As hundreds of additional military troops arrive at the border, a viral video allegedly showing Tijuana municipal police officers hanging a man by his feet has sparked new concern about human rights abuses by law enforcement. in Mexico.
In Mexico, police, prosecutors, the military, and criminal groups regularly commit serious human rights violations, according to Human Rights Watch.
However, rarely is there video evidence documenting alleged abuse so clearly.
🚨🚨 A #video circulated on social media where you can see #policemen👮♂️👮♂️ hitting a person who is tied up with one foot up inside a patrol box🚔, recording made from the window of a nearby house. pic.twitter.com/mgHv2yoYzS
– Today’s Mexico (@ldhnoticias) May 4, 2022
The video that went viral on social media earlier this month has been confirmed as authentic by Tijuana municipal authorities. All four officers involved in the incident have been suspended on partial pay. The man died and was identified by the city medical examiner as Jorge Luis Cabrera Vélez.
“In the video you can see that they are beating him and they have him hanging from the truck in an inhumane way from the feet with his head hanging. They hit my brother and he tells them to stop,” said the man’s brother, Gabriel Cabrera.
Footage shows a man with his legs in the air in the back of a Tijuana police truck. Uniformed officers are seen gathering around as the man screams and begs for mercy in the El Niño neighborhood. His body was found on April 28 in the Residencial Margaritas community.
«Torture, unfortunately, is very common in Mexico, but it’s not usually recorded because it doesn’t usually happen in public and it’s not usually filmed by bystanders,» said Tyler Mattiace, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who covers Mexico and Guatemala.
A 2021 survey conducted by the Mexican federal government among prison inmates revealed that at least 40 percent reported being tortured or threatened with torture while in police custody.
In 2020, Yair López Jiménez died of suffocation while being detained. A video of the incident shows a Tijuana police officer placing his boot on López Jiménez’s neck until he lost consciousness.
The man in the most recent video presumably died from injuries sustained during and immediately after the incident, according to city officials.
Municipal officials claimed that Cabrera Vélez was arrested for allegedly being under the influence of drugs, and initially said that it was possible that he had died from a serious cut on his arm that he suffered while trying to flee from the agents. Cabrera Vélez had a green card to live and work in the United States and was an electrical engineer, according to his family.
Tijuana Mayor Monserrat Caballero Ramírez said Monday that city residents have lost confidence in municipal police after the video surfaced earlier this month. She added that the timing of the loss of citizen trust is unfortunate as the city tries to counter the surge in violence with a coordinated local, state and federal response.
“We were doing a job that took us more than a year -since I have been in government for seven months-… we were campaigning in favor of the union between citizens and the police, and this event that occurred does not contribute to this, so I hope that the prosecution will give us the results of (their) investigation,” he said. “We need a lot more coordination between the three levels of government. It doesn’t help that citizens feel insecure around officials. It is a situation that we cannot cover up and that greatly delays our work.”
Joint patrols of the municipal, state and federal police and the army in Tijuana in 2007. A Mexican army soldier watches his companions at a checkpoint near the Tijuana military base.
(San Diego Union-Tribune)
So far this year, Tijuana has recorded at least 584 homicides, up from 1,972 in 2021. Tijuana consistently ranks first in the world for the number of homicides per capita, according to Statista. So far in May, there have been 29 homicides, according to the media outlet El Imparcial.
Meanwhile, another 200 troops from the fourth battalion of the Mexican Army Special Forces arrived on Tuesday, joining the group of special forces that arrived at the end of April.
While the first group of troops will strategically target the main leaders of organized crime in the city, Army General Saúl Luna Jaimes said that this last group of armed forces will occupy and guard the poorest and most insecure areas of the city, hoping to stop the low-level killings that are driving up the homicide numbers.
Mattiace, a human rights expert, said that although Mexican citizens tend to trust the armed forces more than other institutions in Mexico, the rapid expansion of the military’s role in everyday life is concerning.
“We have seen a massive expansion in the last decade and a half of the role of the military in public life, in general, and in civilian law enforcement, in particular,” he said.
Since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderón launched a massive military offensive against drug cartels, the role of the military in civilian life has only increased. “The current president (Andrés Manuel) López Obrador has taken that further than ever before,” Mattiace said. “He has done more than any of his previous predecessors (Enrique Peña Nieto or Felipe Calderón) to entrench the role of the armed forces, not only in law enforcement, but in many elements of public life.”
Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval, left, and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador shake hands during an Army Day event at the Zócalo in Mexico City in 2020.
(Marco Ugarte/Associated Press)
Mattiace said the problem is that “the military is not incorruptible… The military also tortures people. The armed forces also arbitrarily detain people. The armed forces also extrajudicially execute people.
«Police are unlikely to be held accountable, but soldiers are even less likely to be held accountable for these abuses,» he said.
The armed forces, like the municipal police, are not necessarily more powerful than the drug cartels that drive rampant violence throughout Mexico.
Earlier this week, other viral videos surfaced showing members of a drug cartel chasing a military convoy out of Nueva Italia, a Mexican city in the state of Michoacán, an area known for its heavy cartel presence. Three vehicles carrying soldiers are seen speeding down a highway, while armed men in SUVs are seen in close pursuit, shouting «shoot ‘em, shoot ‘em!»
Mattiace said a political commitment is needed to strengthen the justice system to stop the violence.
«The original sin in Mexico is impunity (…) in a democratic society we do not rely on brute force, we rely on this idea that if people do something wrong, there is a justice system that can judge them fairly. and punish them to discourage this from happening,” he said.
Less than 5 percent of crimes, including police abuse, end in court, according to México Evalúa, which tracks court cases, and Human Rights Watch.
Two participants in a protest against police brutality at the Cuauhtémoc roundabout in Zona Río, Tijuana, in 2020.
(Alejandro Tamayo/The San Diego Union Tribune)
Municipal authorities say that the death of Cabrera Vélez, the man who was hanged by his feet, was related to an alleged attempted home robbery.
«He caused damage to a door, to a window and from what we know that caused a laceration in his arm causing the cut of an artery and that’s how he died,» said the municipal secretary of Security and Citizen Protection, José Fernando Sánchez González .
Cabrera Velez’s family said the 30-year-old was in Tijuana to help his father do some home repairs. He was doing repairs on his father’s house in Tijuana when he left, they said, possibly to buy cigarettes. He never came back.
“I want those officers to go to jail because not being punished is the reason they keep doing what they do,” said Gabriel Cabrera, the man’s brother. He added that the family wants the police officers to be charged with kidnapping, torture and murder.
The victim’s brother said that after the video became public, the police began to flood the El Niño neighborhood, demanding to know who had recorded the video and asking to see residents’ phones.
The State Human Rights Commission of Mexico is investigating «in order to attribute or rule out the responsibility of the authorities» in the death of Cabrera Vélez, said the president of the CEDHBC, Miguel Ángel Mora Marrufo.
Rafael Leyva Pérez, a city council attorney responsible for internal affairs investigations, said the investigation is ongoing and that other officials could be implicated.
The San Diego Union Tribune reporter Alexandra Mendoza contributed to this report.