Saturday, February 25, 2012

Colonel Lujan Ruiz and the Buenaventura 3

By Chris Covert

A Mexican rifle battalion commander is on trial for ordering the 2010 murder of two soldiers in Chihuahua state, according to Mexican news accounts.

Colonel de Infanteria Elfego Jose Lujan Ruiz is accused of ordering soldiers to torture, then kill Mario Alberto Leon Guerrero AKA El Janos, and Mario Alberto Rodriguez Peralta, AKA El Capulina after the two had deserted their posts. Both men were alleged to be part of La Linea, the enforcement wing of the Juarez cartel.

The charges come from statements from 15 soldiers in Colonel Lujan Ruiz's 35th Infantry Battalion that the colonel had ordered an interrogation detail to extract information from the two detainees about their involvement with La Linea. Allegations are that electric shock treatment was used to obtain the information. 

Following the end of the interrogation when an unidentified lieutenant in charge of the interrogation detail presumably phoned the colonel asking for further instructions.

Colonel Lujan Ruiz allegedly said, “Kill them.”

The victims were then led to a location on the road near the army base, were strangled to death with plastic bags and then incinerated using gasoline.

The bodies were discovered a day later by local police agents.

According to press reports, elements of La Linea inside the rifle unit had gained contact with the families of several elements in the rifle unit, making threats and sufficiently striking fear to influence counternarcotics operations. The actions taken by the colonel appear to be that of a senior commander invoking rule number one in war: protection of command. If in fact La Linea were relying on information provided by the two deserters, it is clear that that means of information probably stopped with the two murders.

According to press reports, Colonel Lujan Ruiz was recommended for his promotion to colonel in 2007, which was approved by the Mexican Chamber of Deputies in 2008. He was assigned to the 35 Infantry Battalion based in Nueva Casas Grandes in far western Chihuahua sometime in 2009 under the command of General Jose de Jesus Espitia, commander of the Mexican 5th Military Zone.

Colonel Lujan Ruiz was arrested in February, 2010 and then formally imprisoned in March, 2010 on the charges.

Colonel Lujan Ruiz could be facing charges in another more well known disappearance case that took place only a few days before the murders.

In August, 2011, three bodies were found inside an abandoned mine near the town of Buenaventura in Galeana municipality in far western Chihuahua state. It is unclear in concurrent news reports if the three cadavers found were the three individuals reported taken from their respective residences by men dressed as soldiers 19 months before, or if tests begun by Chihuahua state authorities shortly after they were discovered were conclusive.

According to news and human rights accounts, at around 2000 hrs December 29th, 2010 three individuals were taken from residences in Buenaventura in Galeana municipality, Jose Alvarado Herrera, 30 and Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza, 31 and Rocio Irene Alvarado Reyes, 18 in two separate incidents.

Relatives had said the three were taken to the Nueva Casas Grandes army base, while officials both at the local garrison as well as at higher commands denied having them. A human rights report stated that on February 4th, a friend of one of the victims, received a brief telephone call from Nitza Paola Alvarado Espinoza. A local prosecutor in Galeana attempted to trace the call but failed.

The army has consistently denied knowing where whereabouts or fate of the three victims, a contention which appears to be true.

According to an article in the leftist weekly Proceso,  soldiers dropped the three off at a facility run by the Chihuahua state Agencia Estatal de Investigacion (AEI) .  The detail that detained the three was led by Colonel Lujan Ruiz.  The colonel's involvement in the detention was confirmed by three other Chihuahua state officials, however the report fails to state whether the colonel was physically present when the arrests were made, and when the three were dropped off to the AEI. It is clear by virtue of the colonel being in command of the rifle unit, it was his operation. But it is also unclear if the three officials who claimed the colonel led the expedition to arrest the three either saw, or knew that a witness had seen him in that detail at that time.

A January 9th 2010 meeting was set and attended by Luz Estela Castro Rodriguez, a human rights activist, Emilia Gonzalez Tercero, a lawyer for the families,  Maria de Jesus Alvarado Espinosa , a sister of one of the victims, Colonel Lujan Ruiz, General de Jesus Espitia, Major Carlos Sergio Ruvalcaba, head of the Department of Rights International Human Rights and the Directorate of Military Justice, and another, unidentified army general.

At the meeting, General de Jesus Espirita attempted to divert focus on the issue by claiming the three detainees had criminal records for theft. The Proceso report does not deny that contention. The meeting erupted when Colonel Lujan Ruiz continually denied that any element of the 35 Infantry Battalion were conducting operations in the vicinity of Buenaventura on the date of the disappearance, a contention which was heatedly contested by Ms. Alvarado Espinosa, the sister of Nitzla.

The colonel as commander of the rifle unit is in the unique position to know if operations had taken place in the area, since by definition of his position as commander, he is operations chief. Unit logs and other data would presumably available to easily confirm Colonel Lujan Ruiz contention that the army did not detain the three victims.

However, to date none of that data has been released by the Mexican Army.

According to the Proceso account the meeting was then concluded, and then Colonel Lujan Ruiz was later relieved of command. The report doesn't say however, the colonel was likely relieved not because of the triple disappearance but because of the murders of the two La Linea operatives within his ranks only a few days after the disappearance.

Less than six months later General de Jesus Espitia was relieved of command as well.

General de Jesus Espitia has been the subject of press reports detailing alleged links with the Sinaloa Cartel, a charge that former alleged subordinates have denied. The general during his tenure also maintained close ties with Patricia Gonzalez, who ended her term as Chihuahua state's attorney general under a cloud of suspicion that she had links to La Linea, the Sinaloa Cartel's rival in Chihuahua state. Both General de Jesus Espitia and Ms. Gonzalez worked closely together during the their times in office.

Neither Ms. Gonzalez nor General de Jesus Espitia have been charged with any crime relating to a nexus with organized crime.

Proceso's treatment of the disappearance yields several questions.

First is Colonel Lujan Ruiz himself. The Proceso article said that the colonel was being sought by families of the victims for his role in the disappearance. But the article also states that ten men dressed as soldiers arrested the three victims, and then transported them to AEI facilities in western Chihuahua.
Mexican Army Panhard AFV

That would track with army practice. Army units even if they develop their own intelligence, do not act on said intelligence unless they are allowed to by the respective state or federal prosecutors.  Army units do not operate in secrecy;  someone in police agencies or prosecutors' offices almost always knows what is going on when a detachment is sent out.

A second question is whether Colonel Lujan Ruiz himself was present at the arrest. It is very unlikely such a senior commander would have led an expedition to arrest three petty thieves even if ordered by a superior prosecutor. Not that senior commanders don't go out on army security missions; they do. But as the commander of the 35th Battalion, it would follow that the colonel likely had better things to do.

A third question arises about the three victims. In the meeting General de Jesus told the two human rights activists and Maria de Jesus that the three has criminal records as thieves. If the three were wrongly denounced and were killed by authorities, then the question would be who directed the military detail to the three victims.

We know now that Colonel Lujan Ruiz had a severe security problem in his unit being infiltrated by members of organized crime. He is being tried for killing two of his subordinates who were allegedly in the the pay of La Linea. It impossible to think those two were the only traitors in his unit because of the events of the summer of 2011.

In July, 2011 Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, AKA El Diego was finally arrested by a team of Policia Federal agents in Chihuahua city after a brief pursuit and firefight. Acosta Hernandez had his hand in a number of major security incidents in Chihuahua state, including the Juarez car bomb in July, 2010. He also admitted to well over 1,500 murders during his reign of terror. He must have been at the time of his arrest a wealth of information.

The next month the bodies of the three disappeared were found and were tentatively identified. A news report suggested that Acosta Hernandez had directed authorities to the abandoned mine near Buenavertura, but a news release later refuted the reported fact that he knew where those bodies were.

But Acosta Hernandez was apparently at the time of he disappearance, getting his people inside military units, and probably still has some in the army to this day. Assuming the three never left army custody, which is a stretch given what is now known, what if Colonel Lujan Ruiz identified either the wrong two or two more that only Acosta Hernandez knew about reported to Acosta Hernandez what they knew. Or a new infiltrator to enter the unit after the deaths of the two men under his command?

Since, however, news reports stated the three did leave army custody and were presumably under the custody of Chihuahua state, and since the prosecutor may have had ties with La Linea, it is possible it was through those offices that Acosta Hernandez knew where the three bodies had been dumped.

A last question is why, in light of the fact the victims were left to Chihuahua state authorities would the family of the disappeared and their representatives be going after the army for information when it is at least as likely Chihuahua state government officials would know more?

The Procuradoria General Republica (PGR) had throughout the case consistently declined investigation or prosecution in favor of military proceedings, which until last year was de riguer for such cases involving the military and civilians. The case, however eventually made its way to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Washington DC.

A July, 2011 decision of the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that when a civilian is involved with wrongdoing by the military, investigations and prosecutions must be made by civil, not military authorities. The chief justice of the court Juan Silva Meza later walked back the ruling saying federal judges have total discretion, as to whether a case gets moved to civilian courts.

On February 9th a meeting of officials with Secretaria de Gobiernacion (SEGOB) recommended the case be turned over to the PGR.

If the PGR does move vigorously on the case it will conceivably bring Ms. Gonzalez back under investigation, if it turns out agencies under her command knew or covered up the disappearances of the three victims.

That may not means that Ms. Gonzalez was privvy to those actions,but it doesn't rule out any delegates under her administration weren't.

Chris Covert writes Mexican Drug War and national political news for