Hugo Murrieta could draw anything. As their birthdays approached, children from the Mexican town of Coatepec would come knocking on the door of the small house he shared with his mother in the violence-riddled Gulf Coast state of Veracruz. They’d tell Murrieta their favorite cartoon characters, mostly from Disney movies, and he’d recreate them with celebratory messages to be hung at their birthday parties.
“He never charged them, just that they’d bring him the materials,” said his mother, María del Carmen. “He did it because he liked to draw.”
Murrieta’s mother was well-known in Coatepec for the delicious chiles she handmade and sold daily for decades. Each day, Murrieta, 22 years old, would help his mother by delivering them around Coatepec and nearby Xalapa, the state capital, in the taxi he occasionally drove.
Unfortunately for Murrieta, that taxi was on a police hit list, marking it for targeting by the Fuerza de Reacción, or “Reaction Force,” instated by former Veracruz Secretary of Public Security Arturo Bermúdez, an official who gave himself the code name Jaguar. On the afternoon of April 16, 2013, Murrieta was seized, beaten, and never seen again.
Nearly five years later, on February 8, 2018, a Mexican federal judge charged 31 members of the state police, including Bermúdez, for the forced disappearance of 15 people between April and October 2013. Details of Murrieta’s case emerged during the more than 13-hour arraignment hearing (although he was not among the 15 these officers were charged with disappearing). The accused, the press, and families of the disappeared listened as statements were read from two former police officers turned state witnesses and a survivor who had been held and tortured by Bermúdez’s men. The state attorney general’s office’s indictment stated that during Bermúdez’s tenure as security secretary, he had implemented an illegal, clandestine policy that included the “systemic violation of human rights” by “detecting, arresting, torturing and forcibly disappearing people supposedly linked to organized criminal groups.”
Murrieta’s mother doesn’t know why he was on a police hit list. According to her, he worked every weekend as a waiter, while during the week he delivered her chiles and operated his taxi. He never had money for art supplies; she still had to buy his clothes and shoes.
“At that time in Coatepec, they were kidnapping a lot of people, but many didn’t report it because they were afraid of the repercussions,” said del Carmen. She did call the police after Murrieta disappeared, with the hope that they’d help. They came to her home and tore apart his bedroom, flung his art supplies off the table, ripped the drawings he hung up off the wall, and found nothing illegal. She claimed that no piece of evidence has ever been presented to suggest that he had done anything wrong. She keeps a box of what remains of his art to look at when she wants to remember him.
In his statement read at the arraignment hearing, one of the ex-police witnesses who took part in the kidnapping detailed how a Reaction Force, under the command of Alejandro Trujillo — a subordinate to Bermúdez who went by the alias El Cyber — surrounded Murrieta’s taxi at around 4:30 p.m. that April day in 2013, just outside City Hall. Trujillo had a list of taxi numbers; Murrieta’s white-and-red 505 was one of them.
The officers took Murrieta behind a gas station where Trujillo interrogated him as two of his men beat him. Trujillo made a phone call, then instructed his men to take Murrieta to Xalapa’s Lencero Police Academy and transfer him to a secret special unit named Los Fieles, or “the Loyal Ones.” Murrieta’s mother never saw him again.
In Mexico, at least 33,000 people are believed to have disappeared at the hands of cartels or corrupt state forces since the war on drugs was declared in 2006. Impunity is the norm, and Bermúdez is possibly the highest ranking Mexican official to be charged with the human rights crime. The entire country is watching the case to see if the charges will reach even higher up the chain of command to Javier Duarte, Veracruz’s ex-governor, who is currently awaiting trial for corruption charges. Last week, the current state governor said that his predecessor Duarte had personally known of at least 19 disappearances that took place during his term.
The case also has implications for the embattled legacy of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has been dogged by corruption scandals himself and has failed to stem the violence that led to Mexico hitting a record number of homicides in 2017. State violence in Veracruz cast a harsh light on Peña Nieto and Duarte’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by the Spanish acronym PRI; ahead of Mexico’s presidential elections in July, their candidate, José Antonio Meade, sits in a distant third in the most recent polls.
Veracruz State Attorney General Jorge Winckler insists that the new state government — under the opposing National Action Party, known by the Spanish acronym PAN — is committed to uncovering the truth of what happened during Duarte’s six-year governorship. The disappearances under investigation, he said in a statement to The Intercept, go beyond the 15 people in 2013 who were named in the charges against Bermúdez; many cases, like Murrieta’s, remain open. To date, there are 53 municipalities across the state where there has been at least one report of state security forces likely participating in a forced disappearance.
“The investigation will continue until everyone that participated in this illegal and clandestine policy of systematic forced disappearances are punished,” Winckler said.
Javier Duarte became the governor of Veracruz in December 2010 and immediately began to syphon public funds, taking money destined for social programs and laundering it through phantom companies, among other strategies. By the end of his governorship, it’s alleged that he and his associates stole approximately $3.2 billion. Although Duarte’s term didn’t finish until December 2016, he stepped down two months early and quickly disappeared. The Mexican government charged the governor, along with Bermúdez and other officials, with illegal enrichment and other corruption charges. The disgraced Duarte remained on the lam for six months before finally being arrested in Guatemala and extradited back to Mexico, where he is incarcerated and awaiting trial.
Duarte’s public fall from grace was an emblematic representation of Peña Nieto’s failure to address corruption, one of his central campaign promises when he ran in 2012. Peña Nieto is the latest man to lead Mexico from the PRI, which was famously dubbed “the perfect dictatorship” by author Mario Vargas Llosa. The PRI ruled Mexico for 71 years during the 20th century, creating a nearly feudal state system of governorships, passed down through friends and family, where officials often treated state funds like their own personal piggy banks.
The PRI’s presidential reign ended in 2000, when the PAN won subsequent presidential campaigns with Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón. Peña Nieto’s victory returned the PRI to power, and during his campaign he repeatedly claimed that, finally, this time, the party would be different. On the campaign trail, Peña Nieto infamously paraded out Javier Duarte, along with other relatively young, recently elected Govs. Roberto Borge, of Quintana Roo, and César Duarte (no relation), of Chihuahua, labelling them the “New PRI.”
It seems the new PRI is much like the old: Both Borge and César Duarte also fled amidst corruption allegations after their governorships ended. Borge is currently incarcerated in Mexico after his arrest in Panama earlier this year, while César Duarte remains at-large and has been said to be hiding in the United States, where he owns several properties.
Beyond corruption, Peña Nieto’s tenure has seen horrific levels of violence in Mexico, committed by both state and nonstate actors. The death squads in Veracruz are not the first instance of authorities being implicated in cases of forced disappearance — most notoriously, 43 students from a teachers college in Ayotzinapa, in the state of Guerrero, went missing in 2014.
“Impunity has been, in general, almost absolute for all crimes, including crimes committed by the authorities,” said Carlos Zazueta, a researcher at Amnesty International’s Mexico office.
In Zazueta’s opinion, the police now are even worse, and the few efforts Peña Nieto’s government has made to improve the security forces “have still been insufficient.”
“There are no public policies in place that effectively seek to stop impunity or punish those who are responsible for a crime,” he said.
Authorities arrested Bermúdez while Javier Duarte was on the run, but both men could be out of jail in a few years if they are only found guilty on corruption charges. Their relatives continue to live lavishly around the world, and no doubt, the ex-officials would join them when released. With the charges of forced disappearances, however, Bermúdez could face 90 years in prison.
Lucy Díaz, a representative of a collective of families of those disappeared in Veracruz, called the current arrests just the “tip of the iceberg,” noting how many countless complicit and guilty remain free, including “the worst of all of them,” Duarte.
Díaz said that unless he is held responsible for forced disappearances, “Duarte’s going to leave [jail] with his money all laundered, his money all cleaned.”
“That’s the disgrace of all this,” she added.
Collectives of grieving families like Díaz’s have self-organized for years, investigating cases and leading searches throughout the state for their relatives because they didn’t trust the government’s claims. At the end of Duarte’s term, his government only recognized the disappearance of 524 people in Veracruz. The PAN government which succeeded Duarte has reviewed existing case files and upped the number to at least 3,600 between 2006 and 2016, and has since discovered numerous clandestine grave sites, such as the more than 250 skulls found at Colinas de Santa Fe, outside of Veracruz Port, in 2017.
The litany of abuses allegedly committed by state forces working for Duarte goes beyond disappearances. His security forces operated an illegal detention center out of the Lencero Police Academy — complete with garish touches like a zoo full of exotic animals — and ran arrests, interrogations, and disappearances with ruthless efficiency and no regard for due process.
The police academy was revealed as an illegal detention center in October 2013, after a Veracruz highway police officer named Jacqueline Espejo was mistakenly taken there and tortured for several days. According to police witness testimony, Trujillo’s team detained Espejo after she left her shift in a taxi driven by Andrés Aguilar — who was on the police hit list. According to the indictment, the Fieles allowed Espejo to leave Lencero if she “would forget the taxi driver”; Aguilar was never seen again.
Espejo feared for her life and gave a press conference a few days later, detailing her abuse at Lencero. According to the Mexican weekly publication Proceso, a local journalist named Carlos Hernández had also been unlawfully detained and tortured at Lencero, in 2012. (Under Duarte’s administration, 17 journalists were killed and three disappeared; the region is widely considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism.)
In January 2014, the corpses of Gibrán Martiz, a former contestant on “The Voice Mexico,” and his 17-year-old friend Sergio Luís Martínez, appeared by a bridge with signs of torture. They had disappeared 13 days prior, along with a third friend, after police performed a warrantless search of their apartment in Xalapa. Martiz’s father independently investigated the case and says that the final GPS coordinates of the singer’s phone were at Lencero.
Lencero operated as somewhat of an open secret. Duarte’s government remodeled the old building at the beginning of his term, expanding and updating the facilities, and added a few accoutrements, like Bermúdez’s zoo of exotic animals, which reportedly had four crocodiles, a lion, and of course, a jaguar.
“Now they’re saying a lot of things, that many of the kidnapped were taken to the academy, that they had them there, they killed them, and then they’d give them to the animals” said Delgadillo.
Yunery disappeared on November 28, 2011, one of 13 young women who disappeared from Xalapa in a three-day period. Some of the women are alleged to have attended parties at ranches with men from the government and criminal figures, and disappeared because they knew too much.
“It’s something inhumane, something unforgivable. If [Bermúdez] did these things and he was doing it with his police …,” Delgadillo trailed off. “That they’d do those kinds of things …”
The two witness statements presented at Bermúdez’s trial, along with Espejo’s earlier testimony, paint a dark picture of the inner workings of Duarte’s security forces under Bermúdez’s leadership.
On September 22, 2012, federal authorities arrested 35 Veracruz police officers who allegedly worked with the Zetas drug cartel. Shortly after, according to witness testimony, Bermúdez held a meeting surrounded by police from at least eight different units around the state.
Bermúdez aggressively explained the new protocol of no mercy, the witness recalled: “Pendejos, if you have family members, friends, or acquaintances that are involved with the Zetas, report them, and if among your colleagues there are people connected with crime, report them, or bring them to the Fieles at the academy because I don’t give a fuck.”
Two teams of the Fuerza de Reacción were created, one under the control of Trujillo, or El Cyber, and a second under another commander named Mario Duran. Each team worked in 24-hour shifts, and, according to one witness, they picked up approximately 15 people a month.
After a suspect was arrested, they were taken to one of several locations to be interrogated and tortured; women were systematically raped. One of the disappeared was a 17-year-old girl named Cecilia de la Cruz, who was raped by several members of the Fuerza de Reacción, including El Cyber, according to the indictment of the state police. One witness also stated that El Cyber had a predilection for transgender women, who he would detain to interrogate and then rape.
Once the initial interrogation was complete, the team leader would call Bermúdez himself, or one of his direct subordinates, to decide if the accused would be transferred to the Fieles at Lencero. One of the witnesses estimated that about five people each month were taken to the Fieles; he personally remembered his team transferring roughly 50 people to them. The Fuerza de Reacción had little relationship with the Fieles, which was led by Roberto González Meza. When they transferred detainees, the witness claimed the Fieles were almost always hooded and masked. According to Duarte’s government, the Fieles didn’t exist. They were never reported in the state budget; however, both witnesses alleged that they received much higher salaries than normal officers.
The Fieles held the detained in cells in a private part of Lencero, known as “the Bunker,” where they were further interrogated and tortured, before being disappeared. A second ex-police witness, who worked around the academy in another capacity, alleged that they heard the Fieles talk about taking people swimming in “la Laguna Negra” — the Black Lagoon. The witness alleged that “Laguna Negra” was a code word for the nearby Barranca de Aurora, a large woody area filled with steep cliffs and rugged canyons on the outskirts of Xalapa.
Search parties discovered the remains of at least 15 bodies at the Barranca de Aurora in January 2016, but to this date, only a small fraction of the area has been checked.
Carlos Saldaña has accompanied dozens of searches over the past few years, including rappelling down a cliff in the Barranca de Aurora. Saldaña’s two children, Karla and Jesús, disappeared in 2011. The car they were driving in was later found with an ex-police officer.
“That was an administration that you didn’t know who to be careful of. You had to be more concerned with the authorities than with the criminals,” said Saldaña.
It appears that the federal government is starting to take the Veracruz disappearances seriously. A police source in a recently created special investigation unit within the federal Attorney General’s Office focused on forced disappearance crimes confirmed that in May, his unit will team up with state investigators to lead searches in the Barranca de Aurora and other areas.
“We have to start to find the bodies because the families are fed up. We need to start holding people accountable at all levels,” said the detective, who asked not to be named to discuss an active investigation. He searches for bodies across Mexico.
“This type of thing isn’t only in Veracruz; it happens in Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, Guerrero, lots of states in Mexico. But because this case implicates the governor, all eyes are focused on Veracruz.”
Defenders of these dirty war tactics might point to the government of Veracruz’s ostensible foes: criminal groups like the Zetas, arguably once the most ruthless and hyperviolent of all of Mexico’s drug cartels. The group was founded as an elite cadre of deserters from the military, and their atrocities have been well-documented, including the 2010 murder of 72 unarmed migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, and the weeks-long massacre in the town of San Allende, Coahuila, in 2011. The Zetas are also notorious for using teenagers for low-level jobs like lookouts and drug mules, for little money and often through coercion.
However, Duarte had his own relationship with Veracruz’s murky underworld.
His predecessor, Fidel Herrera, governed from 2004 to 2010, and it is widely alleged that he invited the Zetas, then the military wing of the Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel, into the state after receiving financial backing from the group for an electoral campaign. As the Zetas broke away from their Gulf bosses to the north, they aggressively took Veracruz away from state control.
Alberto Olvera, an investigator at Veracruz University who recently published a report on authoritarianism and violence in Veracruz under Duarte, called it an “irregular war.”
“In Veracruz, it’s important to note that there have been distinct cycles of how this relationship occurs between government, police forces, and organized crime,” Olvera said. He explained that while Herrera’s time was the “era” of the Zetas, Duarte’s government “permitted” another group to enter Veracruz to eliminate them. In September 2011, 35 bodies were dumped on the road in the seaside city of Boca del Río, with a banner that announced the arrival of the “Cártel de Jalisco Nuevo Generación” — the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known by its Spanish acronym CJNG — a former offshoot of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel. The banner reportedly stated: “this is what’s going to happen to all the Zeta shits that stay in Veracruz. It has a new owner now.”
People began disappearing in large waves.
“As always happens in these kinds of wars, there are a lot of innocent victims,” said Olvera, specifically pointing to the poor and vulnerable, the lookouts, small time dealers, and mules. “Very few mid-level players, and even fewer higher-ups.”
The CJNG is led by Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, or “El Mencho,” and is considered to be the most powerful and fastest growing criminal organization in Mexico. As of last year, the Mexican government reported that the group had a presence in 22 of the country’s 31 states. The war for Veracruz, between the CJNG and the Zetas, would turn the state into a bloodbath.
Few people know this side of the irregular war like a man I interviewed two years ago, a regional boss of a small team of assassins for the Zetas. He confirmed Herrera’s invitation and Duarte’s allegiance shift to CJNG.
I met the self-admitted mass murderer a second time, on a rainy morning in a Veracruz mountain town in March of this year, and like the last time, he only agreed to meet with strict conditions: He could not be named; the interview must be shorter than 30 minutes, due to the fact that he must change locations every hour to avoid being killed; and a team of his assassins were nearby in case of problems. The Zeta is a former police officer, who quit in 2011 because the cartel offered him more money.
The Zeta said he and his team had “various” violent encounters with the Fieles, since they “were created by Duarte’s people.” In his view, Duarte “had to form those groups to disappear the criminal group. Those people [the Fieles], they were there to get us.”
It seemed to him that the rules were obvious: There were no rules in Veracruz. The government was an equal part in the “desmadre” — a Mexican slang word with no equivalent in English, though its closest may be “clusterfuck.”
Then, he added, “you began to see that [the Fieles] were disappearing a lot of innocent people that didn’t have anything to do with anything.” It’s a bit audacious for a Zeta to be protesting the disappearance of innocents, given his own group’s history, but he made a point that stuck: It would be “impossible” for the current government to change the police complicity in criminality, because “the salaries are really low.”
Under Duarte, police forces often acted like cartels, or worked with them; justice was decided outside the rule of law.
Zazueta, the Amnesty International researcher, underlined that even if some of Duarte’s targets did indeed have ties to cartels, “everybody has all the same rights, and any person accused of a crime, even if it is a crime under international law, must be able to access a fair trial with dignity.”
The authorities accused of the forced disappearances will get their day in court, something their alleged victims never received.
The arrest of Bermúdez and his men felt like a watershed moment, but many jaded Veracruz citizens are skeptical and believe that the arrests could simply be a short-term election-year tactic for the new governor, Miguel Ángel Yunes, of PAN.
Yunes’s 2016 victory ended 86 years of PRI rule in Veracruz, but the Mexican federal government recently changed the electoral system to bring state elections in line with the 2018 presidential election year, making Yunes’s governorship last only two years. The current PAN candidate to succeed him is his son, also named Miguel Ángel Yunes. Whether the prosecutions will lead to long prison sentences, and whether PAN can bring lasting reforms to the state of Veracruz, remains to be seen. (Yunes’s office did not respond to questions regarding whether the arrests were a political tactic.)
Local human rights lawyer Celestino Espinoza said the arrests have “clear overtones of the electoral, not of justice.”
Espinoza represents the families of five people who were disappeared in the city of Tierra Blanca while returning from a vacation at the beach in January 2016. The family’s investigation led to the arrest of eight state police for their role in detaining and escorting the five to a CJNG ranch near Tlalixcoyan — where authorities would later discover the remains of roughly 400 people.
The Tierra Blanca case is one of dozens with evidence of police involvement that proceeded through the court system only by the determination of the families of the victims. Nor did the case bring a focus on authorities higher up the chain of command, according to the lawyer.
Still, Espinoza applauded the government’s recent arrests. The families needed to know “that there existed mechanisms to achieve justice and to know the truth about how their children were disappeared.”
While 12 of the 31 charged in connection with the 2013 disappearances remain at-large, Yunes’s government recently issued a warrant for Luis Ángel Bravo, the former Veracruz attorney general and one of Duarte’s closest consiglieres, bringing the reach of the law ever nearer to the center of power.
While 15 families wait for justice, countless others will watch the trial wondering if Bermúdez and his men disappeared their relatives too, and waiting to see if Duarte could also be held accountable.
When Perla Damián first heard of the arrests, she thought that maybe her 16-year-old son Víctor could have also ended up at Lencero. He was one of six youth that disappeared after being detained in police sweeps in the Formando Hogar neighborhood of Veracruz Port on December 6 and 11, 2013.
The families in Formando Hogar have, for years, claimed the police were behind the mass disappearance, but they were always told it couldn’t have been the cops, it must have been the criminals.
“At first, people didn’t believe us,” said Damián. But with arrests “in front of everyone’s eyes, now they believe us, no?”
Correction: May 20, 2018, 1:33 p.m.
This story originally said that the Veracruz attorney general had stated that Duarte had known of 19 disappearances that took place during his term. In fact, it was the current governor of Veracruz who made the statement.