MEXICO CITY – Juan Carlos García Cortés was running errands in Mexico City on his motorcycle when a taxi cut him off and two men jumped out. They shoved him in the back, threw their coats over his head and started beating him.
Mr. García’s kidnappers weren’t street-level criminals – they were members of the newly formed Mexico City elite police unit tasked with combating kidnapping and extortion, the very crimes committed against Mr. García.
After beating Mr. García, officers threatened to charge him with murder if he did not pay them 50,000 pesos, about $2,500, according to deposits from García’s family and a formal complaint filed with the office. attorney general. That’s more than he made in eight months at the taco stand where he worked.
Mexico has long had a major corruption problem in its police force. However, the ambitious mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, a leading candidate for success The president of the country, makes stamping out official corruption in his forces a priority.
In June 2020, just over a year and a half after taking office, she declared victory: “All activities related to torture, illegality, and so on, have been completely eliminated,” she said. Sheinbaum said at a press conference.
However, Mr. García’s ordeal came in 2021.
The episode is among thousands of allegations of misconduct brought against Mexico City’s main police force by residents of Mexico City in recent years, despite the mayor’s claims. Even senior police officials say corruption has not been eliminated from the force of more than 81,000 officers. The numbers show it.
Interviews with current and former police officers, government records and documents reviewed by The New York Times relating to illegal arrests and kidnappings reveal the police force Sheinbaum’s has, in some ways, gotten worse since she took office.
Instead of curbing physical abuse and fake arrests, police and city officials turned a blind eye, current and former police officials said. – often leaves victims, many of them poor, less likely to continue after suffering violent human rights abuses.
In the nearly four years since Sheinbaum took office, the city’s human rights commission has received more than 5,000 reports against police classified as acts of bodily harm and violations of individual liberties. – incidents including illegal arrest, torture and death threats.
There have been more than 1,900 such reports in 2021 alone, the highest number in a year since 2004, when the commission first began publicly classifying the types of claims made against government employees.
Torture charges, according to the commission, include electric shock, strangulation, simulated execution and sexual assault. In the first six months of 2022, the commission issued more reports than in the same period last year.
The committee – led by an official elected by the Mexico City Congress – reviews every report and then forwards it to the relevant department for investigation. A police spokeswoman told The Times that since 2019, 477 officers have been dismissed for failing to comply with force guidelines or for failing to conduct background checks.
Pablo Vázquez Camacho, deputy secretary of the city’s main police force, said the increase in reports of misconduct could be a sign that residents have more ways to report abuse than they do. what they did under the previous mayoral administration.
“There are more opportunities to submit resident reports,” he said. “It is likely that more investigations are being opened because we are investigating further.”
However, Mr. Vázquez disagreed with Ms. Sheinbaum’s view that police corruption, including blackmailing citizens, had ended. “It is not very realistic to say that it has been completely wiped out,” he said. “But we’re in the process of getting rid of it.”
According to Miguel Garza, director of the Institute for Security and Democracy, a Mexican think-tank, the spike in claims of police abuse may also be related to the broader intelligence and investigative powers granted to them. for officers, starting in 2019, to fight crime.
The main force’s responsibilities have expanded beyond patrolling the streets to investigate crimes ranging from drug trafficking to murder, and include the creation of a task force in 2019 focused on against extortion and kidnapping.
“There was pressure from commanders to deliver results,” said Mr. Garza, a former Mexico City police commander. “What they’re looking for is making sure people are incarcerated, and to do that, they can sometimes frame a person with drugs.”
According to current and former police officers, police abuse heavily targets low-income residents who often cannot afford legal representation.
“They target these vulnerable groups because they believe they don’t have any,” said a former Mexico City police officer, Jaime Ramón Bernal García, who was charged with disobedience and fired in 2014. knowledge or education to protect their rights. He said the dismissal came after he demanded better working conditions for police officers. He later founded a nonprofit that promotes workers’ rights to law enforcement.
However, Ms. Sheinbaum’s office reaffirmed the mayor’s accomplishments.
“All illegal torture and arrests have ceased to occur,” the mayor’s office told The Times in a statement in March. Last month, the office told The Times that the force had also stepped up human rights training this year to tackle the acts cited in the most common cases of police misconduct.
“We want our citizens to know that we will neither allow nor tolerate these actions,” said Sheinbaum’s office.
The mayor’s assertion that her administration has reformed Mexico City’s police reflects a broader national effort to transform the nation’s security forces under Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to root out government corruption.
Immediately after taking office at the end of 2018, Mr. López Obrador, disband the federal police and created a new force, the National Guard, which he said was “incorruptible”. (Human rights groups have accused the National Guard of similar acts of violence perpetrated by the Federal Police.)
Sheinbaum matched López Obrador’s enthusiasm and empowered the National Guard on a local scale, as “part of a strategy to bolster security,” she said. For now, add more than 12,000 National Guard soldiers patrol Mexico City.
However, deep corruption in Mexico City’s main police force, the daily enforcement force in the capital, persisted.
A presidential election in 2024 would have probably made the misconduct worse. Analysts and some police officers say police are working to improve security and crack down on crime to bolster arrest statistics ahead of Ms Sheinbaum’s expected presidential run. In some cases, innocent people were arrested and forced to confess to unsolved crimes, even if the case eventually went to court.
The misconduct in Mr. Garcia’s case is not an exception.
In the spring of 2021, police officers arrested a man named Omar, 25, asking him to confess to killing a woman in his neighborhood, according to Omar’s testimony to the prosecutor. , provided by his attorney to The Times. Lawyers asked not to use Omar’s last name for fear of police retaliation.
According to Omar’s testimony, when Omar refused, officers took a plastic bag and placed it over his head, nearly suffocating him. They then forced him to confess to the murder in a recorded video, he said.
A Mexico City judge filed the case, citing evidence of torture.
Last year, the city publishing human rights commission a scathing report citing “a wide range of patterns” of abuse, including torture and arbitrary arrest, by the city’s police force and a smaller force within the Mexico City attorney general’s office.
The report highlights cases of officers spreading drugs into detainees, extorting citizens for cash while threatening to disappear, and breaking into homes without arrest warrants and beating residents. .
The commission recommended that Mexico City police chief, Omar García Harfuch, send in experts to help determine how the force had fallen short of national and international arrest standards. It also calls on the force to comply with the national arrest registry in order to limit torture and forced disappearances at the hands of police officers.
The director of the police force’s human rights division said all of the recommendations made by the commission were in the process of being implemented – although the pandemic has created some delays.
In the case of Mr. García, the taco worker, his attackers drove him to the Mexico City attorney general’s office after kidnapping him and parking his car outside, according to CCTV footage reviewed by The Times. .
Someone then called his wife, Maria Karina Chia Pérez, demanding cash for his release and title papers for García’s motorcycle, according to the García family.
Ms. Chia called people she knew but only gave half the amount.
When she was unable to give the bribe, the men changed into uniforms and then marched Mr. García into the attorney general’s headquarters, according to surveillance footage.
Mr. García was charged with drug trafficking. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The police report said officers found Mr. García with a bag full of cocaine and marijuana at the time surveillance footage showed him being held in a taxi in front of the attorney general’s office.
After seven months in prison, Garcia pleaded guilty in exchange for conditional release. His son was born while he was in captivity.
“It feels terrible,” Mr. García said of the confession. “But on the other hand, I feel better because I’m about to have my freedom and be able to see my son.”
Now, Mr. García is trying to pursue criminal charges against the officers.
“I just want justice done,” Mr. García said.