March 12, 2004

Mexico’s Forgotten Disappeared: The Victims of the Border Narco Bloodbath

(Part II)

By Mark Getty

Upholding the Law of the Jungle and Social Disorder: Police, Drug Traffickers and Dirty Warriors

In the Mexican borderlands, hardly a week goes by without news of current or former policemen being linked to organized criminal activity. The recent exposure of members of the Chihuahua State Judicial Police (PJE) as the probable murderers of 12 men whose bodies were recovered from a “narco-grave” in Cd. Juárez is but the latest case in which lines are increasingly blurred between law enforcement authorities and gangsters.

In Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, for instance, a scandal erupted early this year when several Tamaulipas state policemen were accused of protecting kidnapping rings. One of the mentioned officers, Tamaulipas State Ministerial Police commander, Felipe Ramírez, just happened to be the first lead investigator in the still-unsolved rape-murder of 16-year-old computer school student Olga Lidia Osorio, in Nuevo Laredo in January 2003, a case that caught widespread attention in the border city due to its similarity with the Cd. Juárez women’s killings.

What is striking about border violence is the large number of local, state and federal police who are both victimizers and victims. Flaunted years ago by authorities for its supposed efficiency, the Special Anti-Kidnapping Group of the Chihuahua State Judicial Police (GEA), is a case in point. Of eight original members of the GEA, six have been reported murdered, one is disappeared and one still alive.

Well-known, former GEA head Francisco Minjarez was gunned down on September 11, 2003 in Chihuahua City. He was also involved in the early stages of the PJE’s much-questioned investigations of the sex-related serial slayings of young women in Cd. Juárez.

Members of the El Paso-Juárez-based International Association of Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons (AFAPD), which represents family members of mainly disappeared men widely believed to have been victims of narco-violence, contend that Minjarez covered-up leads in their cases, staged rescues in others and spread misinformation about victims like New Mexico resident Ricardo Pfeiffer who disappeared in Cd. Juárez.

“(The) media has given him a lot of credit for being the chief of the anti-kidnapping squad, but the truth is that he stalled a lot of these cases,” charges the AFAPD’s Jaime Hervella. “He knew exactly who was doing what to whom.”

Alma Díaz, spokeswoman for the Esperanza Association in Baja California, a non-governmental group which represents families of missing loved ones in California, Baja California and Sinaloa, charges that numerous abductions in her region were staged by armed men from the now-defunct Federal Judicial Police and the State Ministerial Police of Baja California Norte. Díaz blames a former federal police officer, Armando “El Loco” Martinez Duarte, currently incarcerated on drug charges at a high-security prison outside Mexico City, for being behind the disappearance of her son.”

Now, after having written to both President Fox and Attorney General Macedo de la Concha about the cases of disappeared residents of Baja California and Sinaloa, the Esperanza Association is pushing for a special prosecutor to look at their cases. Taking a cue from the now high-profile movement that has burgeoned over the issue of murdered and disappeared women in Chihuahua state, the organization is studying the possibility of drawing in the United Nations or Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Shades of the Dirty War

The manner in which victims of organized crime in the borderlands disappear-forcibly abducted by well-organized commandoes carrying automatic weapons and communications equipment-recalls episodes from the Mexican government’s war against guerrillas and dissidents in the 1970s, the so-called Dirty War. Those were the years when Mexican security forces like the Federal Security Directorate (DFS) joined together in the feared White Brigade with the mission of exterminating the gathering opposition. When the bodies of two guerrilla militants of the September 23 Communist League (L-23) were tossed in empty lots in Guadalajara back in 1974 after being allegedly tortured and executed by the DFS, the scene presaged common sights along the border a quarter-century later.

Indeed, similarities between the politically-motivated disappearances of three decades ago and the criminally-motivated ones of today share more than mere coincidences.

History and personality tie the Dirty War with the Narco Wars.

Former Cd. Juárez resident Judith Galarza, who currently directs the Caracas-based Latin American Federation of Relatives Associations of Disappeared Persons (FEDAFEM), wasn’t too surprised about PJE officers being linked to the brutal torture of victims recently recovered from “narco-graves” in Cd. Juárez.

A longtime human rights activist, Galarza watched the passage of former PJE and Dirty War-linked commanders to the world of organized crime. According to Galarza, they include men like Refugio Rubalcava, who was executed along with his two sons in Cd. Juárez in 1994.

Rising as powerful enterprises in 1970s and 1980s, Mexico’s modern crime syndicates were founded and promoted by veterans of the security forces including former DFS Commander and Juárez Cartel founder Rafael Aguilar Guajardo. Schooled in the doctrine of anti-communist national security, they were trained by the FBI, CIA, and the US Department of Defense at facilities like the US Army School of the Americas. Among them was former DFS head and reputed CIA asset Miguel Nazar Haro, who was once indicted in the United States for his role in a massive auto theft ring. After spending more than two months as a fugitive, Nazar was detained in February 2004 and jailed on an arrest warrant ordered by President Fox’s Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Social and Political Movements of the Past (FEMOSSP) for his alleged involvement in the 1975 disappearance of L-23 militant Jesus Piedra, the son of internationally known human rights advocate Rosario Ibarra. Mexican and international human rights organizations have praised Nazar’s arrest as a positive step toward ending impunity stemming from the Dirty War.

Based on U.S. government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and Mexican government papers culled from the National Archive in Mexico City, a joint team of researchers from the Washington-based, non-profit National Security Archive and Mexico’s Proceso Magazine, have recently published extracts from the documents that clearly show how Washington was in the know about the Mexican government’s reliance on repression and forced disappearance throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. But Washington might have done more than just turn a blind eye to the horror. Other accounts place “gringo” advisors at the scene of raids against suspected guerrilla supporters in Guerrero state during 1974 and Cd. Juárez in 1977.

Acosta Chaparro and the Cd. Juárez Connection

Emblematic of the Dirty War-Narco War connection are two imprisoned Mexican generals: Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro and Humberto Quiroz Hermosillo. The high-ranking officers were arrested by the Mexican military in August 2000 and charged with illegal drug and organized crime offenses because of their purported relationships with the late head of the Juárez Cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Following a controversial military trial in late 2003, Acosta Chaparro and Quiroz Hermosillo were convicted on the drug charges and sentenced to prison terms of 15 and 16 years respectively.

Both men also have been indicted by a military prosecutor for allegedly murdering 143 imprisoned detainees in Guerrero state and having their bodies tossed from airplanes and into Pacific Ocean during the mid-1970s.

Quiroz Hermosillo was linked to the White Brigade, while then-Major Acosta Chaparro helped lead field operations against guerrillas of the Poor Peoples’ Party in Guerrero. Numerous testimonies by Guerrero residents link Acosta Chaparro to forced disappearance and mass murder from 1974 to 1981.

Given a leave from the military, Acosta Chaparro commanded the Guerrero State Judicial Police, first in Acapulco and later in the entire state from 1975 to 1981. During this period, nine Acapulco high school students were allegedly kidnapped by Acosta Chaparro’s men, among them two young women. All 9 students remain missing.

While directing state police operations, Acosta Chaparro commanded a gang of thugs known as “Los Tarin” or “Los Chihuahua”. Led by the Tarin brothers of Durango and Chihuahua states, the group was so brutal in its treatment of the locals that even the Mexican Army, which practiced forced disappearance on a systematic scale in Guerrero, was so appalled that it forced the group to disband and leave Guerrero under extreme threats. Acosta Chaparro, however, went untouched at that moment.

Like Acosta Chaparro, the Tarin clan later resurfaces in the intrigues of the Juárez Cartel. A protected witness of the US government Gustavo Tarin testified against Acosta Chaparro in the latter’s criminal trial. A brother, Manuel Tarin, was murdered in a 2002 gangland-style shooting in Chihuahua City.

AFAPD member Patricia Garibay, the sister of El Paso resident Jorge Garibay, who was abducted by men claiming to be police officers from a popular Cd. Juárez bar in 1998, contends that Acosta Chaparro had a hand in the forced disappearances of recent years. “He’s mentioned in a lot of our disappearances. Mr. Vicente Carrillo, one of our local cartel leaders, is protected by the Mexican military,” says Garibay.

“Mr. Chaparro and all of them were involved in helping him bring in the drugs, distribute the drugs and also get rid of their enemies. So I also believe that he was involved in some of our disappearances.” Despite his possible link to the disappearance of US citizens like Jorge Garibay in Cd. Juárez during the 1990s, the US government has not requested the extradition of Acosta Chaparro.

Meanwhile, violent incidents tied to organized crime ushered in what promises to be a bloody year on the border and beyond. In Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa at least 11 “levantones” were reported during the first month of the new year.

Frontera NorteSur: on-line news coverage of the US-Mexico border

Return to the Frontpage