Morelia Case: Confessions "Under Torture"
By Jorge Carrasco Araizaga and Francisco Castellanos J., Proceso
Translated from the original Spanish by Kristin Bricker
Through confessions obtained “under torture” and with multiple irregularities, the Federal Attorney General’s office (PGR in its Spanish initials) maintains the three alleged culprits under arrest in the September 15 terrorist attack in Morelia, Michoacan—which left eight people dead and 106 injured—even though many family members and neighbors assure that the accused were in Lazaro Cardenas [250 miles south of Morelia] the moment the attacks occurred.
Juan Carlos Castro Galeana, Julio Cesar Mondragon Mendoza, and Alfredo Rosas Elicea, the suspects in the grenade attack, were kidnapped and tortured by armed men in Lazaro Cardenas and later brought to a house in Apatzingan, where they were tormented again, before federal authorities took charge of them.
According to the criminal investigation PGR/SIEDO/UEITA/110/2008, the accused say they were kidnapped and psychologically and physically tortured for days so that they would confess to the attack and to being members of Los Zetas.
According to their statements, which Proceso had access to, the kidnappings happened between September 18-23 in Lazaro Cardenas, a port city in the zone controlled by the La Familia cartel, which is involved in a turf war with Los Zetas for control of drug trafficking in Michoacan. La Familia had offered to undertake its own investigation to find people responsible for the attack.
Despite the fact that the Assistant Attorney General for Specialized Investigation of Organized Crime (SIEDO), Marisela Morales Ibañez, credited an anonymous call that revealed the location of those who are now detained, a memo provided to this weekly by a member of an intelligence organization says that on September 18 “there was a meeting between the security authorites in Michoacan and La F. (La Familia), in some cabins in the vicinity of Cuitzeo (security barracks), agreeing that they would detain various people” in order to blame the Morelia attacks and the grenade attack against the Michoacan Assistant Attorney General’s Office in Lazaro Cardenas, which occurred this past August.
As the agency in charge of the operation, the intelligence organization identifies a person known as El Tutas and specifies that three days before the PGR announced the detentions, the alleged attackers were detained “in the outskirts of Cuatro Caminos (near Apatzingan) on the property belonging to someone called El Becerro.”
However, the official version is that the whereabouts of the accused were unknown until September 24 in the afternoon, when they appeared in the Antunez mountains in Apatzingan thanks to an anonymous call that the PGR’s Mexico City telephone number 53-46-81-21 received.
The head of SIEDO presented them to the press a few days later on Friday, September 26, as those who had confessed to tossing the two grenades the night of the Cry for Independence in downtown Morelia: one in the Melchor Ocampo plaza, in front of the Government Palace, and the other in the intersection of Madero and Quintana Roo streets.
The assistant attorney general assured that, represented by court-appointed lawyers, they said they were Zetas. Moreover, the PGR released a video in which the detained men not only declare themselves guilty, but, lead on by the district attorney, they also give details as to how they supposedly tossed the grenades.
This video is one of the aspects challenged by defense attorney Mario Patricio Solano, who maintains that the defendants’ first statements to the district attorney assigned to the SIEDO were made while they were blindfolded, without a lawyer, and without a medical exam that would have certified the torture they received. For that reason they filed complaints with the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).
Meanwhile, up until last week the PGR had neglected to question the detained men’s families and neighbors, who hope to demonstrate that on the night of September 15 the accused were in Lazaro Cardenas, where they live, during the Morelia attack. At least 15 people, the majority of them neighbors, have offered to testify.
One of the family members states, “Leonel Godoy (the governor of Michoacan) should ask his parents. His parents live three blocks from one of the detained men’s houses.”
Detained since September 27 in the PGR’s National Detention Center in Mexico City’s Doctores neighborhood, on October 13 the accused filed an appeal with the 7th District Criminal Appeals Court in Mexico City against their detention. SIEDO’s Special Unit for Investigations Related to Terrorism, Stockpiles, and Arms Trafficking (UEITA) is in charge of their detention.
They are accused of organized crime, terrorism, and possession of a military-issue firearm. Their 40-day pre-trail detention period expired on November 5, but it can be extended for up to an additional 40 days.
The PGR has not only avoided calling the witnesses offered by the accused, but it has also not responded to the defense’s requests for the videos of the attacks from the Melchor Ocampo plaza, as well as the September 18-26 videos from the toll booths on the stretches of highway in Lazaro Cardenas, Apatzingan, and Morelia, the time period in which the accused were kidnapped and were handed over to the PGR.
The videos are fundamental for the defense, says the lawyer, not only to verify their claims about their kidnapping and transfer, but also to determine the time and place in which the PGR took charge of them.
According to reports obtained by Proceso in Apatzingan, on September 25 at 10am a Casa 229 plane marked XB-BIC arrived in that city. After an hour and a half a Suburban truck with tinted windows approached the aircraft.
Three blindfolded, handcuffed, and beaten people were taken out of the car. They put them on the plane and from there were brought to Mexico City, according to witnesses to the transfer.
Not even the commander of the 43 Military Zone, Gen. Julio Abdon Pedroza Jurado, headquartered in Apatzingan, was notified of the arrival. Only a lieutenant who was guarding the airport, Pablo L. Sidar, was informed.
As soon as the SIEDO made known the capture of the alleged Zetas, various journalists arrived in Apatzingan in order to investigate the time and place of the arrests. No one could give them an answer: not the PGR delegation, not the state attorney general’s office, and not the Military Zone.
“We don’t know anything. You see that this is closely guarded. They come from Mexico City, they carry out the operation, they take them away, and they don’t tell anyone,” was the brief response from a couple of local authorities.
Not withstanding, the detained men’s families and neighbors—interviewed by Proceso in Lazaro Cardenas and Mexico City—explain, as witnesses and from the detained men’s accounts, the manner in which the kidnappings and torture occurred, the conditions of their handover to the PGR, and their first statements to the SIEDO.
Upon presenting the suspects, Assistant Attorney General Marisela Morales limited herself to saying that, thanks to an anonymous call received by the PGR on September 24, the accused “were located and detained” in a house in Apatzingan, and from there transferred to Mexico City.
But the families say that “they were kidnapped in Lazaro Cardenas, in different houses and on different days, by unidentified armed men, who handed them over to the authorities after torturing them for days.”
The first man to be kidnapped was 38-year-old Juan Carlos Castro Galeana, identified as El Grande. His sister Magali and his wife Esperanza Fajardo Ruiz recount that on September 18, just before 2pm, he was kidnapped while he was in the Gonzalez Body Shop in Lazaro Cardenas, where he worked.
He was there with the business owner and another worker—from whom the PGR has still not taken statements—when three men in a white Mitsubishi pick-up truck without plates arrived. “They ordered him into the pick-up at gunpoint. They beat him and covered his face.
“That’s when the torment began. They asked him why he had thrown the grenades, which he denied. Later they tied his hands with packing tape and beat him with boards. He told us that later they dragged him to a river and left him there all night. He also says that they had him with his arms up for a whole day, always blindfolded,” says Magali.
Moreover, they threatened to slit his throat and those of his wife and brother if he didn’t declare himself guilty. Not only that, he had to respond exactly as they ordered him to. If he made a mistake they beat him more, she says.
Despite the punishment, during the ordeal they gave him a lot of water and food. He noticed that he was in three different places. In one place there were multiple people.
According to the relatives, the seconding man to be kidnapped was Julio Cesar Mondragon Mendoza, whom the PGR identified as having the alias El Tierra Caliente. He is 35 years old and works for a construction company. On Sunday, September 21, at about 3pm, five armed people picked him up while he was washing his car outside his house.
Yudith Medina Ayala, Cesar Mondragon’s wife, says that the five men violently put him into a car. The pattern was the same: psychological and physical torture and death threats so that he would take responsibility for the terrorist attacks.
His wife says he was hung by the feet with a chain and whipped, and that they also beat him with a board and burned him with cigarettes. They also put his head into a bag of water mixed with some other substance, which they also did to the other two people.
Cesar Mondragon also received severe blows to the nose. It was his composite sketch that the Michoacan Attorney General’s Office circulated just days after the attacks.
The third kidnapping was that of Alfredo Rosas Elicea, alias El Socio and/or Valiente. He is 45 years old, a father of three, and also a construction worker. He was violently removed from his house. His kidnapping was the most brief, but he was the most injured because he refused to implicate himself. “They broke five ribs, he’s at risk of going deaf in one ear, and they caused complications with his diabetes,” says his wife Julia Sanchez Vezquez.
“They told my husband: ‘you threw the grenade.’ But he didn’t want to accept that. That’s why they beat him the most. At times he fainted, and they had to bathe him so he came to. He was so bad off that after being presented in SIEDO he was hospitalized for five days in the Medical Tower,” in the Tabacalera neighborhood, says Julia Sanchez.
In contrast to El Grande’s family, the other two wives didn’t report their husbands’ disappearances. “We didn’t because we thought that it was a kidnapping and that we would receive a call asking for ransom,” explains Yudith Medina.
In their statements to the SIEDO, the detained men testified that the kidnappers never left them alone, but that when the PGR agents arrived at the house where they were being held, they found them on the floor, blindfolded, handcuffed, and with their feet tied.
The families say, “When the agents asked them who they were, they responded, ‘We’re Los Zetas.’ That was the signal. That was when they took them to the Apatzingan airport. Upon landing in Mexico City, they were threatened again, ‘Well, you already know the truth and what you have to say. If not, you’re going to get fucked up.’”
According to the record of the anonymous tip, which is part of the investigation, the SIEDO doesn’t know the origin of the call. The caller ID said, “Outside.” However, the work was already done for Marisela Morales’ office.
The caller said, “I want to report the people who tossed the grenades on September 15 in Morelia, because what they did was rotten. They’re in the Antunez mountains in Apatzingan. They’re tied up, in a house with a white metal door. The house is under construction. It’s located next to a soccer field and in front you can see a huge antenna. You can’t miss it. You need to go get them fast.
“These dudes are Zetas. They call one of them Juan Carlos Castro Galeana, alias El Grandote. This one threw the grenade that killed all those people. He’s about 1.9 meters tall, strong, robust, curly hair, between 35 and 40 years old, with a brown clear complexion. They call another one Julio Cesar Mondragon Mendoza, alias El Tierra Caliente. He’s about 35 years old, 1.7 meters tall. He’s got a shaved head. He has a beard and mustache; he’s light-skinned. Another is Alfredo Rosas Elicea, alias El Socio and/or El Valiente. He’s older, about 45 years old. He’s skinny, with short black hair, brown-skinned.”
The end of the call doesn’t jive with what the PGR reported. The caller said that there was “another man (whom) they call El Flaco.” Next, the record of the call says that the anonymous caller “added that their compañeros tied them up in a house to prevent them from deserting because they’re sorry for what they did. You have to go for them fast or you’ll lose.
“The boss is a man whom they call El Cesar. I’ve seen him around Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan. He’s also a Zeta. If you don’t believe me, go to the house I told you and you’ll see that what I’m saying is true.”
Despite the fact that the call was made at 2pm on September 24, it wasn’t until about 4pm the next day that only three SIEDO agents—Jose Martin Zarza Escamilla, Ignacio Moreno Aguilar, and Armando Javier Rojo Olivar—arrived at the house.
Moreno Aguilar stated in his report: “We were in the house’s entranceway. We heard people moaning… We asked them to come out with their hands up, and we heard them say that they couldn’t because they were tied up and handcuffed. Once inside we found three individuals in a room…seated on the floor…and we saw that their feet were tied up, and that they were handcuffed and blindfolded.”
When they were interrogated, he continued, “they stated that they belonged to the Zetas group” and that their compañeros had had them in the house since September 16, “since the three of us were the ones who threw the grenades… They put us here because when we realized the damage we’d caused… we complained to a man they call El Bola. That’s why they thought we’d desert the organization and put the identities of many members at risk, and that’s why they brought us here, they beat us, handcuffed us, and blindfolded us.”
According to the families, they only removed the men’s blindfolds before they signed the statement that implicated them. Afterwards, their SIEDO interrogators requested that they explain to them “with gestures” how they had thrown the grenades. This performance was what the PGR released on television…