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Poor Mexicans easy scapegoats in vicious drug war

 Reuters 11 October 2019

The 24-year-old Mexican says he was smoking a joint on a street corner when soldiers hauled him off and accused him of being one more drug smuggler terrorizing the border city of Ciudad Juarez. (801 Words) - By Julian Cardona

Reuters_Poor Mexicans easy scapegoats in vicious drug war

A member of a forensic team looks at a bullet hole in a window at a crime scene where two men had been shot earlier in Guadalajara October 4, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Alejandro Acosta

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Now serving a five-year sentence in a Mexican prison, the man, who by law cannot reveal his name, maintains soldiers set him up to look like a big-time trafficker by planting 29 pounds (13 kg) of marijuana on him after his arrest in January.

Residents in Ciudad Juarez, the epicentre of Mexico's bloody drug war, say authorities are going after small offenders and innocent people such as poor workers even as they allow powerful drug lords to operate with impunity.

President Felipe Calderon is under pressure to show results in his offensive against traffickers in Ciudad Juarez where he has deployed more than 7,500 soldiers and police, making the crackdown a central part of his war on drug cartels.

But rights groups say corrupt or ineffective police and soldiers have rounded up hundreds of drug addicts and ordinary people in the manufacturing city across from El Paso, Texas without making major drug busts or arresting top capos.

More than 450 federal police held a public protest in August to accuse their superiors of forcing them to run extortion rackets and carry out illegal raids.

The army has seized just 75 pounds (34 kg) of cocaine this year in the city, a top smuggling point in a country where the United Nations estimates drug gangs send an estimated 140 tonnes of cocaine to the United States each year.

No major drug arrests, like the government's August capture of drug lord Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez, have taken place in the area, where top trafficker Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, who runs the powerful Juarez cartel, is at large.

"For smoking a joint, they sentenced me to five years," the man told Reuters from his cell in Ciudad Juarez, which has become one of the world's most violent places since drug gangs unleashed turf wars in the city in January 2008. Since then, more than 6,700 people have died in the area in drug violence.

The rundown city has been one of Calderon's toughest tests since he launched his militarized fight against cartels in late 2006. Shootouts are common in the desert city and up to 250,000 people, many of them skilled factory workers or local elite, have fled in fear.

The military denies it has acted out of line.

"The army directly follows the rule of law. Suspects are always handed over with evidence," Marco Antonio Barron, one of the top army generals in Ciudad Juarez, told Reuters.

Prosecutors in the city were not available for comment.

DRUG AID AT RISK

Some 220 people lodged formal complaints alleging abuse by the army in Ciudad Juarez between March 2008 and April 2010, including accusations of wrongful arrest and torture in army custody, according to the human rights commission in Chihuahua state, which includes Ciudad Juarez. It could not be determined immediately whether all those claims were corroborated.

Gustavo de la Rosa, an investigator for the commission, said hundreds more may have also been victims of army abuse.

In one high-profile recent case, two Americans detained by soldiers in Ciudad Juarez were sentenced last month to five years in prison for trafficking drugs.

Shohn Huckabee, 23, and Carlos Quijas, 36, were arrested as they drove back towards El Paso last December. But they accuse soldiers of planting suitcases of marijuana in their vehicle, beating them and giving them electric shocks. While the army denies the claim, the two men have appealed their conviction.

"They realized we weren't members of any cartel whatsoever, so they decided to start the process of indicting us for something we didn't do," Quijas said from his prison cell.

U.S. lawmakers have threatened to freeze some of the $1.3 billion (816.3 million pounds) Washington is providing Mexico to fight drugs if the drug war violates human rights.

Mexico arrested more than 34,500 people suspected of links to drug gangs between September 2009 and August 2010, which Calderon says is a sign of his commitment to beating cartels.

Despite reforms to Mexico's judicial system in 2008, trials begin with a strong presumption of guilt against those accused and criminal lawyers warn that pressure to crush the drug cartels mean judges often return guilty verdicts.

"The principle of innocence is being lost because of the eagerness to end the violence," said Hector Gonzalez, a lawyer specializing in criminal cases in Ciudad Juarez.

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