Some Accuse Mexican Army Of Abuse In Juarez Thousands of troops have taken over control of Cuidad Juarez in an effort to win back the border city's streets from violent drug cartels. The surge in troops has reduced the number of drug-related executions, officials say. But human rights groups say soldiers are abusing detainees.
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Some Accuse Mexican Army Of Abuse In Juarez

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Some Accuse Mexican Army Of Abuse In Juarez

Some Accuse Mexican Army Of Abuse In Juarez

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In the Mexican border city of Juarez, thousands of army troops have seized control of the local police force. It's part of an effort to take back the city streets from violent drug cartels. Local officials say the surge over the last two weeks has dramatically reduced drug-related executions, but at what cost?

As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, some say the military has been fighting violence with violence.

JASON BEAUBIEN: As you come over the Bridge of the Americas from El Paso into Juarez, Mexican soldiers with automatic weapons man a security checkpoint. They flag down SUVs and rummage through the vehicles, looking for drugs, guns and money. The army is now in charge of security in Mexico's most violent city. It patrols the streets, runs the police department and oversees the jails. Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz says this is not martial law. He calls it a collaboration between the army and the city.

Mayor JOSE REYES FERRIZ (Juarez): And we have to work to implement it. We have to get many things straightened out. But at the end of the day it's going to be a very helpful way to get crime down in our city.

BEAUBIEN: More than 2,000 people have died in Juarez since the beginning of 2008, as two of the nation's most powerful drug cartels battle for control of smuggling routes into El Paso. The gangs gun down their rivals, police officers and prosecutors in broad daylight. While the thousands of additional troops haven't eliminated executions entirely, the murder tally has fallen from about 10 a day in February to only one or two a day since the extra soldiers arrived.

But Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, the ombudsman for the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission, says the military shouldn't be in charge of security in Juarez. And he says the first wave of soldiers who arrived a year ago have tortured and even killed criminal suspects.

Mr. GUSTAVO DE LA ROSA HICKERSON (Ombudsman, Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We have registered 160 cases of abuse committed by the military here in Ciudad Juarez, Hickerson says. And the majority of those cases were of torture. Hickerson says that when the soldiers arrived more than a year ago, the new troops tried to quickly gather intelligence on the local cartels by beating it out of suspects.

Mr. HICKERSON: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Referring to the disgraced U.S. military prison in Iraq, he says Abu Ghraib would be a kindergarten compared to the military camp here in Ciudad Juarez. This used car dealer says he was held naked, blindfolded and handcuffed at the base for four days late last year.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: He says he was beaten, along with dozens of other people who were being detained in a building on the base. He says the soldiers demanded that they confess to working for the drug cartels. This man fled to El Paso as soon as he was let go. He doesn't want his name used out of fear for his safety. He says at four or five in the morning, on his first day there, someone named El Tigre, or The Tiger, took over the interrogation and pulled a plastic bag tight over his head.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of crying)

BEAUBIEN: I tried to rip the bag with my mouth, but I couldn't, he says. And at that moment, I couldn't breathe. When he realized I couldn't keep going, he released me. El Tigre told me, now you're going to talk because you're going to talk.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The car dealer says he was arrested after selling a car to two men from out of town, who the army claimed were cartel hit men. When he insisted that he was just a businessman, the soldiers threw him naked, handcuffed and soaked in water into a cold storage freezer. Other detainees, he says, were being shocked with electricity. Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson at the Human Rights Commission says this man's account of the interrogations by the Mexican military matches the stories of other detainees.

But a spokesman for the military operation, Enrique Torres, denies these allegations. Torres says the army only holds criminal suspects briefly. He says these are hardened criminals, even killers, and some force may be used during interrogations.

Mr. ENRIQUE TORRES (Military Spokesman): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: It's part of the work. In detentions, oftentimes, you have to use force, Torres says. It's the same for police all over the world, no? If someone is committing a crime, it's not possible to say, please help us. A request by NPR to see the army's detention facility was denied. He adds that not a single allegation of torture by the army has been upheld.

The car dealer, who's now in El Paso, says soldiers warned him never to discuss what has happened. He says not only would he not file a complaint against the military, his detention was so horrible, he says, he doesn't want to ever return to Mexico.

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: I'll never forget the screams of the people, he says. Day and night, there was never a moment in which there wasn't screaming. When the soldiers first came to Juarez early in 2008, he says he was happy to see them. Like many other people in the city, he was tired of living in fear of the cartels. He thought that the strong hand of the military was exactly what was needed to clamp down on the drug gangs. Now, he says, he doesn't know what the answer is.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Juarez.

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