When two Mexican police officers and two FBI agents showed up at his beachfront Playas de Tijuana apartment on October 17, James Gibson had reason to suspect that his attempt to start a new life south of the border had been foiled. This became all the more clear to him as he was pushed into the back seat of a car and, with an FBI agent seated on either side of him, driven to the headquarters of the State Judicial Police in Tijuana. What was happening to the thirty-two-year-old fugitive — a parole violator and the subject of warrants alleging he played a role in a New Mexico prison escape two years ago — was nothing so extraordinary. He was being informally extradited.
That is, despite the fact that Gibson was charged with no crime in Mexico, the Mexican police took him into custody with the intention of handing him over to the FBI. Critics call this practice renegade; Gibson’s apprehension in Mexico was illegal because no warrant for his arrest was issued, and his transfer from Mexican to American custody violated international law because it bypassed formal extradition agreements. Nonetheless, San Diego law-enforcement officials cite informal extradition as an area of exemplary cooperation between two countries whose recent relations have been characterized by discord.
Gibson’s transfer to American soil — some would call it an international kidnaping — was in some ways similar to the numerous such exchanges that occur each year at the Califomia-Mexico border. But Gibson’s experience includes crucial differences that could influence attempts to prosecute him in this country and that illustrate the fundamental moral, ethical, and constitutional problems presented by the informal extradition process.
Gibson lived in Mexico under the alias Jaime Rivera and continually denied to authorities that his real name was James Gibson. He spent three nights, from October 17 to October 20, in jail at the State Judicial Police headquarters near the downtown Tijuana bullring, and during that time, he was given no food and was never allowed to make a phone call. If that were the extent of the abuse he claims to have suffered, legal precedent suggests that he would no doubt already have been extradited from California to New Mexico for prosecution on the prison escape charges. Instead, he sits in the San Diego County Jail awaiting an evidentiary hearing at which, in an effort to block his extradition, he will tell an appalling story of abuse at the hands of the Mexican police.
Whether anyone will believe him is an open question, but Gibson claims that during his abduction in Playas de Tijuana, he was punched, kicked, and pistol-whipped. He also maintains that while he was in custody at the state police station, a Mexican official tortured him by touching electrified wires to his genitals. Gibson says the FBI agents were present as he was beaten by Mexican police during his abduction at his Playas de Tijuana apartment. What’s more, he alleges that the FBI agents were in the State Judicial Police station while he was being tortured and that they knew what was happening to him. “They heard me screaming,” says Gibson. “There’s no way they didn’t know what was going on.”
The FBI agents believed to have participated in Gibson’s abduction, Jesse Perez and Alfred Gunn, were not authorized to be interviewed for this article. They referred all questions to San Diego FBI spokesman Gary Laturno, who would reveal only sparse details of the case. He acknowledged that two local FBI agents went to Mexico and apprehended Gibson in collaboration with two officers of the Baja California State Judicial Police, who took Gibson to state police headquarters. The agents’ Mexican contact, Laturno said, was a State Judicial Police official named Valdermero Juvera. Laturno explained that before Gibson was apprehended, the FBI presented Mexican authorities with two outstanding warrants for Gibson’s arrest. One was a New Mexico warrant for harboring a fugitive and aiding in a prison escape at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Las Lunas, New Mexico, on January 7, 1985. The other was a federal warrant charging unlawful flight to avoid prosecution in association with this same crime.
Laturno refused to reveal the names of the FBI agents involved, but he would not deny that they were Perez and Gunn. When asked about Gibson’s alleged abuse at the hands of Mexican police and the FBI’s possible complicity, Laturno stated that “the agents have no knowledge of Gibson being beaten or tortured by Mexican police. Nor did they have any indication that that happened to him.”
Critics of informal extradition, also called “black-bag deportation” and “irregular rendition,” charge that the practice makes a mockery of international extradition treaties. Defense attorneys have equated it to “ugly Americanism” and even terrorism. Abraham Abramovsky, a professor at Fordham Law School in New York City and a columnist for the New York Law Journal, has written extensively on the subject of international abductions. He is critical of the practice, which he says reflects the “Wild West mentality” of law-enforcement agents. When explained the circumstances of Gibson’s recent abduction, he said, “Why bother to have international laws, extradition treaties, and multilateral conventions if all you have to do is go and abduct someone in a foreign country?” Abramovsky, who coined the term “irregular rendition” to describe the controversial practice, admits there are certain cases in which a person is sufficiently notorious to merit a clandestine and patently illegal abduction. Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, for example, or the international terrorist known as “Carlos the Jackal.” But Abramovsky is concerned that authorities will get in the habit of working outside the law, rather than within it. “You don’t want irregular rendition to become the norm,” he says. “Then you’ve got the Wild West. You don’t go through extradition procedures, and there’s no judicial review of the process whatsoever. That’s not the way civilized countries should behave.”
Cherif Bassiouni agrees. A law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, Bassiouni is an authority on international extradition and the author of a widely read treatise on the subject. Bassiouni believes there is danger in giving law-enforcement officers such a free hand. “The legal process is the basis upon which a democracy is built,” he says. “If you allow law-enforcement agencies to make their own decisions, then you have the same thing as in dictatorial regimes around the world.”
Critics also point out that allegations of abuse such as that described by Gibson are common. For example, last February Mexican authorities in Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, arrested and interrogated an American named Tommy Dye, who was wanted for murder in Florida. Dye confessed to the murder, but only after Mexican police allegedly shocked his genitals with electrical wires and fired blank shells from guns held next to his ears. In 1980 Raul Balboa Garcia, wanted in San Diego in connection with a murder, was arrested in Mexicali and interrogated. Despite having carbonated water forced up his nostrils, he refused to confess and was later handed over to American authorities in Calexico. In 1976 the San Diego Police Department traveled all the way to Mexico City to apprehend Frederico Frank, who had murdered San Diego travel agent Donald Tubach. Mexican police tortured Frank with an electric prod, and he confessed to the killing. He was then brought back to San Diego, where he confessed again, this time without coercion. Frank’s appeal to have the second confession eliminated as evidence in his trial was rejected eight months ago by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In each of these cases, the Mexicans allegedly tortured an American to make him confess to a crime committed in the United States, which raises the question of whether or not American authorities in any way encouraged their Mexican counterparts to torture the person or whether, as Bassiouni suggests, the Mexicans weren’t “doing the American police a favor.” When apprehending a criminal in another country, American authorities are often confronted with ethical pitfalls. Acting in cooperation with foreign law-enforcement officials on foreign soil, they must play by the local rules, which permit conduct that is unacceptable here. “If torture is involved, it’s more than just a moral and ethical problem,” says law professor Bassiouni. “There is a United Nations convention passed in 1985 making torture an international crime. The United States hasn’t signed it, by the way. We’ve taken the position that if a U.S. agent didn’t actually participate in the torture, then we can look the other way.”
Detective Ron Collins, a San Diego City police officer who works as a liaison with Mexican authorities, says there is a simple reason why both Mexico and the United States permit the quasi-legal practice of informal extradition. “Washington and the Distrito Federal [Mexican federal government] allow us [law-enforcement agencies] to work the border informally because we’re effective,” he says. “The work gets done.” Collins adds that using formal channels is impractical. “With formal extradition, it’s too lengthy. We might have a guy down there who’s killed people. But it would take years to get him.” Neither Collins nor Ruben Landa, who holds a similar liaison position with the California department of justice, could ever recall his department applying to Mexico for formal extradition of a criminal.
Collins says most of the fugitives apprehended in Mexico are wanted for murder, and occasionally for offenses such as auto theft. Generally, he and his colleagues work near the border, though they have traveled as far south as Ensenada. Mexican police have been known to apprehend someone deep in Baja and transport him north to Ensenada, where American authorities will positively identify the fugitive. According to Ruben Landa, Americans living in Mexico are apprehended only after Mexican authorities have been presented evidence of outstanding United States warrants against the fugitive. “They pick up the person and take him to the Mexican immigration department,” explains Landa. “They type up immigration forms saying the person is an ‘undesirable alien’ and that he’s deported for the following reasons. It’s very formal, really.” The “undesirable alien” is then taken to the border and turned over to waiting United States authorities.
James Gibson’s case marks a clear deviation from this procedure. FBI spokesman Gary Latumo says that Gibson was apprehended on Friday, October 17, but that Mexican authorities required that the FBI do two things before turning over Gibson — obtain Spanish translations of the two warrants and write a letter explaining the warrants to a Tijuana prosecutor. This was done over the weekend, and on Monday, October 20, the prosecutor authorized Mexican police to grant custody of Gibson to the FBI. Gibson, who claims that he obtained a visa extension in the name of Jaime Rivera just days before he was abducted, was never taken to the Mexican immigration department. “I studied Mexican immigration law,” Gibson says. “I knew that as long as I had a visa, they couldn’t deport me. I was a real stickler about renewing my visa.”
Two knowledgeable sources who have been involved in dozens of informal extraditions expressed surprise that before releasing Gibson, the Mexican police required that the FBI obtain authorization from a Tijuana prosecutor. “That’s not possible,” said one source. “Since Gibson wasn’t charged with any crime, [the prosecutor] has nothing to do with [his] legal status. That would fall within the jurisdiction of immigration, just as it would in the United States. No one can be kicked out of Mexico unless he goes through immigration.”
Cherif Bassiouni, whose well-known treatise is called International Extradition: United States Law and Practice, said in a recent phone interview from Chicago that the procedure used in Gibson’s abduction sounds illegal. Bassiouni’s book includes two chapters that describe what he calls “alternatives” to formal extradition. He admits that the first alternative, formal deportation through the immigration department, is an undesirable but legal means of avoiding formal diplomatic procedure. Gibson’s experience, he says, would fall under the second alternative, abduction, which is clearly illegal and which Bassiouni describes as “a violation of the world public order and of the individual human rights of the persons taken.”
According to Ron Collins, the San Diego Police Department obtains custody of American fugitives only through Mexican immigration. Thus, theoretically, any American residing legally in Mexico would be protected from the informal extradition process. “If he has a valid [Mexican] visa, I couldn’t get him back without formal extradition,” Collins says. In many cases, criminals living in Mexico have no such visa, however, and it’s merely a question of asking Mexican police to pick up an American criminal and deport him. “The Mexicans don’t want him,” Collins says. “The crime rate in Tijuana is going up. They don’t want another murderer. They’re glad to get rid of the guy.”
James Gibson’s court-appointed attorney, Fred Uebbing, employed investigators who called upon confidential sources in Mexico to determine whether or not Gibson was in fact mistreated by the State Judicial Police. Uebbing hopes to block Gibson’s extradition by claiming that during his client’s abduction, the United States government was guilty of outrageous conduct. The confidential sources, however, were told by State Judicial Police officials that it was best not to ask questions about the Gibson case. As one source put it, “What I found out was that this case is too hot.”
The sensitive nature of Gibson’s informal extradition was apparent in a recent interview with Ignacio Cruz Navarro, head of the State Judicial Police in Tijuana. Cruz, who has held his position since August 12 of this year, denied that any informal extraditions whatsoever have taken place under his command. Although George Navarro of the San Diego Police Department said last week that “lots” of American fugitives have been brought back to the United States through the State Judicial Police in the last two months, Cruz said through an interpreter, “I’m totally unaware of any actions of this nature since August. Our people don’t get involved in that kind of thing.” Cruz added that “we can’t arrest a person in Mexico if he has [proper] documents, and we wouldn’t arrest him if he didn’t commit a crime in Tijuana.”
Gibson says that he was told by FBI agents Perez and Gunn that the two State Judicial policemen involved in his apprehension were named Alfonso Escobedo and Roberto Cardenas. Cruz acknowledged that the two men were indeed employed at his office. Asked if the State Judicial Police works with the FBI, Cruz replied, “That’s not true. We only work with San Diego police. The FBI has never stepped in this station since I’ve been here.” Cruz also denied knowing either FBI agents Jesse Perez or Alfred Gunn. When it was pointed out that the San Diego office of the FBI had acknowledged receiving assistance from his office in Gibson’s arrest, the comandante repeated that he had never spoken with the FBI. He also said it was not possible that any of his officers would work with American authorities and not inform him. Cruz further denied that anyone named James Gibson or Jaime Rivera had ever entered the State Judicial Police headquarters or spent time in the jail there. When it was pointed out that Gibson’s parents and a friend had come to the station to claim his possessions in early November, Cruz denied any knowledge of their visit.
Six weeks ago, James Gibson lived in a beachfront apartment in Playas de Tijuana. It was near the south end of the seaside suburb of Tijuana, in a lonely neighborhood whose scattered, mostly dilapidated, buildings are inhabited by a disproportionate number of expatriate Americans. “They're everywhere,” said one of Gibson’s American neighbors recently. “A lot of creepy, crusty people. Derelicts. The kind of Americans who give a bad example to Mexican people.”
But Playas had been good for Gibson, who moved there nearly two years ago. He felt safe there. Everyone knew him as Jaime Rivera, English teacher at a local private school called the Colegio Ingles and free-lance contributor to the English-language newspaper Ensenada News and Views. He’d adopted a new identity, learned to speak Spanish, and attempted to assimilate himself into the new culture. “I developed a walk that those people have there, kind of a stance, and the attitude,” Gibson said in a recent interview from the San Diego County Jail. “I intended to spend the rest of my life in Mexico. A person can have a fresh start there and leave the past behind.”
Gibson had good reason to forget his past. In the United States, he was a wanted man. He’d served eight months in a New Mexico state penitentiary in 1984 after an embezzlement conviction, and he was released on parole. But big problems were in store for the thirty-two-year-old ex-con. On January 7, 1985, a prison escape took place at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Las Lunas. Five men escaped in a rented U-Haul truck that had been modified to include false panels. Both the drivers, who came from outside the prison, and the escapees were at large on January 8, 1985, the day that Charlotte Gibson of Imperial Beach went to Lindbergh Field in San Diego to pick up her son James, who was arriving from Albuquerque with permission from his parole officer to visit his parents here. On January 9, Charlotte and her husband Charles accompanied James on a day trip to Ensenada. When they drove back through the border crossing to the United States in the early evening, they were grilled by a customs official. “It seemed strange,” recalls Mrs. Gibson, who says their car had New Mexico license plates. “Normally they just ask your citizenship and what you’re bringing back. But this time they asked us all kinds of questions.”
The Gibsons returned to their mobile home at Bernardo Shores in Imperial Beach, on Route 75 near the south end of the Silver Strand. Before entering the home, however, James left to take a walk. Mrs. Gibson recalls that less than ten minutes later, while she was cooking dinner, she heard a loudspeaker outside ordering everyone in the mobile home to come out. She and her husband opened the door and saw floodlights, police dogs, and several police officers pointing guns at them. “I thought they were after John Dillinger,” Mrs. Gibson says. “They said they believed James was armed and dangerous, but they told me he was only wanted on a parole violation. We thought that was excessive use of force ” In fact, Gibson was wanted in connection with the prison breakout in New Mexico two days before. But the police could find no sign of the fugitive. Gibson saw the police before they saw him, and his walk turned out to be a run — straight south to Mexico. And, he thought, to freedom.
When he was abducted last October 18 — twenty months after he first arrived in Playas — Gibson had just returned home from downtown Tijuana. He walked from the bus stop three blocks to Avenida Costero, a main road skirting the coast. From there he had only to descend a rather steep hill some fifty yards to a short strip of road at the ocean’s edge. Gibson’s apartment, at 19 Raseo Costero, is a five-story beige building with dirty exterior walls and unsightly tar dripping from the roof. The balcony of Gibson’s apartment, number six, faces the Coronado Islands, just a few miles offshore, and offers a lovely view of Point Loma and downtown San Diego.
When Gibson crossed Avenida Costero and was about to walk down the hill to his apartment, he noticed a black car parked on the street. It was a late 1970s American model — a Pontiac, Oldsmobile, or Buick — with tinted windows, the kind of car associated with the “Judiciales,” the Baja state police. Gibson bristled. In his arms, he was carrying a porcelain bathroom sink he’d bought in Tijuana, but he could easily drop it and dash. Instead, he kept walking. He wasn’t wanted for any crime in Mexico, and a cop car in this neighborhood was nothing unusual. But there was something of interest about the man who walked up to the car and spoke through its opened passenger window. Gibson believed him to be Jesse Perez, an FBI agent who worked as a liaison with Mexican law enforcement.
Gibson was not the only person who saw the black car. Several local residents, all of whom must remain anonymous for fear of police reprisals, saw the car and the officers inside it. These witnesses’ descriptions corroborate this part of Gibson’s story. According to their accounts, the black car had been in the area for about thirty minutes before Gibson arrived. Witnesses recall seeing three Hispanic-looking men and one “gringo.” Three days later, when he arrested Gibson on American soil, this same “gringo,” described as clean-shaven and about five feet nine inches tall, would introduce himself to Gibson as Alfred Gunn. The car’s driver — about six feet tall, short dark hair, glasses, and a strong build — would flash FBI identification that said he was Jesse Perez. Gibson’s claim that two of the Mexicans were carrying rifles is corroborated by witnesses’ testimony as well.
When he saw the car, Gibson slipped into a friend’s trailer just a block south of his apartment building, halfway down the hill. As far as Gibson knew, the officers hadn’t seen him, so he decided to wait a few minutes to see what they’d do. Almost immediately, the black car drove away. Gibson took his porcelain sink and walked to his apartment, down the steps to Paseo Costero, past a few parked cars in the street, up a small flight of stairs, and into the narrow stairwell that led to his third-floor apartment. Later, in a conversation from the San Diego County Jail, Gibson recalled this fateful decision. “There was something gnawing at me, but it didn’t click in my mind. I’m usually good about things like that. I spotted the black car, but I really don’t know why it didn’t register what was happening.”
As Gibson neared the door of his apartment, he heard footsteps following him up the stairs. Many feet. Not two, but four or six. Gibson turned and saw three men. Two were Mexican State Judicial Police officers, whom Gibson says were Alfonso Escobedo and Roberto Cardenas. The other, he says, was FBI agent Jesse Perez. It was apparent to Gibson that the car had merely swung around the block and that the agents had been hiding behind the building, waiting for him.
Gibson’s account of what happened next appears in documents filed yesterday in Superior Court by attorney Fred Uebbing. In those documents, Gibson alleges acts of physical brutality and torture. He says that while he was being abducted at his apartment, the Mexican police officers repeatedly kicked and beat him when he refused to answer questions posed by both the Mexican officers and the FBI agents. The questions primarily concerned Gibson’s true identity, which he repeatedly denied, and the presence of guns Gibson was believed to possess. Gibson admitted in a recent interview that he was not cooperative with his abductors. “I demanded by what legal grounds they were doing this,” Gibson said. “I asked these guys, who were searching my apartment and beating me, if they wouldn’t at least identify themselves. If you call that not cooperating, I guess I wasn’t.” At one point, when Gibson gave a testy answer, one of the police officers allegedly hit Gibson on the top of the head with his gun barrel.
Gibson claims that after the Mexican officers and FBI agents searched his apartment for guns and for evidence that he was James Gibson — apparently nothing was found — they took him outside. Several witnesses observed Gibson as he was led down the hill, placed in the car, and driven away. He was taken to the headquarters of the State Judicial Police near the downtown bullring, in the river section of Tijuana. There, Mexican police allegedly beat him some more with their fists and a belt. And then, finally, Gibson says that a man he had not seen before tortured him using electrical shocks applied to the genitals. Gibson also claims that at one point just after the torture was administered, FBI agent Jesse Perez entered the room. In a recent interview, Gibson said he is certain both Perez and Gunn knew what was happening to him. “There’s no doubt,” he said. “The door was open and I was screaming.”
Later on the evening of Friday, October 17, Gibson was fingerprinted and placed in a cell. He stayed there until Monday, October 20. During this time, he went hungry; the jail didn’t serve him food, and since the police had confiscated his money, he couldn’t buy any. At one point over the weekend, he was again interrogated and mildly beaten, but otherwise he alleges no further mistreatment at the jail.
Despite Ignacio Cruz’s denial that Gibson was ever at State Judicial police headquarters, his presence there has been confirmed by at least three sources. For example, San Diegan David Darvey was arrested on Sunday, October 19, in Tijuana and held for about two hours in the same cell as Gibson. Darvey doesn’t recall the name James Gibson, but “I remember talking to a guy named Jaime,” Darvey said recently. “He told me some story about the government wanting to extradite him or something like that.” The day Gibson was turned over to the FBI, a Mexican friend of his from Playas de Tijuana (who asked not to be identified) was told by a State Judicial Police officer that Gibson was being held in the police headquarters and that “there is nothing anyone can do about it.” And finally, Gibson’s mother and father, Charlotte and Charles Gibson, both confirm that they went to the jail on November 5, accompanied by Gibson’s Mexican friend, to pick up their son’s possessions, which included clothes, personal papers, and $120 in cash.
Several sources questioned Gibson’s story of torture. They all agreed, however, that victims of torture are almost never able to prove their allegations conclusively. One source familiar with Mexican law enforcement raised the possibility that Gibson might have been tortured because he was uncooperative. “I think they might have tortured him to show him who’s boss,” he said. A San Diego law-enforcement official disagreed. He maintains that, given the circumstances, the Mexican police had no motive to torture the young American. However brutal Mexican police sometimes may be, he says, they don’t torture people for no reason, nor do they want to draw attention to themselves. In certain cases, he explained, they torture people to get information or to obtain a confession. But Gibson had committed no crime in Mexico, nor did he have any information that the Mexicans needed. Furthermore, Gibson himself admits that he was asked questions — ‘‘What’s your real name?” and ‘‘Where are your guns?” — only before he was tortured, not while he was allegedly being shocked with electrical wires. His torture, then, if not done to punish him, was gratuitous. Though one local law enforcement official thought this credible, he said, ‘‘I don’t believe it. Why would the Mexican police risk repercussions from the American press and from the American consulate?”
On Monday, October 20, agents Perez and Gunn returned to Tijuana, presented the required documents to a Tijuana prosecutor, and were authorized to take custody of Gibson. Mexican state police drove Gibson to the border and handed him over to FBI agents Perez and Gunn. After they got in the FBI agents’ car, Gunn addressed Gibson. “He asked me, ‘Do you have any broken bones or anything serious?’ ” Gibson recalls, adding that Gunn seemed concerned about the “physical abuse” Gibson received. Gibson says he told Gunn that his testicles were swollen and that he had a bruise but that otherwise he was okay.
Perez and Gunn then drove Gibson to the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown San Diego, where he was given two sandwiches and two apples, the first food he’d eaten since Friday. The following week, Gibson was arraigned in federal court on what is called a “UFAP” charge (Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution). UFAP warrants are commonly issued merely to get a criminal into federal custody, then they are dismissed. Predictably, that’s what happened in Gibson’s case, and he was turned over to the state court system, through which he would be extradited to New Mexico as a parole violator and an accomplice in the prison breakout.
On November 13, Gibson was arraigned in Superior Court before Judge Charles Hayes. He would most likely have been extradited immediately to New Mexico had state public defender Fred Uebbing not informed the court that his client had been beaten and tortured by Mexican police. Judge Hayes, based on these allegations, granted Uebbing twenty days to prepare a writ of habeas corpus explaining the allegations and the legal argument for denying Gibson’s extradition. After the arraignment, deputy district attorney John Hewicker did little to hide his disdain for Uebbing. “He came up with a tale,” Hewicker explained. “I don’t buy the story. To talk about capturing a guy in a foreign country and torturing him — that’s the stuff of which novels are made. I used to be an FBI agent myself, and I can’t believe the FBI stooping to those dirty tricks.”
Like many people, Hewicker is apparently unaware that there is nothing unusual about American law-enforcement officers witnessing acts of brutality by Mexican law-enforcement officers. Nor is there anything unusual about these same officers ignoring what they see. Detective Ron Collins, a Mexican liaison officer with the San Diego Police Department, says that the majority of Americans have “misconceptions” about stories that Mexican police mistreat people. “Let’s just say that Mexicans don’t treat their people the same way we do,” explains Collins, who has frequent contact with liaisons from other American law-enforcement agencies. “If I see someone mishandled, I won’t say anything. It’s not my business, and it will lessen my effectiveness.” A local source who has worked extensively with both Mexican and American law-enforcement explained that if a liaison were ever to criticize Mexican police for their brutality, he would lose his relationship of trust and cooperation and quickly become persona non grata. “The Mexican police would say, ‘He put the finger on us; we won’t deal with him anymore,’ ” the source observed.
Various sources for this article — all of whom work on a daily basis with Mexican law-enforcement officials but who must remain anonymous to protect their working relationships — confirm that jailhouse torture is a way of life in Mexico, and they admit that it is an extraordinarily effective means of solving crimes. But most everyone agrees that Americans are normally not victims of torture in Mexico. “Nine times out of ten, it happens to their own people,” says Collins. One source, who has worked closely with Mexican law-enforcement officials and who admits having witnessed many acts of torture in Mexico, explained the most common methods used in Mexico. One of the most common is called agua de Tehuacan. With his head thrust back, a prisoner has carbonated mineral water (or a soft drink) forced up his nostrils. Though this doesn’t sound excessively brutal, it is said to be terribly painful. A more subtle but apparently very effective tactic is to place a person bare bottomed on a block of ice.
The most appalling forms of torture are those using electrical shocks. The Mexicans call this chicarra, which literally means cattle prod but which refers to any torture using electricity. Car batteries are sometimes used, as are transformers such as thai allegedly used on James Gibson. The above source described an incident he witnessed himself in which a torturer took an electrical cord, split the wire, wrapped one end around a prisoner’s finger and the other around his genitals, then plugged it into a wall socket. This torture can be enhanced by attaching one of the wires to the ear lobe instead of the finger. Women, this same source explained, often have electrified wires applied to their breasts.
Ron Collins of the San Diego Police Department admits the Mexican police are “rougher” than American police. “They don’t do it our way; they do it their way,” he says. When asked if “their way” included apply ing electrical shocks to a person’s genitals, Collins admitted he’d heard stories of such torture but had never seen it himself. “I think it’s possible [that torture exists], but Mexico isn’t the only country that does it. It’s a different society. They apply things differently. But so do France, Italy, Iran, Iraq and other countries.” When asked what he would do if he witnessed an act of explicit torture, Collins said he would feel ‘‘compromised. If it’s an American, we’re really in a tight spot. We had best get out of there. I have to think they [Mexican officials] are smart enough not to do anything like that in front of us.”
Collins quite obviously dodged the question. To Cherif Bassiouni, American law-enforcement officers have little choice but to brush off the ethical questions regarding their own complicity in physical abuse and corruption when they work south of the border. “The men in the field know that corruption in Mexico is accepted at the highest level of the United States government,” he says. “So they know that at the lower levels, the rule of the game is, don’t make any waves. If they tried to be honest and ethical, if they tried to impose their own rules in Mexico, they couldn’t function. They know that their superiors wouldn’t support them if they tried to change things. They realize that their own government condones the corruption, so they feel they can go down to that level as well.”
For example, it is widely rumored that American law-enforcement agencies often pay Mexican officials to carry out informal extraditions, which suggests that American officials are contributing to the same sort of Mexican corruption that the United States government so frequently and publicly condemns. Collins flatly denies that the San Diego Police Department bribes Mexican authorities. He insists that the informal agreement allows both sides to capture fugitives and that the SDPD never pays any money. Two sources acknowledged that this was true but insisted that federal law-enforcement agencies pay dearly for the Mexicans’ help. “The reason the [San Diego] police department doesn’t pay is that they don’t have any money,” one source said.
The FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals, and other federal agencies do have money, often held in funds to pay informants, and they are reportedly willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to bring a fugitive back into this country. “I’m one hundred percent sure of this,” said a source who has numerous contacts among Mexican police and has heard about many such payoffs. Another source said paying Mexican police is “a common thing” and offered a reason why it is necessary. He said that often when American authorities express their desire to gain custody of a fugitive, the Mexican police will find the fugitive and blackmail him. The criminal, in essence, pays for his freedom in Mexico. In order to get him back into the United States, the source explained, American authorities have to pay more than the fugitive.
The issue of payment to Mexican authorities has come up in other recent “black-bag deportations,” for example, that of Thomas Russell Whitecloud Roessler, who was kidnaped in January of 1985 in Rosarito Beach and turned over to the FBI. Roessler, who was wanted in Australia on thirty-seven counts of forgery and fraud, described in court documents what appeared to be a money exchange in Tijuana just before Mexican police drove him to the border. Though Roessler was not tortured, he alleged that he was threatened with weapons and physically abused in the presence of his four-year-old daughter. Nonetheless, he was successfully extradited to Australia in May of 1986.
The most notorious border kidnaping in recent years was that of Rene Martin Verdugo, a wealthy Mexican who was charged in the United States with drug smuggling and who was wanted as a material witness in the torture slaying of Drug Enforcement Agency agent Enrique Camarena in March of 1985. The government admitted that it paid $32,000 to six Mexican law officials who abducted Verdugo in San Felipe, drove him to the border near Mexicali, and handed him over to U.S. Marshals. But the U.S. Attorney’s office stood firmly behind the dubious contention that the U.S. government promised no money prior to the abduction. Rather, it was explained that a few days after Verdugo’s abduction, the DEA agreed to pay the six men $32,000 as a goodwill gesture to compensate for the inconvenience it had caused them.
That inconvenience, it turned out, was tremendous. All six men lost their jobs, and five of them were charged in Mexico with kidnaping and false arrest. The six Mexicans and their families — a total of twenty-nine people — have been granted entry into the United States and are now living here in fear of reprisals. They received numerous death threats immediately after the kidnaping.
The government’s story raises doubts for several reasons. First of all, knowledgeable sources for this article stated that Mexican law-enforcement officers would not likely abduct anyone for a federal U.S agency — certainly not anyone as important as Verdugo — without being paid. Second, $32,000 is considered a small payoff for such a hazardous mission. Michael Pancer, Verdugo’s San Diego attorney, maintained in court documents that the U.S. Marshal’s office prearranged to pay $100,000 to the Mexican police officers for delivering Verdugo to the border.
According to the sources cited above, for the kidnaping of James Gibson — a relatively insignificant American whose abduction presumably would result in no political backlash — the FBI may have paid between $10,000 and $20,000. Sue Schnitzer, an FBI spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., denies this. “We don’t pay people; we simply work through the liaisons in the foreign country,’’ she said.
From a legal standpoint, Gibson’s allegations of torture could significantly affect his extradition case. According to a 1974 decision by the Second District Court of Appeals in New York, a court can lose jurisdiction over a defendant if the defendant can prove he was forcibly abducted and tortured. The legal arguments in Gibson’s case will no doubt be very similar to those made in the Verdugo and Roessler cases, in which the prosecution successfully persuaded the courts to ignore the circumstances of the abductions in Mexico. Two cases offered a precedent for those decisions. The first is Ker vs. Illinois, in which a hired Pinkerton agent traveled to Peru in 1886, forcibly abducted Ker, and brought him back to Illinois for prosecution. The second case is Frisbie vs. Collins, a 1952 decision. Frisbie was kidnaped (and allegedly blackjacked) in Chicago by Michigan police officers and taken back to Michigan for prosecution. In both of these cases, the court ruled that the manner in which the defendant was brought before the court — even by forcible abduction — was irrelevant.
However, the 1974 decision in the Second Circuit Court provided an exception to this rule. In United States vs. Toscanino, Francisco Toscanino appealed his conviction on a narcotics charge based on the allegation that he was kidnaped in Uruguay by American agents and brutally tortured while being returned to the United States to stand trial. The appeals court ruled in Toscanino’s favor and granted him the right to an evidentiary hearing at which he could present his allegations of torture in an attempt obtain “relief’ from the courts. The circumstances of his kidnaping, the judges decided, were sufficiently “shocking to the conscience’’ to overrule Ker and Frisbie.
Toscanino claimed that he was lured from his home by a telephone call by a Uruguayan police officer who was also a paid American agent. The alleged drug smuggler went to a rendezvous spot in the city of Montevideo, where he was kidnaped by seven Uruguayan police officers and driven to Brazil. For seventeen days, he was beaten and tortured using electrical shocks, often in the presence of American-paid agents. Then he was drugged and placed on a plane for the United States.
Though Toscanino became a landmark legal case, it did little to help Francisco Toscanino. At his evidentiary hearing, he was unable to prove he was tortured, so his conviction and twenty-year prison sentence were upheld. “It was the word of the D.A. against the word of a drug smuggler,’’ says New York attorney Abraham Abramovsky, who has referred to the case frequently in his writings on international abductions. “Even if Toscanino had been with a friend and he backed up his story, it would then be two drug smugglers against the D.A. Who’s the judge going to believe?”
Yesterday, December 3, James Gibson’s attorney, Fred Uebbing, filed a writ of habeas corpus providing Gibson’s account of his alleged torture and the legal argument why California should not extradite him to New Mexico. “I think there’s universal agreement that torture is wrong,” Uebbing says. Uebbing realizes, however, that even if Gibson was tortured, no hard proof exists. “No one is going to come forward and say they saw him tortured,” Uebbing says. “But we have circumstantial evidence. They’re saying he was never in the jail, but we know he was. We have an informant who’s been down there to the State Judicial Police station, and he was told not even to make an inquiry into Gibson’s case, which tends to suggest that this is an extraordinarily sensitive area. They’re trying to cover something up.”
Although Toscanino is often invoked in cases involving “black-bag deportations,” no attorney interviewed for this article could offer a single example in which the ruling helped a defendant. Regarding Gibson's chances of beating extradition by invoking the Toscanino case, Abramovsky is pessimistic. “I’ll give you hundred-to-one odds he loses,” the attorney says. “With the current Supreme Court, there’s no chance. Toscanino is deader than dead.’’
The practice of informal extradition is alive and well, however, and local law-enforcement officials estimate that two or three prisoner exchanges occur each month at the San Diego-Tijuana border. Theoretically, all of these exchanges take place after a formal deportation. Yet Gibson’s case and testimony from knowledgeable sources suggest that even this accepted alternative to formal extradition is often circumvented. To Cherif Bassiouni, this means that American authorities are violating the law simply because the government lets them get away with it. And he fears the implications of allowing one group of law-enforcement officers — border liaisons with the various government agencies — to act illegally. “A system of law can only exist if the rules are observed by everyone,” says Bassiouni. “Once you allow rules to be broken by one category of people, then others will want to do so as well. Today we’ll bend the rules with drug traffickers, tomorrow with terrorists, and eventually we’ll bend them with drunk drivers and with obstreperous journalists. Our system has been corrupted by the notion that you don’t have to play by the rules.”