Video showing man hung by feet in Tijuana renews fears of Mexican law enforcement brutality

Mexican troops at a military base in Culiacan, Mexico in 2019.
(ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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The video has gone viral at the same time hundreds of additional military troops are arriving in Tijuana

As hundreds of additional military troops arrive at the border, a viral video purporting to show Tijuana municipal police officers hanging a man by his feet has prompted renewed concerns about human rights abuses by law enforcement in Mexico.

In Mexico, police, prosecutors, the military and criminal groups regularly commit serious human rights violations, according to Human Rights Watch.

Rarely, though, is there video evidence that so clearly seems to document the alleged abuse.

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The video that went viral on social networks earlier this month has been confirmed as authentic by Tijuana city officials. The four officers involved in the incident have been suspended with partial pay. The man died and was identified by the city medical examiner as Jorge Luis Cabrera Velez.

“In the video, you can see they are beating him and they have him hanging in an inhumane way from the truck from his feet with his head hanging. They beat my brother and he tells them to stop,” said the man’s brother, Gabriel Cabrera.

The footage shows a man with his legs up in the air in the back of a Tijuana police truck. Uniformed officers are seen gathered around as the man screams and begs for mercy in the El Niño neighborhood. His body was found on April 28 in the Residencial Margaritas community.

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“Torture, unfortunately, is very common in Mexico, but it’s usually not captured on tape because it usually doesn’t take place in public and it’s not usually filmed by bystanders,” said Tyler Mattiace, a researcher at Human Rights Watch covering Mexico and Guatemala.

A 2021 survey of prison inmates conducted by Mexico’s federal government found that at least 40 percent reported they had been tortured or threatened with torture while they were detained by police officers.

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In 2020, Yair López Jiménez died from asphyxiation while being arrested. A video of the incident shows a Tijuana police officer placing his boot on López Jiménez’s neck until he lost consciousness.

Tijuana residents fight back against the violence -- from doctors staging walkouts to artists defiantly reclaiming venues

The man in the more recent video presumably died as a result of his injuries sustained during and immediately after the incident, according to city officials.

City officials claimed Cabrera Velez was detained for allegedly being under the influence of drugs, and initially said it was possible he died from a severe cut to his arm he sustained while trying to run away from the officers. Cabrera Velez held a green card to live and work in the U.S. and was an electrical engineer, according to his family.

Tijuana Mayor Monserrat Caballero Ramírez said Monday that citizens of the city have lost confidence in the municipal police after the video surfaced earlier this month. She added the timing of losing the public trust is unfortunate — as the city tries to counteract soaring violence with a coordinated local, state and federal response.

“We were doing a job that took more than a year — since I have been in government for seven months ... we were campaigning for a union between citizens and police, and this event that happened does not contribute to that, so I hope that the prosecutor’s office will give us the results of (their) investigation,” she said. “We need much more coordination between the three levels of government. It does not help that the citizens feel insecure with the officers. It is a situation we cannot cover up, and it delays our work a lot.”

Joint patrols including municipal, state and federal police and the army in Tijuana in 2007. A mexican army soldier looked on as his fellow soldiers manned a checkpoint near the military base in Tijuana.
(San Diego Union-Tribune )

Tijuana has recorded at least 584 homicides so far this year, compared with 1,972 homicides in 2021. Tijuana consistently ranks highest in the world for the number of homicides per capita, according to Statista. So far, in the month of May, there have been 29 homicides, according to the news organization El Imparcial.

Meanwhile, another 200 troops from the fourth battalion of the Special Forces of the Mexican Army arrived on Tuesday, augmenting the group of special forces that arrived at the end of April.

Whereas the first group of troops will take strategic aim at top leaders of organized crime in the city, Army General Saúl Luna Jaimes said this latest group of armed forces will occupy and monitor the poorest and most insecure areas of the city, hoping to stop the low-level assassinations that are driving up homicide numbers.

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Mattiace, the human rights expert, said even though Mexican citizens tend to place more trust in armed forces than other institutions in Mexico, the rapid expansion of the role of the military in everyday life is troubling.

“We’ve seen a massive expansion over the past decade-and-a-half of the role of the military in public life, in general, and in civilian law enforcement, specifically,” he said.

Since 2006, when then president Felipe Calderón launched a massive military crackdown on drug cartels, the role of the military in civilian life has only grown larger. “The current president (Andrés Manuel) López Obrador has taken that farther than ever before,” said Mattiace. “He’s done more than either of his previous predecessors (Enrique Peña Nieto or Felipe Calderón) to entrench the role of the armed forces — not only in law enforcement but in many elements of public life.”

Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval, left, and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador salute during an event marking Army Day at the Zocalo in Mexico City in 2020.
(Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

Mattiace said the problem with that is “the armed forces are not incorruptible ... The armed forces also torture people. The armed forces also arbitrarily detain people. The Armed Forces also extrajudicially execute people.

“It’s unlikely for police to be held accountable, but it’s even less likely for soldiers to be held accountable for these abuses,” he said.

The armed forces, like municipal police, are not necessarily more powerful than the drug cartels driving the raging violence across Mexico.

Earlier this week, another set of viral videos surfaced showing members of a drug cartel chasing a military convoy out of Nueva Italia, a Mexican town in the Michoacan state, an area known for its heavy cartel presence. Three vehicles carrying soldiers are seen flying at high speeds down a road, while gunmen in off-road trucks are seen in close pursuit shouting “shoot them! shoot them!”

Mattiace said there needs to be a political commitment to strengthening the justice system to stop the violence.

“The original sin in Mexico is impunity ... in a democratic society we don’t rely on brute force, we rely on this idea that if people do something wrong, there is a justice system that can fairly judge them and punish them to disincentive that from continuing to happen,” he said.

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Less than 5 percent of crimes, including police abuses, end up with a resolution in court, according to México Evalúa that tracks court cases and Human Rights Watch.

Two participants in a protest against police brutality at the Cuauhtemoc roundabout in Zona Rio, Tijuana, in 2020.
(Alejandro Tamayo/The San Diego Union Tribune)

City authorities say the death of Cabrera Velez, the man who was hung by his feet, was related to a suspected home break-in attempt.

“He caused damaged to a door, window and from what we know that caused a laceration on his arm causing an artery to be cut and that is how he died,” said Municipal Citizen Security and Protection Secretary José Fernando Sánchez González.

Cabrera Velez’s family said the 30-year-old was in Tijuana to help his father do some repairs on his home. He was doing repairs on his father’s Tijuana home when he left, they said, possibly to go buy cigarettes. He never returned.

“I want those officers to go to jail because not getting punished is the reason why they keep doing what they do,” said Gabriel Cabrera, the man’s brother. He added the family wants the police officers charged with kidnapping, torture and homicide.

The victim’s brother said that after the video became public, police officers began flooding the El Niño neighborhood, demanding to know who recorded the video and asking to see residents’ phones.

The State Commission of Human Rights in Mexico is investigating “to be able to attribute or disclaim the responsibility of the authorities” in Cabrera Velez’s death, said CEDHBC President Miguel Ángel Mora Marrufo.

Rafael Leyva Pérez, an attorney for the City Council responsible for internal affairs investigations, said the investigation is ongoing and other officers may be implicated.

San Diego Union Tribune Reporter Alexandra Mendoza contributed to this report.