‘War on Drugs’ Leads to Human Rights Abuses in Mexican Village
On August 30,1989, at about 5:00 A.M., a group of a proximately 25 soldiers from the Octavo Batallón de Infantería based in San Ignacio, Sinaloa, Mexico, descended on the small village of Lodasál, at the edge of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Without warning, the soldiers forced entry into 22 of the 25 huts in the village. They rousted the men and boys from their beds and pushed them out into the dark. When one man tripped on his sandal strap, the soldiers accused him of trying to escape, and beat him with their rifles. The soldiers shoved one girl against a tree so hard that her face was cut. (She showed me the injury three days later.)
Eighteen of the men were taken by truck to the soldier’s cuartel (barracks) in the town of San Ignacio, about four miles away. The soldiers began to beat some of them with their fists, rifles, and heavy sticks, trying to force them to admit that they were growing marijuana. Eight of the men and boys were beaten, some of them so severely that days later they could barely walk. Yet none admitted to growing drugs, and, according to the people of Lodasál, this year no one has planted drugs in that area.
After intensive beatings and questioning, 12 of the men were transported back to Lodasál by the soldiers, and made to accompany them on a search of the countryside for plantings of marijuana. Some of the men were forced to march ahead of the soldiers carting heavy rocks, until some became so exhausted they staggered and fell. According to the villagers' reports, no plantings were found.
One 20-year-old youth, Gregorio Ribota, and a man, Ricardo Gonzáles, were taken by soldiers into the forest about three miles from San Ignacio (near the entry of the road to El Chaco), where they were severely beaten with heavy poles until they were nearly unconscious. Then they were tied up with their hands behind their backs, and blindfolded. The soldiers left them in this remote spot, bound and blindfolded, telling them that under no circumstances were they to report what had happened to them. They were told that if they were even seen in San Ignacio or Mazatlán (the closest city), they would be thrown in jail, and that the soldiers would also come after their family members. After the soldiers left, the two captives managed to wriggle near to each other and to untie each others' ropes. Three days later Gregorio showed me the large bruises and blood clots on his back, hips, and upper legs. A week later he told me that the pain in one hip was getting worse.
Three of the men who were taken from their homes in Lodasál were kept in custody at the soldiers' quarters in San Ignacio while the search for marijuana fields was taking place (on August 30). These prisoners were Liberato Ribota Melero (age 53), his son Margarito Ribota Virrey, and a neighbor, Roberto García Martínez. The first two were the father and brother of Gregorio Ribota, mentioned previously.
Evidently the decision had been made ahead of time that these three would be prosecuted as drug growers, for—unlike the others who were abducted from their huts—they were not beaten or tortured in any way that would leave visible signs, which might be used in their defense or to bring charges against the soldiers. At close to midnight on August 30, soldiers took the three prisoners to Mazatlán.
According to a San Ignacio municipal policeman who saw them being taken away, the men were transported lying face down in the back of a truck, with their hands tied behind their backs. Their families were told nothing.
Eight of the men and boys were beaten, some of them so severely that days later they could barely walk.
The following day, family members looked for the three prisoners and discovered that they were in the jail ward of the La Loma Travesada military quarters m Mazatlán. However, when the families went there and asked to see the prisoners, they were turned away.
Returning to San Ignacio, the family members went to a lawyer for an amparo—which corresponds somewhat to a writ of habeas corpus—to get the prisoners transferred from the soldiers' barracks to a jail cell under the auspices of the Ministerio Público (Justice Department). The lawyer charged the families 500,000 pesos (US$200) for the amparo. To come up with the money, the Ribota family had to sell their chickens and pigs and borrow from neighbors. It may take the family years to pay back the debt.
On September 1, more than two days after their arrest, the three prisoners were transferred from the soldiers' quarters to the Ministerio Público, where family members were able to see them briefly. The prisoners said they had been given nothing to eat for the three days they had been kept by the soldiers.
On September 2, an article appeared in the Mazatlán newspaper, Noroeste, titled “3 plantíos de ‘yerba’” (“Three Pot Plantations Destroyed”). The article states that the three men were in the drug fields in the Arroyo de los Mimbres, near Lodasál, when the soldiers arrived and surrounded the fields, so that when the men ran they were stopped by the soldiers. (In fact, the men were dragged from their beds in their huts.) The article goes on to say that Liberato Ribota confessed to having been growing the drugs for the past 7 years, and that the other two prisoners confessed to helping him harvest and guard the crops. (In fact, Liberato and his family only moved to the area a year ago.) The article even gives the dimensions of five marijuana plantations in the Arroyo de Los Mimbres, and estimates that the crop the soldiers allegedly destroyed, which was supposedly planted with ten marijuana plants per square meter, would have yielded five tons of the drug. (According to everyone we talked to in Lodasál, however, in their search the soldiers found no marijuana fields at all.)
He estimated that in the Culiacán jails alone, approximately 10,000 campesinos are being detained. The recent escalation of arrests of campesinos is part of an attempt by the Mexican Government to present a cleaned-up image to Washington in order to convince the Bush Administration that México is serious about fighting the "war on drugs."
On questioning the people of Lodasál, I became convinced that they were telling the truth, and that the soldiers had committed a variety of crimes against innocent people, ranging from breaking and entering to theft, abduction, torture, false incrimination, unjustifiable detention, and failure to reveal the location of prisoners to family members. The Ribotas, whom I had known well when they lived in Ajoya before they moved to Lodasál, were desperate.
And with good reason. This was the third time in less than a year that the Ribota family has been falsely arrested, tortured, or abused by soldiers from San Ignacio. The first incident took place on December 4, 1988, when soldiers raided Lodasál, seizing men from their houses and putting them on trucks. According to Gregorio, the soldiers made the men jump out one at a time while the truck was moving at about 20 miles an hour. When Liberato was forced to jump, his head hit the pavement so hard that it was cut open and became very swollen. He remained very dizzy for a week afterwards. Gregorio fared better: he escaped with only bruises and cut hands. The soldiers also harassed members of the Barraza, Emilio Bastidas, and Victoriano Murillo families.
The second incident occurred in March of this year. One day when Liberato and his 13-year-old son Leopoldo were cutting wood in the forest near their homes, they were apprehended by another group of soldiers. The soldiers repeatedly punched the gild in the stomach in front of his father, and then held the father’s head under water “to get him to talk,” although the two had committed no crimes.
Deciding to try to help these persecuted people obtain justice, other concerned persons and I accompanied Liberato’s wife and 20-year-old son Gregorio (who had been beaten and left tied in the woos) to Culiacán, the state capital of Sinaloa. We spoke with the head of the Human Rights Organization based at the University there, and trough friends in the press arranged for the wife and son to speak with the general of the army detachment based in Culiacán. The general told them that since the prisoners had been handed over to the Ministerio Público, he was no longer in a position to take any action (even though the soldiers under his chain of command had, within the week, committed multiple abuses, including torture, and have, since the arrests, made new threats against inhabitants of Lodasál).
Before going to the state capital, the families of the prisoners prepared a statement describing the injustices they had suffered at the hands of the soldiers. Many people in the village had agreed to sign such a statement. But when it came to actually signing it, nobody dared. They were afraid the soldiers would come back and give them another “calentada” (roughing up) if anyone protested, as they had very clearly threatened to do.
While in Culiacán we sought advice from a journalist who for many years has been studying the workings of drug production and trade in western Mexico. He was not optimistic about the chances that our falsely accused friends would obtain justice. He estimated that in the Culiacán jails alone, approximately 10,000 campesinos are being detained under similar circumstances, while soldiers and other government officials continue (as they have for many years) to grow or oversee huge clandestine plantations of illicit drugs. In his view, the recent escalation of arrests of campesinos, many of them falsely charged with drug growing, is part of an attempt by the Mexican Government to present a cleaned up image to Washington in order to convince the Bush Administration that México is serious about fighting the “war on drugs.”
Our reporter friend also made it clear that people have good reason to fear the threats of the soldiers if they try to protest their abuses. As an example, he told us that he had learned of an incident in Chihuahua where soldiers had entered a small village school and had beaten the children to get them to tell where their fathers were growing drugs. The school teacher, although ordered to remain silent under threat, reported the soldiers' abuses. A few days later, a helicopter landed next to the schoolhouse, soldiers abducted the teacher, took him high in the air, and then pushed him out.
The hearing for the three prisoners from Lodasál was first scheduled for 2:00 p.m. on September 8. That morning I went to Mazatlán to talk with the defensora or defense attorney appointed by the court to represent the prisoners. I was accompanied by a doctor who has worked for many years in the Sierra Madre and who, like me, has treated many victims of abuse by the military and state police. The defensora knew of Project Piaxtla and my book, Where There is No Doctor, and was very friendly. She told us that she, too, was convinced that the three defendants were innocent, but said that in the present climate it would be very difficult to get a ruling in their favor. She suggested we speak directly with the judge who would be hearing the case.
We did. Judge Cantú Baraja was very friendly and listened to us for about ten minutes, as we presented all the information that we had gathered. But then he told us that, regardless of what we said, the case was unlikely to go in favor of the defendants. Although we claimed the soldiers had tortured many of the men they had abducted, he pointed out that the prisoners had been carefully examined for signs of physical abuse, and none had been found. Furthermore, he said, one of the prisoners, Roberto García, had confessed before the judge himself, under no force, pressure, or threats, stating that he had assisted the other two prisoners in their marijuana fields. To prove this, the judge pulled from his files the text of Roberto’s signed declaration.
The young doctor and I were badly shaken. Could it be that so many people had completely deceived us, and convinced us to stick out our necks to defend them when they had actually committed the crimes they so fiercely denied? We left the judge’s office shaking our heads. How could we have been so gullible?
Accompanied by Liberato’s wife and son, we met again with the defensora and told her of Roberto’s signed confession. It was the first she had heard of it, and for a minute it took her by surprise. But after a moment’s thought, she told us she was convinced that Roberto had been tricked—as have so many others like him.
What happens, she explained, is that when the soldiers turn a prisoner over to the Ministerio Público, an officer of the Ministerio takes a declaration from the prisoner. No force or pressure is applied, and the prisoner is encouraged to make a true statement from his point of view. As the prisoner talks, a secretary busily types the prisoner’s declaration on a typewriter. When the prisoner is done speaking, he is asked if everything he has said is true and if he has anything he wants to add. When the prisoner says his declaration is true and complete, the declaration is pulled from the typewriter and the prisoner told to sign it—but without being given time to read it.
The catch is that the secretary, who the prisoner thinks is writing down his declaration, is actually copying the soldiers' report, complete with falsified confession. The defensora told us that in some cases she has been able to prove this because the supposed “declaration” has followed the exact wording of the soldiers' report, sometimes for several paragraphs.
The defensora told us that while Roberto had evidently fallen for the trick and signed the document, Margarito, who, she said, has a quick mind, had managed to read part of his “declaration” when he was asked to sign it, and had protested to her that what was written on it was not what he had said.
“But the judge said Roberto had confessed directly before him!' we observed.
“Yes,” said the defensora, “but what he probably did was simply ask Roberto if the declaration he signed is accurate, and if he signed it voluntarily, without being forced.”
“Does the judge know that declarations are being falsified and prisoners tricked into signing them?” we asked.
“Of course he knows,” she replied. “But he’s afraid to buck the system. The military is very strong, and at the moment the government wants to see a lot of convictions of drug growers and traffickers. The judge understands what’s expected of him. And he’s aware of the political climate. If he wants to keep his position and to get ahead, it’s better not to make waves unnecessarily.”
“But what can be done to help the people who are being victimized?” we asked.
“Isn’t there some way to get an independent inspection of the area where the soldiers claim they destroyed the marijuana fields, to prove that they are lying?” asked Gregorio (Liberato’s son, the young man who had been so severely beaten by the soldiers).
The defensora said she could ask for an official, but independent, investigation to determine whether or not the reported marijuana plantations had actually existed. But she said it would be expensive.
“And if the investigation shows that no signs of destroyed plantings exist where the soldiers say they destroyed them, and the prisoners are proven innocent, who will have to pay the costs of the investigation?” we asked.
“The prisoners and their families,” was the reply.
“That doesn’t seem very fair,” we commented.
“No, but that’s how it is.”
We talked for a moment with Gregorio and his mother, and asked the defensora to request the investigation. One way or another, we would try to come up with the money.
The judge conducted the investigation and found no evidence whatsoever that any marijuana plantings had ever been present in the areas designated by the soldiers.
The defensora also told us that the judge had decided to release Margarito and Roberto bajo fianza (more or less on non-refundable bail). They would have to pay a sizable sum of money and report back to Mazatlán every week for the duration of their sentence—which, according to the article in Noroeste, would be from 10 to 25 years. (The defensora said it might be as little as 6 months.) She told us that Margarito and Roberto had appealed the decision, but she recommended that we request the appeal be revoked. She explained that if the two were released bajo fianza and then the appeal was approved, the superior judge assuming the case might have them picked up and brought in again by the soldiers. And in the end they might have to serve a prison term. She recognized that accepting the suspended sentence and paying the fianza was a little like paying a bribe, but she felt that under the circumstances it was the safest and cheapest alternative. Reluctantly, we (family and friends) took her advice. But it will still be very hard on the family. Travel into Mazatlán one day a week will cost the equivalent of nearly one day’s work, plus the loss of the work that could have been done in that day. As it is, the family barely has enough to feed its children.
In talking with Margarito after his release, I have learned that the soldiers tortured him, Roberto, and Liberato in ways less likely to leave physical marks, as distinct from the methods they used on those they detained only briefly. In San Ignacio, the three men were hit in the stomach and boxed on the ears with cupped hands. The soldiers also held plastic bags tightly around their heads until they began to asphyxiate—a variation of the traditional “water treatment.”
According to Margarito, when he, Roberto, and Liberato were taken to the La Loma barracks in Mazatlán, they were ordered to sign a document presumably a confession. When they asked to read it before signing, the soldiers cursed them, grabbed them by the hair, and hit them in the face repeatedly. They banged Liberato’s face into the edge of a door, producing a cut on his nose which has left an ugly scar.
Margarito also reports that when the Ministerio Público questioned the soldiers about the offenses of the prisoners, one soldier claimed that he had caught Margarito trying to run out of the back of his house, while another gave a contradictory story, saying that he had found Margarito in a marijuana plantation supposedly located two miles from the village of Lodasál.
Two weeks after the arrests, the public defender, acting at our insistence, demanded an independent investigation of the soldiers' charges. In response, the judge of the Sixth District in Mazatlán sent a request to the judge of the “Primera Instancia” of San Ignacio, Sinaloa, asking him to carry out an inspection to determine whether any evidence existed of the marijuana plantations where the soldiers claimed to have caught the three prisoners. According to a document dated September 27 and signed by the judge in San Ignacio, the judge conducted the investigation and found no evidence whatever that any marijuana plantings had ever been present in the areas designated by the soldiers. This finding by the judge in San Ignacio definitively bears out the claims of the people of Lodasál that the soldiers had fabricated heir charges, had arrested and tortured citizens of Lodasál without cause, and had provided falsified statements incriminating the three prisoners who were taken to Mazatlán and turned over to the Ministerio Público.
To date, the Ministerio Público has made no move to change its verdict, despite having the document from the judge in San Ignacio which proves the prisoners innocent. Margarito and Roberto are still on suspended sentence, and Liberato Ribota Melero remains in jail.
As representatives of efforts to support international and community health, we of the Hesperian Foundation are publicizing the story of this human rights violation, not only to help bring justice (limited as it may be) to the people of Lodasál, but also to help expose the terrible abuses that are resulting throughout México and Latin America from the “big stick” approach being taken by the Bush Administration in its so-called “war on drugs.”
Both the U.S. and Mexican governments have their own thinly disguised ulterior motives for waging a high-visibility but low-return “war on drugs.”
The Bush Administration, needing a more plausible bogeyman, has seized on the drug crisis as the great new threat to our national security.
The Bush Administration is milking the “drug crisis” for all it’s worth. In order to justify their huge military expenditures to the U.S. public and to maintain the waning global grip of the military-industrial complex, the powers-that-be in Washington need to point to a dangerous enemy that perpetually threatens our national security. Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union no longer lives up to the old panic-generating image of the “evil empire.” Indeed, many who critically examine the facts now view the Soviet Union as considerably less threatening to global security than the U.S. During the 1980s, therefore, the focus on the Soviet Union as the primary threat to U.S. national security partially shied to liberation movements in the Third World, which the Reagan Administration imaginatively portrayed as “enemies of democracy.” But more and more nations are daring to criticize Washington for its consistent attacks on small Third World nations struggling for fairer systems and self-determination. So the Bush Administration, needing a more plausible bogeyman, has seized on the drug crisis as the great new threat to our national security.
For its part, the Salinas Administration in México is extremely vulnerable to U.S. pressure. It desperately needs Washington’s cooperation in order to cope with its huge foreign debt. President Salinas and his advisors know very well that if they do anything to displease the Bush Administration, it can retaliate by taking a hard line stance on Mexico’s debt repayment terms. Through its dominant influence in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the U.S. government could at any moment push Mexico’s shaky economy over the brink into complete collapse. So the Salinas government is trying hard to comply with Bush’s demands. Since the “war on drugs' has become Washington’s number-one priority, and since U.S. politicians frequently charge the Mexican government with laxness and corruption in this area, the Salinas Administration is doing its best to create the impression that it is serious about cracking down on the drug trade. Because the Mexican government cannot afford to launch a genuine assault on the narcotics industry, its efforts to display a tough image consist mainly of arbitrary raids and arrests like the ones that took place at Lodasál. While such actions may look good on paper, in reality they victimize powerless—and often innocent- poor people while leaving most of the drug lords and their lucrative racket untouched. †
† The arrest of Felix Gallardo earlier this year illustrates Mexico’s attempt to put up a facade of being tough on drugs to ward off U.S . pressure. On April 10 The New York Times reported that the Bush Administration was considering recommending that the International Monetary Fund refuse a $3.5 billion bail-out loan that México needed to keep from defaulting on its $100 billion foreign debt. The next day, the Times ran a front-page article telling how Gallardo, one of Mexico’s biggest drug lords, had been jailed along with scores of state police in the biggest “bust” of government officials in the country’s history. ( A few days later, most of the higher ranking officials who had been arrested were quietly released.) On the day following the arrests, the Times announced that the IMF had approved the crucial loan.
The fact of the matter is that neither the Salinas nor the Bush Administration really want to stop the flow of drugs across the border. México needs its drug earnings (which accounted for 70% of its export earnings through the 1980’s, according to a State Department study) to help service its debt. And Washington uses drug trafficking into the U.S. to finance its covert operations in the Third World without having to go through Congressional channels. Besides, if the drug threat disappeared, the Bush Administration would lose its latest pretext for manipulating and militarizing Third World nations.
To be effective, efforts to bring the drug crisis under control must tackle the real causes of drug use and trafficking—despair, alienation, and unemployment, along with the poverty and powerlessness that lie at the roots of these problems. This requires far reaching structural changes designed to bring about a society that no longer marginalizes and impoverishes a substantial portion of the population. Also needed are steps to ban covert operations (routinely financed through drug trafficking), to cancel suffocating foreign debts which make drug trafficking an economic necessity, and to redirect military budgets to meet basic needs. In the final analysis, the only real cure for the drug crisis is a new global economic order which reduces the gap between rich and poor both within and between nations.
The far-reaching transformation of our social structures and economic order that are necessary to effectively reduce `the drug problem' will be a long time coming—and they will certainly not be brought closer by the Bush Administration.
In the meantime, it is important that human rights groups, the United Nations, and the international community be alerted to the widespread suffering that is resulting from Bush’s heavy-handed, enforcement-oriented approach to combating drugs. The thousands of innocent people who are being victimized need some kind of defense. In countries like Mexico, a watchdog or review process of some sort is needed, perhaps through the United Nations or the World Court. And here at home we need to let our Congressional representatives know what is really happening, so that our government stops contributing to the abuses of marginalized people in poor countries by further arming and strengthening security forces that have a long record of repression, corruption, and—yes!—collusion in drug trafficking.
If and when Washington becomes serious about fighting a “war on drugs,” it should start by taking a hard look at the report recently issued by the Kerry Commission (the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations, which has compiled a wealth of evidence implicating various U.S. government agencies, especially the CIA, in using drug trafficking to advance their covert operations and political goals), and then moving to clean up its own act. There is a substantial amount of evidence that then-Vice President George Bush was a key person indirectly facilitating, or at least turning a blind eye toward, the clandestine drugs-for-arms swaps in support of the Nicaraguan Contras. If Congress were really sincere about attacking the drug problem, it would stop going after small-time dealers and innocent people and instead turn its attention to the key players who bear the major responsibility for the rising tide of drugs flowing into the U.S., including President Bush himself. † HW
† Although the mass media carefully steers clear of it, the evidence against Bush is considerable and well-documented. For those who are interested, one of the most comprehensive exposes of Bush s links to CIA drugs-for-arms racketeering can be found in David Barsamian’s “Interview with John Stockwell” in the September 1989 issue of Zeta Magazine. (John Stockwell is an ex-CIA officer who resigned in disgust and has been working since to bring the crimes of the CIA into the open.) An article by Andrew Lang entitled “How Much Did Bush Know?” appearing in the Summer 1989 issue of Convergence (a magazine published by the Christie Institute) further documents Bush’s links to some of the key figures involved in the Contra arms-for-drugs connection. The same issue also contains an article on the Kerry Commission report. This article points out that, while the report’s language was watered down as a result of compromises demanded by the Bush Administration supporters on the subcommittee, it nevertheless clearly states that “senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the contras' funding problems.” The evidence pulled together in the report conclusively implicates high-level US officials in these covert drugs-for-arms deals. For an excellent update on these issues, see “Drugs, Iran-Contra, and HIV Infection: The Not-So-Casual Link,” an article by Jay Hatheway in the October 1989 issue of Zeta Magazine. The author links the proliferation of AIDS through widespread drug use to the role of the CIA and the National Security Council in the major increase in drug trafficking into the U.S.