American says he witnessed corruption in Mexican prison

By Alfredo Corchado and Angela Kocherga

The Dallas Morning News

Published: Saturday, Dec. 10 2011 11:00 p.m. MST

MEXICO CITY — A U.S. citizen from the El Paso, Texas, area recently freed from a Mexican prison in Ciudad Juarez said he witnessed government corruption, heard the killing of a gang leader by federal police and personally watched a controversial police chief beat inmates with a two-by-four.

The firsthand account by Shohn Huckabee, 24, provides a rare view into life behind bars and reaffirms allegations made by thousands of Mexican prisoners, whose complaints often go nowhere. The allegations also raise questions about how much Mexico has done to improve its weak judicial system, one of the goals of U.S. aid under the Merida Initiative.

A spokesman for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said Thursday that the State Department should carefully vet "Merida funding in order to ensure that it is being used for its intended purposes and effectively," and "should investigate the reported torture of Shohn Huckabee, and we look forward to receiving those findings."

Huckabee spent nearly two years at the municipal prison known as Cereso after he and a friend, Carlos Quijas, also a U.S. citizen, were arrested while returning home from Juarez. Both were convicted of drug trafficking after Mexican soldiers said they discovered marijuana in their car, a charge both men denied.

Last September Huckabee was transferred to the United States under a U.S.-Mexico treaty. He was released last week after the U.S. Justice Department parole board determined that he had been tortured by Mexican authorities while in custody. On Thursday, Quijas was transferred to a U.S. prison.

Huckabee signed deportation papers stipulating that he must stay out of Mexico for 10 years, but he vowed: "I won't ever return to Mexico. I don't plan to visit there ever again because this could happen to anyone."

His parents support the decision to share his story. "It's a tragedy for an entire nation that needs to be told to the rest of the world," said his father, Kevin Huckabee.

In an interview at his home in the El Paso area, Huckabee described a series of violations at the prison. He said he lived through a deadly riot in prison in July and the brutal crackdown by authorities that followed. He said he witnessed municipal police officers and Police Chief Julian Leyzaola beat inmates with two-by-four pieces of wood.

"He was hitting them ... personally," Huckabee said of Leyzaola. "I saw him."

Huckabee said he saw inmates "blue and black and bruised up."

Leyzaola, a retired army lieutenant colonel, has been credited with cleaning up the border city of Tijuana and more recently with reducing crime in Ciudad Juarez. But allegations of torture and corruption have followed him.

According to a July 14, 2009, diplomatic cable released by WikilLeaks, U.S. diplomats raised suspicions that a drop in violence in the city of Tijuana had more to do with Leyzaola cutting a "look-the-other-way agreement" with the Arrellano Felix drug cartel than with the overall government strategy.

Leyzaola has denied the allegations and has described himself as nothing more than a patriot trying to rid Mexico of criminals. After Leyzaola's success in Tijuana, the Juarez mayor, state governor and top business leaders personally recruited him to take the Juarez job. Calls and emails to his spokesman in Ciudad Juarez were unanswered.

Huckabee said federal police were the first to enter the prison after the riot in July and used deadly force even after prisoners were disarmed and stripped. Among the 17 people killed in the riot and crackdown was a man identified as Nicolas Frias Salas, known as El Nico and leader of the Double AA gang, a group associated with the Sinaloa cartel.

Many federal police officers have received U.S. training.

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