(Washington, DC) - Mexico's federal authorities should immediately take over the investigation into the possible enforced disappearance by municipal police of four civilians in Ciudad Juarez, Human Rights Watch said today.
In addition, authorities in Baja California should ensure a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation into credible accusations of torture by Julian Leyzaola, now the police chief in Ciudad Juarez, Human Rights Watch said. Those violations were allegedly committed by Leyzaola in 2009 and 2010, when he served as police chief of Tijuana.
At approximately 7 p.m. on March 26, 2011, four civilians - Juan Carlos Chavira, 28, Dante Castillo, 25, Raúl Navarro, 29, and Félix Vizcarra, 22 - were detained by municipal police in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, according to Chihuahua's State Human Rights Commission. Five eyewitnesses told the commission that police stopped the pick-up truck in which the civilians were travelling and detained them.
"Strong evidence of police involvement in the disappearances and the lackluster investigation by state officials cast serious doubt on the ability of local authorities to investigate this crime," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "With the lives of these four men hanging in the balance, federal prosecutors should immediately take over the investigation."
Family members of the victims found their abandoned pick-up truck at 1 a.m. on March 27 in a tunnel miles away from where they had been detained. The vehicle's license plates had been removed and its keys left on the floor of the interior.
On March 27, Rosa María and Armida Vazquez - the mother and sister of two of the missing men - went to the offices of the municipal police, federal police, and state and federal prosecutors to ask if they were holding the men. All denied having the civilians in their custody. When Armida Vazquez informed the state prosecutor's office that she wanted to file a complaint of their disappearance, she was told to return the following day, according to testimony given to the State Human Rights Commission. She returned on March 28 and filed a complaint, which was registered as case 8/77/11.
Eyewitnesses provided the State Human Rights Commission with the numbers of the police units who allegedly detained the civilians, which the commission handed over to state investigators. Two of the units allegedly involved, according to the commission, pertain to the bodyguards of Julian Leyzaola, the director of the Ciudad Juarez municipal police, accused of participating in abuses in Tijuana documented by Human Rights Watch and the National Human Rights Commission.
The state prosecutor's office has commented publicly that it is investigating the case as a crime of enforced disappearance, and that evidence points to police involvement. Meanwhile, the mayor of Ciudad Juarez, Héctor Murguía Lardizábal, said that he ordered the city's department of internal affairs to investigate the case. However, the State Human Rights Commission informed Human Rights Watch that state investigators had done little to gather evidence, and had yet to question all the police officers in the cited units.
The municipal police department continues to deny having detained the four men, and no officers have been arrested in connection with the case. More than one week after the civilians disappeared, their whereabouts remain unknown.
In March 2011, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearance conducted an official visit to Mexico, during which Human Rights Watch and other organizations presented it with other cases of enforced disappearances. Among the preliminary observations the group made on March 31, was that, "impunity for crimes in general and enforced disappearances in particular remains a central challenge in Mexico at the federal and state level." The group reported that, "there have been a number of problems identified in investigations into cases of enforced disappearances, including omissions, delays and lack of due diligence," which it urged the Mexican government to address.
Background on Julian Leyzaola
Human Rights Watch documented grave abuses allegedly committed by Ciudad Juarez's police chief, Julian Leyzaola, when he served as chief of police in Tijuana, Baja California, as noted in a September 2010 letter to President Felipe Calderón. According to several victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Leyzaola participated directly in the torture of individuals who were arbitrarily detained, transported to military bases, and subjected to beatings, electric shocks, death threats, and asphyxiation to obtain false confessions.
In a report released in August 2010, the State Human Rights Commission of Baja California reached a similar conclusion, finding that police officers under Leyzaola arbitrarily detained, held incommunicado, tortured, and planted false evidence on five individuals. The report states that Leyzaola was not only present when the torture was carried out, but personally asphyxiated one of the victims by placing a plastic bag over his head and punching him repeatedly.
Jorge Ramos, former mayor of Tijuana, rejected the recommendation of the commission. Despite these well-documented allegations, Baja California's governor, José Guadalupe Osuna Millán, promoted Leyzaola to the state's sub-director of public security in December 2010.
The National Human Rights Commission adopted the state commission's recommendation, and reissued it to Baja California's state assembly and to the new mayor of Tijuana, Carlos Bustamante, in November 2010. Both accepted the recommendation in December. Authorities in Baja California are still collecting evidence regarding the torture accusations against Leyzaola originally filed with state authorities in 2009, the National Human Rights Commission informed Human Rights Watch.
Leyzaola resigned from his position as head of public security in Baja California in February 2011. In March, he was named Ciudad Juarez's chief of police by the mayor, Murguía Lardizábal. "We are backing a person who has experience, who is honest, who has the ability to give his best to combat the lack of security in Juarez," said the mayor upon appointing Leyzaola. He added Leyzaola was, "a man who has produced results."
The credible accusations of human rights violations by Leyzaola call into question his ability to adequately investigate the recent enforced disappearances in Ciudad Juarez, and raise doubts about his leadership of the police department in general, Human Rights Watch said.
"It is reprehensible for authorities in Baja California and Chihuahua to promote an official against whom there are credible accusations of torture," said Vivanco. "It sends precisely the wrong message to security forces: that violating human rights is the mark of a good officer."