VERACRUZ, Mexico (AP) — Police in Mexico's corruption-plagued state of Veracruz set up units that used dirty-war, death-squad style tactics to abduct, kill and dispose of at least 15 people, mostly youths, who they suspected of being drug cartel informers and drug runners, according to charges filed by state prosecutors.
The allegations filed last week against the former top police commanders in Veracruz show all the signs of the human rights abuses of Mexico's notorious anti-guerrilla counterinsurgency campaigns of the 1960s and 70s.
Police in marked patrol cars picked up youths but never recorded their arrests. Instead they turned them over to specialized interrogation/torture squads working at the police academy itself, according to the indictment, and they were later killed and their bodies disposed of.
While individual groups of corrupt cops have been known to turn youths over to drug cartels in several areas of Mexico, the Veracruz state case is notable for the rank of those accused: The former head of state security and the leaders of at least two police divisions have been charged, suggesting that the disappearances were state policy in the administration of former Gov. Javier Duarte, who is in jail facing corruption charges.
"This is the first time they have charged people in significant numbers and of significant rank and demonstrated that there was an organized, structured governmental apparatus that had an agreed-on, systemic method to carry out a policy of disappearing people," said Juan Carlos Gutierrez, a lawyer who specializes in human rights cases.
"The groundbreaking thing is that prosecutors built a case by demonstrating there was a whole governmental structure that was designed to disappear people," he said.
Mexico's military and federal police were widely accused of systematic, state-sponsored torture and disappearances as they chasing leftist rebels through the mountains of southern Guerrero state in the 1960s and 1970s.
Unlike the Guerrero case, the disappearances in Veracruz between 2013 and 2014 didn't happen in remote mountains; they were surprisingly urban and brazen: The death squads actually picked up, tortured and released a highway policewoman who was riding in a taxi after finishing her shift, according to the charges.
Jaqueline, as the witness is known in court records, had apparently caught the wrong taxi: Police accused the driver of carrying a small amount of cocaine. In southern Mexico, taxi drivers sometimes act as small-time drug couriers.
But neither the taxi driver nor Jaqueline, his passenger, were ever formally booked, arraigned or brought before a judge.
In court testimony, Jaqueline recounted a chilling procedure similar to those allegedly used in other cases:
She and the driver were forced to get out of the taxi. The officers who detained them then turned them over to the police "rapid reaction" squad — also known as the "fieles," or "the loyal ones" — who took them to a police academy known as El Lencero, where she said they were tortured and beaten.
After four days Jaqueline was released, apparently because her captors, including police Lt. Roberto Carlos Flores, realized she really was a police officer. But the taxi driver was never heard from again.
According to documents read in court, it was a pattern repeated in at least 14 other cases. The victims were mostly young men pulled from streets, roadsides or vehicles, on suspicion they were acting as lookouts for the Zetas drug cartel.
They were apparently picked up by the "fieles" if an initial police inspection turned up suspicious messages on their cellphones.
After that, they were allegedly taken to the police academy, and from there they disappeared without a trace.
Nineteen current or former Veracruz state police officials and officers are now on trial facing charges of "forced disappearance," including the state's former public safety secretary — in effect the top police commander — and his directors of special forces, prisons and state police.
The victims included two women and two minors
It is reminiscent of the 1970s military counterinsurgency campaigns in Latin America, when detentions led to clandestine torture cells on military bases, and then unmarked graves.
Hundreds of unmarked graves have been found in Veracruz, but only a few of the bodies have been identified.
AP Writer Maria Verza contributed to this report