The Associated Press
It is a ritual that takes place almost every day: people accused of drug trafficking and murder are paraded before the media to show that Mexico is winning its war against drugs.
This is one in an occasional series of reports by The Associated Press examining why -- four decades and $1 trillion after Richard Nixon declared war on drugs -- the U.S. and Mexico continue to fight a losing battle.But once the camera lights go out, three-quarters of them are released.
Although the federal government brags about their arrest record, cases of armed sicarios sent by prosecutors and police who work under tremendous pressure to make quick arrests fall apart for lack of evidence. Innocent people are tortured to get confessions. The guilty are released, only to be arrested at another time for other crimes. Sometimes the drug cartels are the ones who decide who gets arrested.
Files obtained by The Associated Press show that the government arrested 226,667 suspects of drug-related crimes between December 2006 and September 2009, the most recent figure available. Less than a quarter of those arrested were formally charged. Only 15% received sentences. And the Attorney General of the Republic (PGR) will not say how many of them were guilty.
The legal vacuum is a key reason why the Mexican cartels continue to distribute tons of marijuana, methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine on U.S. streets.
"It gives them a de facto impunity," said U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual, "and it allows them to function in ways that they can spread out in to the United States.''
Mexico's judicial system operates in an almost secret process and has been stubbornly corrupt. Add a drug war that President Felipe Calderón has intensified, and the system is exceeded. Nearly 25,000 people have died in the war so far, and the vast majority of these cases remain unsolved.
The AP obtained court documents and prison records which are restricted to the public and conducted dozens of interviews with relatives of the suspects, lawyers, human rights groups and government officials to find out what happens after the drug suspects are presented to the public.
In Ciudad Juarez, where a war is being waged between two cartels fighting over lucrative trafficking routes has seen a record number homicides totaling 2,600 in 2009 alone. Prosecutors presented 93 homicide cases for prosecution that year and only convicted 19. Of those, only five were for homicide, according to court documents, and no one was charged with federal crimes, which carry greater penalties and are designed to combat drug trafficking.
"They never charge them for murder because they don't have any evidence, no proof," said Jorge Gonzalez, president of the association of public defenders. They just display them in the media for image sake to give the impression that they are solving cases."
In Juarez soldiers routinely announce that the suspects have confessed to an impressive number of homicides.
Hector Armando Alcíbar Wong, known as "El Koreano," killed 15 people they said. But a year after his arrest in August 2009, authorities don't even know where he is. Chihuahua state officials say they turned him over to federal authorities, but the PGR said that they never took custody of him.
Soldiers told the media in 2008 that Juan Pablo Castillo López was linked to 23 murders. Yet he was never charged with murder and was released from state prison less than a year later. The army arrested him again a short time later with the allegation that he had killed two more people. Now nine months later, he has yet to be charged with murder.
Oswaldo Muñoz González, known as "El Gonzo" admitted to killing 40 people, according to police and the military in Ciudad Juárez. His family says he was tortured into confessing. Eight months later he has not been charged with murder.
Muñoz was arrested in 2008 for aggravated robbery, but was released after the attorney did not submit sufficient evidence.
Two months after his release, authorities said he was arrested again during a traffic stop and police found drugs and guns in his truck.
His sister, Petra Muñoz González, said that it's all a lie. She said he was taken from his home in front of his wife and daughters. His family did not know where he was until they saw him on TV days later, being "presented" with guns and drugs in front of him.
"He told me that he had never killed anyone," said Petra Munoz. "He said that what he testified to was said while being tortured. That they had put a bag over his head so he could suffocate, and they shocked his private parts, and that he was beaten until he was shaking from the pain. Who is going to withstand that?''
"I just ask of them to tell the truth," she said. "How come they have not submitted any evidence or witnesses or anything that would implicate him? But that is how it has been for almost a year."
Chihuahua authorities say they cannot talk about open cases.
PGR records show the same pattern of "catch and release" in all states where the Calderón's government has sent soldiers and federal police to fight cartels.
In Baja California, nearly 33,000 people were arrested, and 24,000 of them were set free. In Sinaloa, the cradle of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, registered more than 9,700 apprehensions but there were 5,606 of them released. In Tamaulipas, the headquarters of the Gulf cartel there were almost 3,600 arrests were made and 2,083 were set free.
Calderon launched his military assault in 2006 in his home state of Michoacan, where he deployed thousands of troops shortly after the new cartel called "La Familia" threw five human heads on the dance floor of a nightclub.
Since then, federal forces have arrested more than 3,300 suspected drug dealers. Nearly half have been set free.
In 2008, drug traffickers in Michoacan threw hand grenades into a crowd celebrating Independence Day. Eight people were killed, including a 13 year old boy. Authorities arrested three suspects ten days later. None had criminal records. The three confessed.
But at least 16 people say the defendants were not even on the scene of the attack.
Witnesses told authorities that they saw the three defendants in Lazaro Cardenas, about 500 kilometers from the city of Morelia, where the attacks occurred, this according to interviews and statements obtained by the AP.
Gloria Ortiz and her daughter, Selene, told the AP that the night of the attack they had dinner with Juan Carlos Castro, one of the defendants.
Edith Franco, Doctor from Lazaro Cardenas testified under oath that she had dinner that night with Julio César Mondragón in the restaurant of her mother.
Three days later, Castro's wife, Esperanza Fajardo, was told that gunmen had taken her husband away in a car. She reported the kidnapping to the police. Three days after that, Mondragon was abducted while washing his car outside his home. The girlfriend of Alfredo Rosas said that Rosas was abducted in similar circumstances two days later.
The next time the three women saw the men were in front of television cameras in the City of Mexico. Federal Police identified them as terrorists and members of the Zetas cartel.
Castro had visible cuts and bruises. The face of Mondragon was black and blue. Rosas, who was wearing a hospital gown, had five broken ribs and a black eye.
"At that moment you cry, yell and you feel helpless," said Fajardo. "I told myself; How can they be accused of something they did not do?"
Castro says he was beaten not only until he confessed, but until he was forced to name Mondragon as his accomplice.
"They showed me videos where they cut the head off a person and these guys told me that they were going to cut my finger after finger, arm after arm and also would go after my family," Castro said in a written letter obtained by The Associated Press. "I would repeat what they told me to say and if I said something they did not want me to say, they would beat me."
Mondragon said in testimony before the judge that his captors took him blindfolded to a place where he heard what appeared to be cries of a man who was being burned alive. 'Put diesel in the can (barrel) and light it up,' shouted the captors of Mondragon. I prayed to God and asked to kill me quickly so I did not have to suffer."
But his captors took him to a house where they dunked his head several times in a bucket of water, they beat him with the butt of a rifle and they hung him from a tree. They burned his ears with a lighter. Mondragon said he finally gave them the name of Rosas.
The Federal Police said an anonymous call led them to a home in the Michoacan town of Apatzingan, a known stronghold of "La Familia," where they found the three men bound, blindfolded and moaning.
The call came days after the government accused La Familia of being responsible for the attack. The cartel responded by hanging a narco-banner where it asserted his innocence and promised to find the murderers.
Police said the men confessed and claimed to be rivals of La Familia.
The defendants still do not know who their captors were.
"I started thinking: could it be the government? What if I tell the truth that I did not do anything? But I said nothing. I was afraid," Mondragon said.
The PGR said they had witnesses who claimed that Castro and Mondragon were drug dealers and had attacked the police, but said nothing about the grenade attack. One of the witness was murdered last year and the other admitted that he never met the accused, said Rosas' lawyer Raúl Espinoza de los Monteros Santillan.
One year after the arrests, an appeals court judge dismissed the charges leveled against the three defendants related to organized crime, terrorism and possession of a grenade. The confessions have been abjured, but the murder charges continue.
A September 26, 2008 photo showing Julio César Mondragón, Juan Carlos Castro and Alfredo Rosas who were "presented" to the media.
The three men remain in prison. "I'm disappointed of the government," said the witness Franco. ''They didn't look for the culprits. They looked for someone to blame.''
Even Mexico's president admitted the court system is inept recently as he touted a new judicial system that Mexico has begun to adopt.
''It fosters injustice, impunity and corruption,'' Calderon wrote on the presidential website. ''We need a profound change and that's why we have begun an unprecedented effort to modernize and redesign our legal system.''
That effort, with aid from the United States, started under a constitutional amendment passed by the legislature, approved by all 32 states and signed by Calderon in 2008.
Under the old system, defendants are presumed guilty until proven innocent, proceedings are carried out almost entirely in writing, and judges usually rubber-stamp whatever government prosecutors and investigators hand them. Without public scrutiny, mistaken arrests, bungled investigations and false confessions are commonplace.
With the reform, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty; police must investigate crimes and collect evidence before making arrests; a panel of judges decides whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed, and trials are argued orally in courts open to the public.
The law calls for the changeover to be completed by 2016. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided training in forensics, interviewing and courtroom arguments to 550 Mexican prosecutors. Some 5,000 federal police officers have taken basic investigation courses, also with U.S. funding. The Obama administration is requesting $207 million in its 2011 budget for judicial and government reforms in Mexico.
The new system was piloted in Chihuahua state, home to Ciudad Juarez, in 2007 -- just before the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels began their bloody war to control drug routes into the United States. All Chihuahua prosecutors and judges were trained in the new techniques.
But even state prosecutors say the drug war has stymied the new system.
Soldiers, who under Mexican law can't do police work, routinely bring in evidence such as illegally obtained confessions that judges are forced to throw out.
''The numbers of arrests increased tremendously but the numbers of prosecutions virtually didn't change,'' noted Pascual, the U.S. ambassador.
Since the reform was implemented, 98 officials who had received training -- police investigators, forensic experts, prosecutors -- have been assassinated by gangs, said Carlos Gonzalez, spokesman for the Chihuahua attorney general's office.
Nobody has been arrested in any of those killings.