Mexico City Declared Police Abuse Over. Reports of Misconduct Kept Rising.
MEXICO CITY — Juan Carlos García Cortés was running errands in Mexico City on his moped when a taxi cut him off and two men jumped out. They shoved him in the back, threw a jacket over his head and began beating him.
Mr. García’s abductors weren’t street-level criminals — they were members of Mexico City’s newly created elite police unit tasked with combating kidnapping and extortion, the very crimes inflicted on Mr. García.
After beating Mr. García, the officers threatened to charge him with homicide if he didn’t pay them 50,000 pesos, about $2,500 dollars, according to depositions from the García family and a formal complaint filed with the attorney general’s office. It was more than he earned in eight months at a taco stand where he worked.
Mexico has long had major problems with corruption within its police forces. However, Mexico City’s ambitious mayor, Claudia Sheinbaum, a top contender to succeed the country’s president, made stamping out official corruption in her own force a priority.
In June 2020, just over a year and a half after taking office, she declared victory: “All of those practices involving torture, illegality, et cetera, have been totally eliminated,” Ms. Sheinbaum said at a news conference.
Yet Mr. García’s ordeal happened in 2021.
The episode is among thousands of misconduct claims reported by Mexico City residents against the capital’s main police force in recent years, despite the mayor’s declaration. Even senior police officials say corruption hasn’t been eradicated from the force of more than 81,000 officers. The numbers bear that out.
Interviews with current and former police officers, government records and documents reviewed by The New York Times involving illegal arrests and abductions show that Ms. Sheinbaum’s police force has, in some ways, gotten worse since she took office.
Instead of curbing physical abuse and false arrests, police and city officials have turned a blind eye, current and former police officials say — often leaving victims, many of them poor, with little recourse after enduring violent human rights abuses.
In the nearly four years since Ms. Sheinbaum took office, the city’s human rights commission has received more than 5,000 reports against the police classified as acts of bodily harm and violations of personal liberty — incidents that include illegal arrests, torture and death threats.
There were more than 1,900 such reports just in 2021, the highest number in a single year since 2004, when the commission first started publicly categorizing the types of claims made against government employees.
Allegations of torture, according to the commission, include electric shocks, strangulation, simulated executions and sexual assault. In the first six months of 2022, the commission fielded more reports compared with the same period last year.
The commission — led by an official elected by Mexico City’s Congress — reviews every report and then refers it to the relevant department for investigation. A police spokeswoman told The Times that since 2019, 477 officers have been dismissed for not upholding the force’s principles or for failing a background check.
The increase in reports of misconduct could be a sign that residents have more ways to report abuse than they did under the previous mayoral administration, said Pablo Vázquez Camacho, a deputy secretary of the city’s main police force.
“There is greater opportunity to file reports by residents,” he said. “It is likely that more investigations are being opened because we are investigating more.”
Mr. Vázquez, however, disagreed with Ms. Sheinbaum’s view that police corruption, including extortion of citizens, had ended. “It is not very realistic to say that it has been eradicated completely,” he said. “But we are in the process of eradicating it.”
The spike in claims of police abuse could also be tied to broader investigative and intelligence powers given to officers, starting in 2019, to fight crime, according to Miguel Garza, director of the Institute for Security and Democracy, a Mexican research institute.
The main force’s responsibilities were expanded beyond patrolling streets to investigating crimes ranging from drug trafficking to homicides, and included the creation of a task force in 2019 focused on fighting extortion and kidnapping.
“There is pressure from commanders to deliver results,” said Mr. Garza, a former Mexico City police commander. “What they’re looking for is to ensure people are incarcerated and, to do that, at times they might frame a person with drugs.”
The police abuses heavily target low-income residents who often cannot afford legal representation, according to current and former police officers.
“They target these vulnerable groups because they believe they don’t have the knowledge or the education to defend their rights,” said a former Mexico City police officer, Jaime Ramón Bernal García, who was accused of disobeying an order and fired in 2014. He said his dismissal came after he had demanded better labor conditions for police officers. He later founded a nonprofit that promotes labor rights for law enforcement.
Still, Ms. Sheinbaum’s office reaffirmed the mayor’s achievements.
“All practices of torture and illegal arrests have stopped occurring,” the mayor’s office told The Times in a statement in March. Last month, the office told The Times that the force had also bolstered its human rights training this year to address behavior cited in the most common cases of police misconduct.
“We want citizens to know that we will not permit nor tolerate these actions,” Ms. Sheinbaum’s office said.
The mayor’s assertion that her administration has reformed Mexico City’s police reflects a broader national push to transform the nation’s security forces under Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in order to root out government corruption.
Shortly after taking office in late 2018, Mr. López Obrador, dissolved the federal police and created a new force, the National Guard, that he said would be “incorruptible.” (Human rights groups have accused the National Guard of the same violent practices carried out by the Federal Police.)
Ms. Sheinbaum is matching Mr. López Obrador’s enthusiasm and empowering the National Guard on a local scale, as “part of a strategy to reinforce security,” she has said. Currently, more than 12,000 National Guard troops patrol Mexico City.
Yet the deep rot within Mexico City’s main police force, the day-to-day enforcement arm in the capital, persists.
A presidential election in 2024 has perhaps worsened the misconduct. The police are working to improve security and crack down on crime to bolster arrest statistics ahead of Ms. Sheinbaum’s expected presidential run, said analysts and several police officers. In some cases, innocent people have been arrested and forced to confess to unsolved crimes, even if the cases are eventually thrown out in court.
The misconduct in Mr. Garcia’s case is not an exception.
In spring 2021, police officers detained a man named Omar, 25, demanding that he confess to killing a woman in his neighborhood, according to Omar’s testimony to the prosecutor, which was provided to The Times by his lawyer. The lawyer asked that Omar’s last name not be used for fear of reprisal from the police.
When Omar refused, the officers took a plastic bag and covered his head, nearly suffocating him, according to Omar’s testimony. They then forced him to confess to the murder in a recorded video, he said.
A Mexico City judge threw out the case, citing evidence of torture.
Last year, the city’s human rights commission published a scathing report citing “a series of patterns” of abuses, including torture and arbitrary arrests, by the city police force and a smaller force under the Mexico City attorney general’s office.
The report highlighted cases of officers planting drugs on detainees, extorting citizens for cash while threatening to disappear them and breaking into homes without arrest warrants and beating residents.
The commission recommended that the Mexico City police chief, Omar García Harfuch, bring in experts to help identify how the force was failing national and international arrest standards. It also called for the force to comply with a national arrest register meant to limit torture and forced disappearances at the hands of police officers.
The director of the police force’s human rights department said all the recommendations put forward by the commission were in the process of being implemented — though the pandemic has created some delays.
In the case of Mr. García, the taco stand worker, his assailants drove him to the Mexico City attorney general’s office after abducting him and parked outside, according to CCTV footage reviewed by The Times.
Then someone called his wife, Maria Karina Chia Pérez, demanding cash for his release and the ownership documents for Mr. García’s moped, according to the García family.
Ms. Chia called everyone she knew but could only come up with half the money.
When she couldn’t deliver the bribe, the men changed into uniforms and then marched Mr. García into the attorney general headquarters, according to the surveillance footage.
Mr. García was charged with drug trafficking. The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
The police report said officers found Mr. García with a bag full of cocaine and marijuana at the very time the surveillance footage showed he was being held in the taxi in front of the attorney general’s office.
After seven months in prison, Mr. Garcia pleaded guilty in exchange for his conditional release. His son was born while he was imprisoned.
“It felt terrible, ” Mr. García said of pleading guilty. “But on the other hand I felt better because I was going to have my freedom and could see my son.”
Now, Mr. García is trying to pursue criminal charges against the officers.
“I just want justice to be done,” Mr. García said.