Fighting for Freedom from a Juarez Jail
A week before Christmas, Shohn Huckabee and Carlos Quijas were driving back to El Paso after having Huckabee’s truck fixed at a mechanic’s shop in Juarez. As they approached the border Mexican military vehicles surrounded their truck.
The Mexican soldiers say they found two suitcases of marijuana, more than 100 pounds, in the cab of the truck that day. Huckabee and Quijas tell a different story. They say the Mexican military planted the drugs in Huckabee’s truck.
That was December 2009. After nine months in jail, Huckabee and Quijas, both U.S. citizens, were sentenced to five years in a Juarez jail. Huckabee says the judge didn’t take into account evidence that proved their innocence. Huckabee, now 24, and Quijas, 37, appealed their case.
They’ve spent the last 18 months in the state prison in Juarez. (Quijas was recently transferred to the federal prison Islas Marias – Mexico’s Alcatraz.) Kevin Huckabee, Shohn’s father, let me come along on a family visit recently to the Juarez jail to meet his son and hear his story.
Kevin, 47, who lives outside of El Paso and has five other children (three of whom are adopted), drives to the Juarez prison three days a week to visit his son. He’s of medium build and wears glasses and seems to possess a great deal of patience mostly out of necessity. He was an insurance executive but retired due to a serious back injury. For the last two years, he’s devoted his life to getting his son out of jail. He says the military planted the drugs in his son’s truck that day and that Shohn was tortured after his arrest. Kevin has pled his son’s innocence to anyone who will listen from the media to the U.S. federal government. Last year, he was able to get the attention of the Wall Street Journal, which did an extensive investigation into Shohn’s case. The Journal reported that the human-rights office of the state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juárez is located, was investigating 465 cases of alleged abuse and torture of Mexican citizens by soldiers. Gustavo de la Rosa, the office’s ombudsman in Ciudad Juárez, had received 70 complaints in which soldiers were alleged to have planted evidence, including some that involved suitcases packed with marijuana.
The Mexican legal system is byzantine and difficult to navigate, especially for foreigners like Kevin who don’t speak Spanish fluently. Defendants are guilty until proven innocent. There is no trial before a jury of your peers as there is in the United States. A defendant’s fate is often decided around a courtroom clerk’s desk and the judge makes a ruling based on the written testimony presented to him. The testimony of soldiers or law enforcement carries more weight than the testimony of ordinary citizens. When I met Kevin in El Paso in mid-June it was during a crucial time in Shohn’s case. Inexplicably, Carlos Quijas had just been transferred to Islas Marias. Kevin worried that the same could happen to his son at any time.
Another worry was that the federal government had recently transferred Shohn’s final appeal case to Culiacan, Sinaloa – more than 1,000 miles from Juarez. In a few short days, Kevin would have to fly to Sinaloa to plead his son’s innocence. And he’d have to make the trip without his lawyer who is not certified to practice law in the state of Sinaloa. The fact that he only speaks broken Spanish would make it even more difficult. “We are at least hopeful,” Kevin said. “I think we have a good shot.”
Shohn who has sandy blond hair and wears a baseball cap is of medium build like his father. He greets us after we go through a pat-down search and enter the inner courtyard of the prison. Shohn is quiet and circumspect and seems a good decade older than his 24 years. The jail is like a small town with restaurants, a barber and even an enclosure for ducks and rabbits for when the children come to visit on family days. On the day I’m there wives are visiting with their husbands with children in tow. The children run through the courtyard playing tag or they play video games in a shaded part of the courtyard. But it’s not always such a benign scene at the prison. In the 18 months Shohn has been there seven men have been murdered. The latest victim was beaten to death and hung in the prison courtyard.
Following is a transcript from the Observer’s interview with Shohn Huckabee and his father Kevin:
Observer: Can you talk about what happened when you were arrested?
Shohn: We were headed back, that day, almost to the bridge…I don’t know, half a mile or so before the bridge, and the soldiers pulled us off to the side of the road. I, you know, didn’t know exactly what was going on. They ran up to the truck, opened the doors and pulled us out. I still didn’t know what was going on. They put us by their trucks, took everything out of our pockets. I had about $1300 dollars on me, cell phone. Then we went and, I hadn’t spent as much fixing the truck as I expected to so, of course, I had more. They pulled everything out of our pockets, and then they pulled our shirts over our heads, and put us inside the bed of the trucks. We were in there, and then the trucks took off.
Observer: And you still had the shirt over your head…?
Shohn: Yeah. There were soldiers sitting and standing around us. We were driving down the road, fast, honking…I don’t remember sirens, but I think there were sirens, on the truck. Then all of a sudden, one of the guys starts hitting the truck, saying “Hey, hey, stop, stop!” One of the soldiers had fallen off the truck!
Shohn: Yeah. So, they got him back in, and he sat down right above our heads, like on a little bench. And he was kind of talking, and kind of hitting us, with the rifle, and we were just lying there. When we got over to, I guess it’s a military base, it’s right here next to CERESO (the jail), they had taken us, pulled us out of the truck, and put us in another vehicle, and they put us in there, and they put Carlos in first and I got in the next door in the backseat as well, and they said “No no no, he doesn’t speak Spanish, he’s an American”, so they grabbed me to pull me out, and the guy goes “No no no, wait!” and then he spits on my hand, and that’s when he rips my wedding ring off.
Observer: He spit on your hand?
Shohn: Yeah. Then they pulled me down and put me in a building that was close by. They put me in a room–I guess it was the Doctor’s medical examining room. In there, they were asking me questions, and, you know, I really didn’t know what they were saying. For the most part, they were wanting to know height, and weight, eye color, hair, and I wouldn’t be answering the questions because I didn’t know Spanish at the time, and they were hitting me over the head with the rifles, and at one point the guy cocked a gun and put it to my head, and pulled the trigger. Finally, after the medical, that they did, they left me sitting in the room for a while. There were soldiers coming in and out, I don’t know why. They pulled me out and put me in another room, with two beds, and I sat there…I mean, we were blindfolded.
Observer: You were blindfolded?
Shohn: Yeah. We were sitting there, and the guy was talking to me… sort of, “What were you doing here,” “I’m just getting my truck fixed,” “No no, I know you weren’t.” There was one guy that spoke, maybe 10 words of English. With what Spanish I spoke I could sort of understand. And in a little bit they brought Carlos in. And I said, “Hey, you’re doing okay there? I’m glad that you’re here.”
“Hey hey, stop talking,” they said. They took him back into the medical room, I guess. While he was gone, they had him out torturing him.
Observer: Could you hear?
Shohn: I didn’t hear, there was another building right there. Later Carlos told me they were shocking him, taking his clothes off, wetting him down, shocking him more, then just beating him up. He came back in completely different clothes than what he had had on. They had taken his clothes. And then when I went in for I guess their interrogation, or whatever it was, it was very strange. The guy spoke to me in perfect English.
It’s one reason that I believe he was a U.S. agent. He did not have an accent. Actually, when he spoke Spanish to the soldiers, it was an American accent. He was using words and phrases like “You’re sitting on thin ice,” “You’re in trouble.” People that just learn English… those aren’t things that you learn. I couldn’t see him. I was blindfolded. And he asked me, “Who is this person, who is El Siete,” “I don’t know,” “Where did the drugs come from?” “What drugs?,” they asked me “Where did the marijuana come from?,” “What marijuana?,” “What is this, where did this come from?” and they put in my hand, and I said “I don’t know.” I couldn’t feel it. It felt like a pen. Then they lifted the blindfold up for me to look at it, and it was a tube and it had white powder in it. “Whose is it? Whose cocaine is this?” “Not mine.” “It was in the truck. Well whose gun was it, in the truck?” “What gun?” “You know. You guys had a pistol in the truck.” “No, we didn’t.” They kept going through them, asking me this and that, and they said “You know, I’m tired of you not answering me.” And they handed me a wire, and put it in my hand, and said: “When you’re not going to answer me, I’m just going to shock you.” So I answered, and he shocked me. I’d answer, and he’d shock me. It obviously wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
Observer: What did the shock feel like?
Shohn: Like a cattle hotshot kind of deal. It was…it wasn’t pleasant. And then the guy goes. “So you like my English?” and I said “Yeah, you speak really good English. Where did you learn it?”, and he says. “Ah, I learned it in school,” and I said “Well where did you go to school? “I went to school everywhere.,” he says. And then he says “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?” “No.” “Well what do I like look?” “I don’t know, I can’t see you.” “Well guess.” And I said, “Well I would imagine you’re a tall, thin guy, maybe six foot, slim.” And he goes, “Well what color hair do I have?” “Brown,” “What color are my eyes?”, and I said “I don’t know,” and he goes “Are my eyes colored like yours?” “Could be, you sound like an American,” and he shut up after that, he didn’t say another word.
Observer: So what happened after that?
Shohn: They took me back into the other room, and they…actually, before, when we were in the room together, they took us out, and they took the pictures of us. They took us out, put us in the vehicle, drove us across what I believe is maybe a parking lot, and then a guy got out of the vehicle. And then he got back in. Carlos was talking to the guy in the front seat, like, you know, “If you’re going to kill us, just make sure that you don’t decapitate us, you know, just make it more…”, because the guys were saying “We’re going to cut your heads off”. He was speaking to him in Spanish.
Observer: So the guys were saying they were going to cut your heads off?
Shohn: Yeah. So they came back in, the guy got back in the car and then they drove us back what seemed like the same route to where we were, and they walked us out in front of a vehicle with the lights on. They took us out of the vehicle put us in front of the lights. We were walking and we had our blindfolds on. Then they put us in front of a white banner that said Conjunta Chihuahua. It was the name of the military operation. They put us there, standing there, and the military grabbed us. They had all of our construction materials there…I had hard hats, I had vests. It was everything in the truck. When you build projects at Fort Bliss, you have to have your hard hats, you have to have your vests. You can’t get out of your vehicle at a job site without any of it. I had three or four, in the truck.
Observer: So that’s where you were working at the time at Fort Bliss?
Shohn: Yes And, you know, I had everything in there. Because the second you get out of the truck you have to have it. And we had come that morning from the job site. They did the pictures, there were army guys taking pictures with their cell phones. There was another reporter taking pictures, but what we found out was that it was the military’s reporter that takes their pictures. They don’t allow anyone in.
Kevin: They (Mexican military) distribute them to the news agencies.
Shohn: And then, that’s when they took us back into that room, and then took us in with the American guy. After my…interrogation, I guess you would call it, I went out, Carlos went back in. Carlos went in, to talk to them. I couldn’t really hear…it was in the next room, but I couldn’t really hear, and then they brought us back in, and then they took us back out, to the front door. And they told us, they said “Alright, put them back in the truck,” and I thought really? I figured after they took the pictures, we were safe. They took pictures you know? I didn’t think they were going to kill us anymore.
Observer: And did Carlos tell you that they were saying they were going to kill you?
Shohn: He had heard that the Mexican Army picks people up, and you never see them again.
Kevin: At that time, we’re not hearing a lot of news on the other side of the border, though, about what’s going on. The mayor of Juarez was saying “Juarez is safe,” unless you’re a drug dealer it’s okay. We didn’t know, like most Americans, that the State Department had a travel warning. But, nobody checks that to come to Juarez. People come across to buy stuff all the time. We bought at least half of the material that we remodeled our house with. It was pretty normal here on the border to go back and forth.
Observer: So this is 2009?
Kevin: Just before Christmas 2009.
Shohn: They had taken us out, and then they had taken us to the PGR (attorney general’s office) after that, in the truck. You know, we still didn’t know what was going on. Finally, the U.S. consulate came–a lawyer came first. It was a lawyer that my dad had talked to. And he had say, you know, “I’m here to be your lawyer, everything is going to be okay, your dad’s on his way.”
Observer: Was this a day or two after you’d been picked up?
Shohn: I think this was the next morning. I don’t know for sure. I don’t remember what time it was. I mean, we don’t even know what time it was that we got to the PGR.
Kevin: Their records say it was about 2:20 or 2:30, in the morning. We found out early the next morning, and got a hold of a lawyer. My daughter worked with a Mexican doctor, and this guy knew a lawyer over here (Juarez), and he called him, and he said it’s going to be a thousand dollars, but he’ll take care of it. We didn’t meet him until…I think it was a day and a half later, he finally finds us after some other Coyote lawyers that we thought was him took money from us. He actually set up a deal that kept them in. I finally got to the PGR and this guy says “I’m your lawyer, I’ve talked to your son, there’s no way he’s going to get out within six months, doesn’t matter if you have a million dollars. It’s going to take six months, but I can get him out in six months.” And my Spanish was about as limited as Shohn’s, maybe a little better because I worked with some Mexican nationals. This guy says, “We’re going to take care of it, here’s my fee, I think I can get you in to see him but I’m not sure. It’s probably going to cost some money. So he goes down, comes back in a little bit and goes “If the other guy’s (Carlos’) dad wants to see him it’s a thousand dollars apiece before you get to talk to your son”. We paid the thousand dollars–I paid the thousand dollars for both of us, and they were able to give their statement. That’s part of what they said; they wouldn’t let them make a statement unless I paid. So, I paid. I got to see him making his statement there, and I think the lawyer said we had to go to lunch or something. He made me go buy him lunch. We came back and they were gone. I mean several hours had elapsed. It was probably six or seven p.m. The lawyer says “I can get you in to see him.”
Shohn: We made our statement Sunday night, there. They took us right after that, over here. They can’t hold you for 48 hours without doing your statement.
Kevin: We didn’t know that, and of course that’s how they got the money out of us.
Shohn: We got brought out here (CERESO state prison). They brought us to nuevos ingressos (the place for new incoming prisoners) There were people under the stairs, I mean…it was really a bad place.
Observer: What was it like when you first came in?
Shohn: The nurse was handing needles under a door to a guy who was locked in the closet. There were guys under the stairs in an area that’s probably nine feet by three feet. There were probably about twelve guys in there. They took us upstairs, after they had taken pictures, and fingerprints, and they told us “You’re going to be put in a cell” and Carlos was talking to the guards, saying “Look, I need you to find me a cell that we can be in that’s not with everyone else.”
And by this time people were in the hallway, looking out the cells saying “Hey, put ‘em in here, put ‘em in here.” The guard wakes up a guy and he says “Well I want a hundred dollars. No matter how long you stay here I want a hundred dollars.”
Observer: And this was a guy that worked there?
Shohn: No, this was a guy in a cell. And he was there with one other guy. The other cells had about eight in them. We got in there. There were two bunks for four people, and these were not huge bunks.
Kevin: They were about 18 inches wide, maybe two feet.
Shohn: The guy tells us you guys need to take a shower before you go to sleep. He said: “do your feet stink?” We’d have to sleep two in one bunk bed feet to head. So we took a shower and went to sleep. The next morning they woke us up and took us out to the court. We went through all the process of the court. They brought us back…I guess this was Tuesday morning, my dad came out here, to see us, and saw us upstairs, and then left right away. He waited three or four hours to get in, and was there for 30 minutes. Knowing the rules now, it’s not that big a deal.
Kevin: It was difficult to figure out when you didn’t speak Spanish, nobody to tell you what to do.
Shohn : About an hour after that, Carlos’ mom, sister and brother-in-law came, and the guards came and got us out of the cell. They said, “Come over here, we’ve got to take you somewhere.” So they took us up to what was the office. It was the assistant director’s office. We were sitting there, this guy called over, said for us to take care of you guys, make sure you’re okay, we’ve got a cell waiting for you over in this other area. So they brought us over here and they put us in our own cell, upstairs, exactly like this–I mean, not as nice as this. They said, well, this is your cell, get all your stuff from over there.. We got all of our stuff out of the cell, and the guy didn’t charge us anything. The director ended up charging us about two hundred bucks a piece after that. Normally, it’s over a thousand dollars apiece to get here.
Observer: Two hundred, is that monthly or just a one time?
Shohn: Just one time. Normally it’s about a thousand dollars.
Kevin: One guy paid about eight thousand dollars.
Observer: So why do you think they targeted you and Carlos?
Shohn: I really don’t know. They took my money, the cell phone, the stereo systems out of the truck, all kinds of stuff. But as far as that goes, I don’t know. There could be some confusion with one of Carlos’ cousins. They almost have the same name. He’s involved in business here in town.
Observer: His cousin?
Shohn: Yeah. I don’t know exactly how they’re related, but it’s a cousin. It’s his dad’s half brother’s kid, I think. But they almost have the exact same name.
Observer: So he (Carlos) just wanted a ride over with you?
Shohn: Yeah, he knew I was coming to fix the truck and he was going to come visit his grandparents.
Observer: How many witnesses did you have?
Shohn: Three that saw them (soldiers) put the suitcases in the truck. One’s dead, and the other two we can’t find, they won’t talk. They’re scared. One of them didn’t show up for the court date.
Kevin: Then there were the other guys that were going to give Carlos a ride back to the place where Sean was going to pick him. There were a total of seven or eight witnesses.
Shohn: These were the two guys that had taken him (Carlos) back here, to the bridge. One of them was named Sergio Gamino Jr.. Well, the military went to the house he listed as his address. They said “Where’s Sergio?” The man who answered the door said “I’m Sergio.” They grabbed him, they took him and two days later he was found dead in the street. But it was Sergio Sr. It was Sergio Jr. who was going to testify and they killed his father.
Kevin: It was in a similar time frame as the death of the other witness.
Shohn: Yes, they were a week apart.
Observer: So of the seven witnesses, two have been killed. And then the rest are in hiding?
Shohn: Yeah. The other two that testified, who confronted the soldiers in court, saying “You put the drugs in the car, we saw you.” One of them was killed. You know, they were all friends and they all lived on the same street.
Kevin: There were sixteen soldiers involved in Shohn’s arrest. Only two testified, and their testimony was different from each other, they gave two different accounts. And, in the end the judge said because they were soldiers, we had to take their word.
Observer: Even though they couldn’t even get their story straight?
Shohn: It was more than sixteen soldiers.
Kevin: Well, it’s what they testified they had.
Observer: And when was the trial?
Kevin: That one took eight months. The decision was made in September. About September 1st 2010. They dropped one of the charges, and only charged him with possession. Which is kind of ludicrous in itself. It sort of implies that they were going to smoke all of this themselves, 115 pounds of marijuana.
Observer: So it was 115 pounds?
Shohn: They put transportation, when it was never transportation on our records. The sign of transportation is when you’re outside of city limits. Any time you’re inside the city limits, it’s possession.
Kevin: The article that they charged you with, in the court papers, was article 194 and 195. 195 is possession, and it’s five to fifteen years. The other one is selling it, and they write it to where even if you give somebody a joint, off of it, it’s transportation or selling. And that carries from ten to twenty five years.
(Update: Shohn Huckabee’s final appeal was denied on July 5th, 2011)