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American says he witnessed corruption in Mexican prison

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.

"They had just taken all our clothes off and laid us all on the ground close together," Huckabee said. "And all we hear is a rafaga (burst of fire) of the rifles.

"We're like what's going on, what's going on? Well they had shot him. And all the guys, the feds, started cocking their rifles, and we're like, 'Great. This is what they're doing.' We're all laid here on the ground, and they're going to start opening fire.

"Then it came over the radio, 'It's OK, we just shot another pig. It was one of our guys that shot one of theirs. Don't worry.' ... The next day we found it was a leader and who it was and a guy I actually knew."

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.

Emails seeking comment from the federal police and the office of President Felipe Calderon also were unanswered.

In November, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch released a report that accused the Mexican government of torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the government's five-year war against organized crime. The report detailed violations at all levels of authority, from prosecutors who allegedly give detainees prewritten confessions for signing to medical examiners who classify beatings and electric shock as causing minor injuries.

Huckabee, who said he was beaten with a rifle butt and given electric shocks, said he and other inmates tried denouncing the incidents to human rights activist Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, but the activist was not allowed in the prison. De la Rosa Hickerson confirmed that the police chief barred him from entering the prison.

"I don't see any justice," Huckabee said. "I see corruption. I see lots of corruption."

The corruption begins with guards who "want their 20-30 pesos for a favor here or there" to judges who "ask for a certain amount of money and you'll be out. I couldn't pay the amount of money that they wanted. It was astronomical," in the tens of thousands of dollars, he said. "For a drug dealer, it's a good thing for them; they can pay their way out."

Some policy analysts in Washington question whether the incidents described by Huckabee will further dampen U.S. support for continued aid to help Mexico's fight against drug traffickers, including the training of federal police, and to strengthen its judicial system. Under terms of the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative aid package, Mexico could lose 15 percent of the aid if there is evidence of human rights violations. The State Department is required to issue a report in the first half of 2012 on whether Mexico is fulfilling its human rights requirements.

"This case raises the profile in Mexico and makes it harder for the State Department to argue that enough progress is made," said Maureen Meyer, Mexico program director at the Washington Office on Latin America. "This ups the ante because this involves a U.S. citizen, and the Department of Justice determined that he was tortured."

On Thursday, the Mexican federal police received a Black Hawk helicopter, the latest installment of U.S. aid.

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