MEXICO CITY — Juan Carlos García Cortés was shopping in Mexico City on his moped when a taxi cut him off and two men jumped out. They pushed him in the back, threw a coat over his head and started beating him.
The kidnappers of Mr. García were not street-level criminals — they were members of Mexico City’s newly created elite police unit charged with fighting kidnapping and extortion, the crimes Mr. García were committed.
After beating Mr. García, the officers threatened to charge him with manslaughter if he did not pay them 50,000 pesos, about $2,500 dollars, according to statements from the García family and a formal complaint filed with the attorney general’s office. . It was more than he made in eight months at a taco stand where he worked.
Mexico has long had major problems with corruption within its police forces. However, the ambitious mayor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, a top candidate to succeed the country’s president, made a priority of rooting out official corruption in her own power.
In June 2020, just over a year and a half after taking office, she declared the victory: “All those practices involving torture, illegality, and so on have been completely eliminated,” Ms Sheinbaum said at a news conference.
Yet the ordeal of Mr. Garcia place in 2021.
The episode is one of thousands of misconduct claims reported by residents of Mexico City against the capital’s main police force in recent years, despite the mayor’s statement. Even senior police officials say corruption has not been eradicated by the force of more than 81,000 officers. The numbers confirm that.
Interviews with current and former police officers, government records and documents reviewed by DailyExpertNews regarding illegal arrests and kidnappings show that Ms. Sheinbaum’s policing has gotten worse in some ways since she took office.
Rather than curb physical abuse and false arrests, police and city officials have turned a blind eye, current and former police officials say — leaving victims, many of them poor, with little recourse after 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 police classified as bodily harm and violations of personal liberty – incidents including illegal arrests, torture and death threats.
There were more than 1,900 such reports in 2021 alone, the highest number in a single year since 2004, when the commission first began to publicly categorize the types of claims against government employees.
Allegations of torture, according to the commission, include electric shock, strangulation, simulated executions and assault. In the first half of 2022, the committee handled more reports than in the same period last year.
The committee — led by an official elected by the Mexico City Congress — reviews each report and then refers it to the appropriate department for investigation. A police spokeswoman told The Times that since 2019, 477 officers have been fired for failing to comply with police principles or for failing to pass a background check.
The increase in reports of misconduct may be a sign that residents have more ways to report abuse than under the previous mayoral administration, said Pablo Vázquez Camacho, a deputy secretary of the city’s main police force.
“There is more opportunity for residents to file a complaint,” he said. “It’s likely that more investigations will be opened because we’re investigating more.”
However, Mr Vázquez disagreed with Ms Sheinbaum’s view that police corruption, including extortion of civilians, had ended. “It’s not very realistic to say it has been completely eradicated,” he said. “But we are working to eradicate it.”
According to Miguel Garza, director of the Institute for Security and Democracy, a Mexican research institute, the spike in police brutality claims could also be linked to broader investigative and intelligence powers given to officers from 2019 to fight crime.
The main force’s responsibilities have expanded beyond patrolling the streets to investigate crimes ranging from drug trafficking to murders, and include the creation of a task force in 2019 to combat racketeering and kidnapping.
“There is pressure from commanders to get results,” said Mr. Garza, a former police commander in Mexico City. “What they’re looking for is to get people locked up and to do that they can sometimes frame a person with drugs.”
Police abuses are targeting low-income residents who often cannot afford legal aid, said current and former police officers.
“They target these vulnerable groups because they think they don’t have the knowledge or education to defend their rights,” said a former Mexico City police officer, Jaime Ramón Bernal García, who was accused of disobeying an order. and was fired in 2014. He said his resignation came after he demanded better working conditions for police officers. He later founded a non-profit organization that promotes labor rights for law enforcement.
Still, Ms. Sheinbaum’s office confirmed the mayor’s achievements.
“All practices of torture and illegal arrests have been stopped,” the mayor’s office said in a statement to The Times in March. Last month, the office told The Times that the police had also strengthened their human rights training this year to deal with behavior cited in the most common cases of police misconduct.
“We want citizens to know that we will not allow or tolerate these actions,” Ms Sheinbaum’s office said.
The mayor’s claim that her government has reformed Mexico City’s police force reflects broader national pressure to transform the country’s security forces under Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to stamp out government corruption.
Shortly after taking office in late 2018, Mr López Obrador disbanded the Federal Police and created a new unit, the National Guard, which he said would be “incorruptible”. (Human rights groups have accused the National Guard of the same violent practices by the federal police.)
Ms. Sheinbaum matches the enthusiasm of Mr. López Obrador and is strengthening the National Guard on a local scale, as “part of a strategy to strengthen security,” she said. More than 12,000 National Guard troops are currently patrolling Mexico City.
Still, the deep rot within Mexico City’s main police force, the capital’s daily enforcement department, remains.
A 2024 presidential election may have exacerbated the misconduct. Police are working to improve security and crackdown on crime to bolster arrest statistics ahead of Ms. Sheinbaum’s expected presidential run, analysts and several police officers said. In some cases, innocent people have been arrested and forced to confess to unsolved crimes, even if the cases are eventually dropped in court.
The misconduct in Mr Garcia’s case is no exception.
In the spring of 2021, police officers arrested a man named Omar, 25, and demanded that he confess to murdering a woman near him, according to Omar’s testimony to the prosecutor, which was provided to The Times by his lawyer. The lawyer asked not to use Omar’s last name for fear of police reprisals.
When Omar refused, the officers took a plastic bag and covered his head, nearly choking him, according to Omar’s testimony. They then forced him to confess to the murder in a recorded video, he said.
A judge in Mexico City dismissed the case on evidence of torture.
Last year, the city’s human rights commission released a scathing report citing “a series of patterns” of abuse, including torture and arbitrary arrests, by city police and a smaller police force under the office of Mexico City’s attorney general.
The report highlights cases of officers planting drugs on detainees, extorting citizens for money while in danger of disappearing, breaking into houses without warrants and beating residents.
The commission advised Mexico City’s police chief Omar García Harfuch to bring in experts to help identify police violations of national and international arrest standards. It also called on police to comply with a national arrest register designed to limit torture and enforced disappearances by police officers.
The director of the police’s human rights department said all of the commission’s recommendations were being implemented – although the pandemic has caused some delays.
In the case of Mr. García, the taco stand worker, his assailants took him to the Mexico City Attorney General’s office after kidnapping him and parking him outside, according to CCTV footage reviewed by The Times.
Then someone called his wife, Maria Karina Chia Pérez, and demanded money for his release and the title deeds of Mr. García’s moped, the García family said.
Mrs. Chia called everyone she knew, but could only come up with half the money.
When she was unable to deliver the bribes, the men donned their uniforms and then marched on Mr. García to the Attorney General’s headquarters, according to the surveillance footage.
Mr García was charged with drug trafficking. The prosecutor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the police report, officers found Mr García with a bag full of cocaine and marijuana when surveillance footage showed him being held in the taxi outside the attorney general’s office.
After seven months in prison, Mr. Garcia guilty in exchange for his parole. His son was born while he was imprisoned.
“It felt terrible,” Mr García said of his admission of guilt. “But on the other hand, I felt better because I would have my freedom and be able to see my son.”
Now Mr. García to bring criminal charges against the agents.
“I just want justice to be done,” said Mr. Garcia.