It’s very dangerous for Mexico because as you know everything in Colombia got worse when the government let the paramilitaries grow. I think things could get much worse for Mexico and spread beyond Guerrero and Michoacan. I’m very worried about it.

TO: Do you see Mexico as a functioning democracy right now. Do you feel like there is freedom of expression?

AH: No. It’s very sad to say, more because I am a Mexican journalist but in Mexico I can’t say that democracy exists, not if in many parts of Mexico like Jalisco, Michoacan, Veracruz and Tamaulipas the drug cartels are in power. How can democracy exist when they can do whatever they want to? How can we have freedom of expression when so many journalists have been killed? I can’t say that freedom of expression exists when I have to live with round-the-clock bodyguards. Journalists in other countries can walk freely on the streets and I can’t.

TO: Do you know many journalists who have been killed or left the country?

AH: Yes, many. Right now along with Reporteros sin Fronteras we are organizing a program to keep reporters safe because sometimes when they escape places like Veracruz or Tamaulipas and come to Mexico City they don’t know where to go, they have no resources and not even food to eat. So, we are making a program to provide them with some money and food for them and their families because the Mexican government doesn’t really want to do anything.

TO: What do you hope that English-language readers will take from your book?

AH: For me it’s very important that my book is translated because I think that now many people in the world can understand what is really happening in Mexico. Because if they read Narcoland they’ll learn that the biggest problem in Mexico is not the drug cartels—they are just a symptom of the disease—and this disease is corruption. What is happening in Mexico because of corruption can happen in other places, too. If the institutions are weak and the government is involved and if people don’t say anything about it, then they will have another Mexico.

TO: Do you consider leaving Mexico?

AH: Many times I have considered leaving. But I’ve decided to stay. I know very well that I am not the best journalist in Mexico, but I really want to work to help my country. I really believe that good journalism can change things in this world. I want to contribute with my work to change something.

Marisela Reyes in a 2011 Interview

Marisela Reyes Salazar, a human rights activist from Mexico, has won her political asylum case in the United States. The U.S. government rarely grants Mexican asylum cases, approving less than two percent every year.

The case of the Reyes Salazar family made international headlines, after six members of the family, well-known activists from the Juarez Valley near Ciudad Juarez, were killed by masked gunmen from 2008 to 2011. The family repeatedly spoke out against forced displacements, murders and disappearances that began to skyrocket after the military occupied the rural farming region in 2008 to fight drug trafficking.

By 2009, the valley, with a population of 20,000, had one of the highest murder rates in the world—1,600 per 100,000 inhabitants—six times higher than Ciudad Juarez, which the media had begun to call the “deadliest city in the world.”

As members of her family were threatened and killed, Marisela Reyes Salazar took an increasingly public role protesting against corruption and the government’s failure to investigate murders in her community. Marisela and other family members, including her mother Sara Salazar, staged sit-ins and hunger strikes in front of the Senate in Mexico City and the attorney general’s office in Juarez after the kidnappings in February 2011 of three of their family members: Elías Reyes Salazar, his wife Luisa Ornelas and Malena Reyes Salazar. The three kidnapping victims were later found dead in their hometown of Guadalupe, located across the Rio Grande from Tornillo, Texas.

None of their murders has been investigated, much less solved. Last year, I documented in a 10,000 word feature “The Deadliest Place in Mexico” the destruction in the Juarez Valley and the persecution of the Reyes Salazar family. Since 2011, at least 40 members of the Reyes Salazar family have been forced to flee Mexico and seek asylum in the United States. Marisela was granted asylum in April 2013. Her nephew Hugo was also granted asylum. Other members of the family are still awaiting their court dates.

Attorney Barbara Hines, co-director of the UT School of Law Immigration Clinic, represented Marisela and Hugo in court. “Marisela was truly deserving of a grant of asylum. She was one of the most active members of the Reyes family, with a long history of human rights advocacy in the Juarez Valley. Although Marisela and her nephew Hugo have found safety in this country, the tragedies the Reyes family have suffered still remain.”

Despite living in exile, Marisela said she would continue fighting for justice for her family and her community. “We were forced to flee our country and I fault the government of Mexico for that,” she said. “We are in the United States but we won’t be quiet. We want the government to investigate the deaths in our town. We want the government to do their jobs. I’ve confronted every level of government in Mexico to try and get them to do something about the murders, the disappearances but they refused to investigate or solve the crimes.”

Marisela said it had been tough for the family to lose their loved ones, their businesses, their homes and ultimately their country. Now she is working to build awareness that there are a growing number of Mexicans seeking political asylum abroad. At least 70 percent of residents in the Juarez Valley were killed or forced to flee, according to estimates from former residents. (No official census of the displaced has been taken by Mexican officials since the drug war began in 2006.) Many of those who fled like the Reyes Salazar family are seeking asylum in the United States. “We want justice for all of the displaced people,” she said.

Since arriving in the United States, Marisela has traveled throughout the country speaking at universities and other institutions about the persecution of activists in Mexico and about the devastation of her community in the Juarez Valley. “My fight for justice doesn’t stop,” she said. “We came to the United States with nothing and slept on the floor and had to ask for food. We are starting over from zero, but we won’t be silenced.”

Homeland Security

In the past three years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has rapidly increased its use of drones for domestic surveillance, despite growing concern from civil liberties groups. But those drones may soon do more than just spy. A recently declassified government report reveals that the agency has also considered equipping its drones with “non-lethal weapons.”

“It’s the first I’ve heard of Customs and Border Protection considering using weapons,” says Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, the group that obtained the government report on drones after filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. “They’ve always said their Predator drones are unarmed and just used for surveillance.”

The non-lethal weapons would be used to immobilize “targets of interest,” according to the report. Most likely weaponized drones would be used for border security, Lynch says. “What the targets of interest would be are unclear. They could be people, facilities or cars.”

The report also doesn’t specify what non-lethal weapons the agency has in mind. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have been known to use rubber bullets and pepper pellets in their arsenal.

Despite the recent revelation, this is not the first time the use of weaponized drones has come up in the realm of border security. In a 2011 interview in the magazine El Paso Inc., former Democratic Congressman Silvestre Reyes, then chair of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he wouldn’t rule out drone strikes in Mexico. “We have to do what we’ve done essentially in Pakistan, and that is start taking out the heads of the cartels,” he told the magazine.

Earlier in 2011, The New York Times revealed that the Mexican government was allowing U.S. Customs and Border Protection—under direction of the Pentagon—to fly drones deep into Mexico to conduct surveillance and gather intelligence on major drug kingpins.

Customs and Border Protection is also using drones to conduct surveillance for many other governmental agencies, especially state and local law enforcement, with scant oversight, Lynch says. She adds that the use of weaponized drones, even non-lethal weapons, on U.S. soil is cause for concern. “If they’re flying drones with weapons on them on behalf of other agencies in a program with little oversight—that really worries me,” Lynch says. “We’re going to start seeing weapons used for many different things.”

(Update: U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Mike Friel sent the following statement in response to the story: “CBP has no plans to arm its unmanned aircraft systems with non-lethal weapons or weapons of any kind. CBP’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) support CBP’s border security mission and provide an important surveillance and reconnaissance capability for interdiction agents on the ground and on the waterways. Current UAS were designed with the ability to add new surveillance capabilities, accommodate technological developments, and ensure that our systems are equipped with the most advanced resources available.”)

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño
Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño

The jury deliberated for three hours this afternoon before finding former lawman Jorge Garza guilty of conspiring to possess more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana. The verdict capped off an explosive trial that exposed the depths of law enforcement corruption in the Rio Grande Valley.

The former sheriff’s deputy was a bit player in a drug conspiracy that brought down members of the Panama Unit, a corrupt drug task force run by Jonathan Treviño, the son of the Hidalgo County sheriff. But Garza was the only lawman not to take a plea deal. His week-long trial often seemed like two trials: one centering on Garza’s role in the drug conspiracy and the other a deeper examination of law enforcement corruption in the border county, especially the sheriff’s office.

The drug conspiracy centered on the Panama Unit, investigators at the Hidalgo County district attorney’s office and deputies working in the sheriff’s crime stoppers program. The corrupt cops worked in tandem with three drug dealers to rip off other local dealers and then resell the drugs locally, splitting the profits.

According to testimony, Garza’s role was arranging fake traffic stops in his squad car to scare off local dealers so that other members in the scheme could steal their drug loads.

The trial became front-page news Thursday when Sheriff Lupe Treviño—a powerful and ambitious political figure in the Valley—was called to testify for the defense. Garza’s lawyer kept the sheriff on the witness stand for two days. The questions were wide-ranging but centered on how much the sheriff knew about the illegal and unethical activity around him, including pressure on his employees to allegedly raise money for his campaigns as well his his day-to-day knowledge of his son’s criminal activities in the Panama Unit.

Since his son was indicted in December, Treviño has maintained that he was oblivious. But throughout the trial witnesses, including Fabian Rodriguez, a former Panama Unit member testified that the sheriff received daily briefings on the Panama Unit. Rodriguez said the sheriff’s son ran the unit and made decisions about which officers got to participate in illegitimate drug busts. “Only the people who worked the bust got the money,” he said. “Jonathan would choose who came to the bust. And he would say how much money each person got.”

Commander Joe Padilla, the sheriff’s right-hand man, was also summoned to testify during the trial. Padilla arrived in court only to plead the Fifth Amendment after the judge advised him that he was under investigation by the U.S. attorneys. Throughout the trial, multiple witnesses described Padilla as the muscle for the sheriff, an intimidating enforcer who forced deputies to fundraise for the sheriff and sold protection and sensitive law enforcement intelligence to drug dealers.

On Sunday the Monitor reported that Padilla had previously been interrogated by U.S. Attorney Jim Sturgis and was offered a recommendation of probation if he cooperated. But Padilla refused to cooperate.

During the trial other law enforcement agents were also implicated in the conspiracy. Charlie Vela, an investigator for the district attorney’s office was summoned to the court to testify. Vela pleaded the Fifth Amendment rather than incriminate himself. The district attorney fired Vela the same day.

After a week of testimony about police corruption in the border county, Garza was described by the defense as a lawman trying to survive in a corrupted sheriff’s agency. But Sturgis, lead prosecutor in the Garza trial, admonished the 12-member jury not to forget Garza’s active role in the conspiracy. He also hinted that there would be further indictments in the drug conspiracy.

“We’re not here for all the other stuff that was testified about, and that needs to be dealt with,” Sturgis said. “That is for another time, another place.”

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane said Garza’s sentencing would be held in October along with members of the now disbanded Panama Unit drug task force.

Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño was back on the witness stand today in a federal trial in McAllen. On his second day of questioning, he was repeatedly asked about his involvement with his son Jonathan’s corrupt drug task force, the Panama Unit. The sheriff denied any knowledge of the unit’s day-to-day actions.

The sheriff was first called to testify for the defense on Friday. But instead of being asked questions about his former employee Jorge Garza, who is on trial for drug conspiracy charges, the defense attorney questioned the sheriff about a wide range of allegations from campaign fraud to his employees accepting money from drug dealers in exchange for sensitive law enforcement intelligence.

On Monday, Gutierrez’s questions shifted to how much the sheriff knew about the Panama Unit, his 29-year old son’s rogue drug task force. All Panama Unit members have since pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. The sheriff has maintained for several months that he had no knowledge of the Panama Unit ripping off drug dealers and reselling the drugs to local dealers.

The sheriff testified that it was his idea to create the task force to arrest street level dealers in the city of Mission. The unit was supposed to work primarily in western Hidalgo County, he testified, but they could work in other parts of the county if they notified local law enforcement first.

Previous witnesses in the trial, including former Panama Unit member Fabian Rodriguez, testified that the sheriff kept close tabs on his son’s unit. But on the witness stand, the sheriff said he rarely spoke with his son, although they live together, and that the unit was under the jurisdiction of one of his deputy sergeants and the Mission police chief. “I had no knowledge of their daily operations,” he testified.

His testimony was often contradictory. The sheriff said that on December 12, his son immediately called him after seizing a car-load of cocaine and realizing the drugs had GPS  trackers embedded in them. When the sheriff arrived at the scene he said there was a woman screaming hysterically that the cocaine belonged to the Sinaloa Cartel and that she would be killed.

But the sheriff said he had a gut feeling that it was a government sting. “They [Panama Unit members] were young, stupid and inexperienced, but it was obvious to me the transmitters belonged to the feds,” he said.

“Unless you had some prior knowledge that the Panama Unit was doing bad things why would you suspect a sting?” Judge Randy Crane asked. “If they’re honest police officers just doing their job, why not think that they just came upon another police operation that was tracking a drug load, rather than thinking it was a sting?”

The sheriff testified that he cut the wire for one of the GPS trackers, then authorized a deputy to cut the rest of them,  just in case the cocaine belonged to the Sinaloa Cartel. His son was allowed to return to the sheriff’s office where he interrogated the woman who had been driving the car.

But Treviño was right. It was a sting targeting the Panama Unit. And the feds were looking for Jonathan and their confidential informant, whom they later found at the sheriff’s office. “The FBI and DEA showed up an hour later and explained the sting operation. I said okay. They took the woman, the drugs and the transmitters,” Treviño said. And Jonathan was indicted by the feds that same day.

The sheriff also testified that his son told him that a Panama Unit member and sheriff’s deputy, Claudio Mata, had stolen jewelry from a home in Pharr during a drug bust last July. Mata confessed to the theft, but the sheriff didn’t arrest or fire Mata.

After the sheriff, Miguel Flores, a sheriff’s deputy who recently resigned, took the witness stand. Flores testified that he had worked as an informant for the FBI to build a case against the Panama Unit. (In May, he revealed his status as an informant publicly for the first time to the Observer.)

Flores testified that Gerardo Duran, a member of the Panama Unit approached him about working with the rogue task force. “He told me they were very well protected,” he testified. “Because they were working with Jonathan Treviño and protected by [Commander Joe] Padilla and the sheriff himself. If anything went wrong they would clean it up.”

Tomorrow will be closing arguments and then the 12-member jury will deliberate. It’s been a wild trial full of allegations of corruption and chummy relationships between drug dealers and cops.  The defendant, Jorge Garza, looks like a small fish swimming in a large sea of corruption.

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