Police Recognize Atenco Repression as Illegal
“The government always uses us; we are always the bad guys in society’s eyes, but the reality is that these are orders we receive from the government and from our commanders, to repress.”
By Bertha Rodríguez Santos
The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in San Salvador Atenco
May 18, 2006
More than 3,500 members of the State of Mexico’s local police and of the Federal Preventive Police — the latter carrying high-caliber weapons — participated in the police raid on San Salvador Atenco on May 4th. Illegal searching of homes, robberies, illegal arrests, torture of arrestees and a number of violations of human rights were all reported as a result of the operation.
According to the testimony of three policemen from the State of Mexico, interviewed without revealing their identity – for obvious reasons – by members of the Miguel Angel Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, this military-style operation was under the command of State Commissioner for Public Security Wilfrido Robledo Madrid, who was head of the Federal Preventive Police (PFP in its Spanish initials) during the term of former president Ernesto Zedillos’s. (Among other “special operations,” Robledo Madrid was in charge of the occupation of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) campus by the PFP on February 6th, 2000, ending the 9-month long student strike.)
The officers confirmed in the taped interview Francisco Javier Santiago, 14, died from the impact of a .38 special bullet, which a state policeman fired after being discovered in hiding by the boy.
According to the words of these officers, the order was to attack “anything that moved”.
The policemen who dared to speak are sorry for the abuses committed against innocent people but hold the federal and local governments responsible, as they always “use” the police to do the dirty work. “We are always the bad guys in society’s eyes,” they say, “society always criticizes us and scorns us but the reality is that these are orders we receive from the government and from our commanders, to repress.”
Aside from narrating the details of the aggression against defenseless civilian townspeople, they speak of the exploitation that they suffer as the “guardians of order.”
We present here a translation of the complete, unabridged transcript of the interview held with members of the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center.
Q: Could you please tell us what instructions were given to you in order to begin the operation in San Salvador Atenco?
A: Well, the commander picked us up from whatever service we were doing. He told us that we had to go back up the police there… we were waiting for orders to see if we would go in that afternoon or later that night.
Q: Approximately how many state police officers were called into this zone?
A: I guess approximately 500 of us arrived, plus the riot police that were already there. They said they were about 300 antiriot “shock troops” already there. We cane from different groups from around the area.
Q: Is that just the state police?
A: Yeah, only state.
Q: A contingent was already there, from…
A: The Federal Preventive Police showed up.
Q: Showed up?
A: They were separate from us
Q: And what were the orders that you were given to advance on San Salvador Atenco?
A: Up to that point, the commanders hadn’t given us the information; they weren’t telling us what problems there were, what was happening; they were just moving around. It wasn’t until nighttime that we found out that this was all over some flower vendors from Chapingo, but that was afterwards.
Q: And how did you find out?
A: From something some fellow police officers and some commanders said.
Q: Some commanders?
Q: And what was the role of the Federal Preventive Police?
A: We were there providing support because they said it was only a local problem and the state had to deal with it, the federal police were only there for back up.
Q: Which cop was in charge; which commander, which director?
A: Commander David Pintado Espinoza was there, he was the one coordinating the police… he is the coordinator of sub-directors. His code name is Zafiro.
Q: Commander Zafiro, let’s say
Q: And once you were advancing, how did they prepare you, what were they telling you, what was the order that you were given and the training you got to begin the operation that day?
A: The thing is that at that point the order was still not… we were only removed from… from.. we were taken to another spot. We were taken from there because we were too easily seen, what the commander said was “the thing is we’re very visible; let’s leave and hide,” and we were taken to another place and we don’t know…
He got off the highway about ten minutes later, in part of the Texcoco area, after El Limon. All the police personnel met there and we were waiting for more police from Toluca to arrive, and from other sub departments.
Q: And they took everybody, even this group of 300 that was…?
A: Yes, they took all the police over there, they were going to meet there… they were… (inaudible)
Q: And Commander Zafiro was still in charge of the operation?
A: He came by and gave orders to commanders and the commanders, well, they communicated to each other through Nextel [a type of radio-cellular phone], also… what happened was that the officers weren’t told anything, only the commanders: “You know what? Take the cops over there!” And the commanders said: “Climb on! Three of you get on board… climb on!” and they take you to the meeting point.
Q: And what commanders were there at that point?
A: Eh… All the sub directors in that zone – the regional commanders – sub directors, group commanders, they are the Tlalnepantla, Ecatepec, Nezahualcoyotl, Chalco, Amecameca, and Nezahualcoyotl sub directors, from all the regions and all the sectors, those are all the commanders that came together.
Q: And at what point were did you move on San Salvador Atenco?
A: We were going to go before daybreak, which was when almost all the police from Toluca arrived. They came with several trucks and units but since it was already dark and it started raining, they held it off to go in the morning. The order was to go in at a quarter to six in the morning, but by the time all the police got together and we started to gather up, we went in at six o’clock.
Q: Oh, so at that point the ones from Toluca had arrived?
A: It was at nighttime when they got there
Q: And, more or less, how many police officers were there, when the state police operation began?
A: Approximately two.. three thousand, five hundred
Q: Just state police?
A: Aside from the Federal (Police).
Q: And with additional support from the Federal Police
A: Yeah, besides the… everybody… Federal Police
Q: And, how many police officers do you think there were from the federal police?
A: No, there… no, I couldn’t tell you
Q: But which contingent was larger, the state police or the federal?
A: The State police, the state, yes, (that was) larger.
Q: The conflicts and confrontations on the highway, at what point was that?
A: First there was the confrontation with the riot police, who were the ones that went in first because some colleagues that they were bringing from Texcoco were lagging behind. And then, until after the other ones arrived, that was when the police started to come together. There were a lot of police that came already very tired, they had been… I think half a day…they had arrived one day earlier, at night… and when that thing happened at eight in the morning, I think it was eight street vendors that didn’t want to go where they were told, when that happened they were already there and we got there in the afternoon to them back up.
Q: Was there a personnel change?
A: No, everyone stayed there, and there were a lot because everyone was already tired.
Q: And what was the training or instruction given there to begin the operation at a quarter to six?
A: The order was for all the shock troops to go in ahead, by sector. We were all to go in behind them; as control groups we didn’t have the appropriate equipment, so they were going to in. And no, there was no training, we were just told to beat people when there were no media around, that is, to be discreet. You couldn’t just hit the people openly because there were cameras around that could spot you.
The order is always clear when we are working for these people. There is no discussion: hit the people, and do it when the media aren’t around. And in this case, it was to hit anything that moved… that’s why…
Q: There are state police who came armed. What kind of weapons did they bring?
A: The truth is when we are called into service we never have time to disarm; it’s always just “hurry up, there’s a job to do,” and we always come armed and hide the guns in our pants or shirts so that the people don’t notice. We carry R-15s, shotguns and 38s. That is the armament that the police chiefs have, but there are also 9mm guns out there… few, but they exist. There are times that people from the Department of the Interior or public attorneys come by and inspect a few cops, but they don’t look inside our shirts and jackets, where we hide them. But yes, we always carry guns; not everyone, but if some of us carry guns no one is going to take them away.
Q: And in this case, there were guns…
A: The police commanders are maintaining that we are never armed, they always claim that, but they have guns too. They bring them in their cars, their guards carry them concealed, always. Sometimes they bring female officers that have guns… the women carry them so that people don’t realize.
Q: And when the shock troops entered San Salvador, what was the order? Who were they going after, and why? How did it happen?
A: The first order was to disperse the people that were there, who weren’t letting the police enter the central plaza. (The order) was to disperse. The part about the houses came later, it was after the conflict, that came (inaudible) from the government, for the commando units that had to go into the houses. (Our orders) were to go in and disperse the people.
Q: The people in the plaza?
A: Yes, in the gates.
But there was never any control over what was done to the houses. Sometimes, when we were removing people, all the cops showed up to loot the place, to take whatever they could find: money, jewelry, anything that could be stuffed into their pockets without being seen.
In this case the Federal Police entered as well, and started to loot, just like the state police…
Q: Who went in to carry out the raids?
A: The State Police.
Q: And how did they know which houses to go to?
A: There were people (town residents) who went around pointing out the houses where they had seen the students go to hide. They were people from the town and they also pointed to houses when they knew that there were leaders inside. They went around pointing out members of the group, and there were also helicopters telling us more or less where people were hiding.
Q: The order was to arrest the people that had participated along with the leaders?
A: No, no. It was to arrest anything that moved, everyone there, because a lot of people were detained who had nothing to do with all this. Some of them were on their way to work, some were riding their bikes just to see what was happening, but they got swept up as well. Anyone in the streets and also people who were taken out of their homes.
Q: After you went in and took control of the central plaza, you started to look for people in the houses. What role did these shock troops have in that?
A: What the “Shock Group” does is always to disperse the people. In this case the idea was also to enter the houses and get out all the people that they could.
We even had to drag people out who were still asleep, young people sleeping; you grabbed them and dragged them out — people, old women, that was the order. Bring out everyone and arrest them. And by this point no one cared if they were leaders or people who had participated in the marches. They weren’t looking for who did it, but rather who they could get money from. In fact, we didn’t even know who the leaders were… I think that was why there were so many people taken and many leaders who weren’t… Because the police didn’t know who the leaders were. The police themselves, well, they’re from all over; the only ones who might have known the leaders were the Texcoco police. They could know the leaders after so many marches, but all those others they brought in from different cities don’t even know the townspeople, and so all they did was take in anyone who they found.
Q: But, how did you take these people, how did you carry out the raids?
A: Well, by breaking down the doors, forcing our way in and when everyone was there we would enter the house and start beating them, grabbing them while hitting them with clubs and kicking them; once they were secured we would put them onto the pickup trucks.
Q: Both men and women?
A: Both men and women. That was terrible, men and women, but no small children.
Look, the fact is that by the afternoon on the day of the conflict there was no more equipment. They sent for more because everything had been used up, all the bombs… that is, all the gear for the raids was used up. We were waiting for them to bring more so we could go in. And finally that night everything arrived, the bombs and all that, from the state, and that’s why we went in at last at night, because the necessary equipment hadn’t arrived.
In some houses, they pointed their weapons at people and told them not to move. The women are the ones who are most likely to defend their husbands and children and in some houses there were shots fired.
Q: And when the raids began, did both the state police and the Federal Preventive Police participate?
A: Yes, both forces entered (inaudible) they came in white trucks and were well armed.
Q: In that moment, who was in control of the whole operation, who was in charge and gave the order to the commanders that the commanders passed on to the other officers? Who was the head of the operation?
A: The head was Commissioner Wilfirdo Robledo Madrid… he’s the commissioner, he used to be director, now he is commissioner of the State Security Agency, and everything was under his command.
Q: Did they authorize you to use firearms?
A: Eh, authorization itself, no, they just let us hold onto the guns, and if our lives were in danger we were allowed to use them.
In this case, it was to intimidate the people who didn’t want to let us take their family members, but those people themselves weren’t armed. We went in with our guns and that was how the operation was done.
Q: Where did the trucks head off to?
A: We couldn’t see where they went because we stayed behind to guard the town. The order was to get them out of their houses and put them in the pickups. The pickups took them away and we went back to keep guarding the town.
Q: How long did you keep guarding the town?
A: Until around three thirty or four in the afternoon.
Q: And you kept taking people out of their houses all that time?
A: Yes, because supposedly they said that there were still some police in there, fellow officers who were being held.
But they had been found a long time ago, really.
Q: That is to say, it wasn’t true that your colleagues…
A: It was a pretext to keep pulling people out.
Q: So, it got to be four o’clock in the afternoon and what was the order to retreat? Did some stay behind? What was the order you followed after this whole operation?
A: What happened was that there had still been no order for us to leave. Some commanders were taking their people away; first the group that had been there the longest left. Later, little by little, they took them out, slowly, but many police still stayed behind to keep guard, more police had arrived to relieve them in the afternoon.
Q: How many different groups from the state police participated?
A: There were the sectors, the FAR, the canine units, the “Aces,” which is the Special Group; they are the ones that went into the houses with their guns drawn because they were armed, they always carry guns and grenades.
Q: The Aces?
A: The aces.
Q: Which are the “shock troops?”
A: That is the Special Group, which the leadership gave a special purpose, which was supposedly to deactivate bombs.
The FAR, the groupings…
Q: And which is the “Shock Group?”
A: …the traffic police, and what is the other group in the division? The “Arrows,” which are the police on bicycles, they brought them too.
Q: What happened to the injured?
A: Eh, it would seem they took them to the jail, too. They sent piles of people to Santiaguito.
Q: Did you see how many people were injured?
A: Yes, the great majority were covered in blood because the police hit them in the head with their clubs.
Q: And the boy who died?
A: That was from an impact from a 38 special.
Q: And who uses that weapon?
A: We do, the state police, and it was a fellow officer that shot him.
Q: Did the officer shoot him in the heat of the moment or was it direct?
A: Direct, as the boy had found him hiding; he said there was a state police officer there and the officer drew his weapon and shot him.
Q: What do you think about all this?
A: The government always uses us; we are always the bad guys in society’s eyes, society always criticizes us and scorns us but the reality is that these are orders we receive from the government and from our commanders, to repress.
Q: How much to you make?
A: About 3,000 pesos ($270 dollars) every two weeks.
Q: And what training do you receive for this kind of mobilization?
A: The shock troops receive some training, but the rest of the groups, nothing. We don’t have any training for a raid like this one, we have no training or equipment to stop such demonstrations.
Q: What kind of equipment do you lack?
A: Well, everything. We lack weapons, manpower, equipment to enter houses in raids, (inaudible) even uniforms. The weapons we have are obsolete, there are no bullet-proof vests, one has to buy his own gear to stay safe.
Q: You mean, you have to buy your own vests?
A: From uniforms, to vests, to… bullets; they don’t give out cartridges.
If you go some day and check out a group of police, they all have different shoes, different pants, the shirts are made from different fabrics, some of them are all patched up. Why? Because everyone has to put together our own uniforms after the commanders tell us how we are supposed to look. That’s how we buy our uniforms.
We have to repair our own equipment. If they fall apart, and the government doesn’t fix them, the commanders tell us we have to fix them ourselves.
So, all this is what causes the policeman to go out into the street and extort people. At the same time, if a comrade falls in action, the commanders always say, “eh, he was an idiot, that’s why he died.” That’s all they ever say. The government doesn’t care about a cop, because the day we fall it doesn’t even want to pay out our insurance policies. We even have to buy our own insurance; the majority of the police have private insurance we have to pay for, you can check this out on our payrolls. They give us discounts for the insurance we pay; sometimes we are paying two or even three different insurance policies. We have to protect ourselves, repair our own equipment, buy uniforms, bullets, and gasoline. The state charges us for services and then can’t afford to pay us. The commanders have their own businesses.
Q: What do you mean?
A: They lend their services to private companies and charge for that service, and then they send cops to do the work when we are supposed to be out guaranteeing the people’s safety.
Q: What kind of training do you receive to be a cop, to use a gun; what training do you receive and when do you receive it?
A: Training doesn’t really exist. Or not an up-to-date training. The training they give is very obsolete, the same thing they received from their old commanders. We never learn shooting tactics, there isn’t any equipment or bullets to spare for it, we never practice. In the academy they don’t really give you training.
Q: What classes do they give you at the academy?
A: Well, they teach you about shooting, about techniques and tactics, human rights, first aid, laws and regulations.
Q: But this is all on paper?
A: Yes, it’s all… never in practice, we never learn anything in practice.
Q: How long does the academy last?
A: It used to be six months, now it’s supposed to be a year.
Q: What would you like to say to the people listening to this?
A: The truth is I am indignant, I am ashamed of everything that happened… now, seeing it all on television, the truth is that it is outrageous what I saw, what happened to that town, and in the end we are human beings too.
Yes, but there are many excesses that should not have happened.
The people should be conscious of the fact that these orders come from above. No, the police don’t make the law; they oblige us to do this kind of job.
Q: What would you like to say to the government?
A: To the government, first of all, this is no way to govern, repressing the people. After that, well, give us training, but professional training.
Q: What would you like to say to the people of Atenco?
A: Well, that we’re sorry for everything the police did to you, in the name of all the police. The truth is that as my fellow officer here said, there were excesses and we hope you’ll forgive us. Orders are orders; if we don’t follow them there are repercussions for us.
Unfortunately, those of us here have families to support and it is not easy to find another job.
We can’t speak openly about this because we would lose our jobs.
Q: What would you like to say to Wilfrido?
A: The truth is we had a different idea about him when he came in as commissioner from the PFP. But since he arrived he hasn’t done anything for the state police. Everything remains the same, the same commanders getting richer and richer. They’ve been doing it for years and they keep making more money. Nothing has changed, the agency is all the same people…
And he wants results, but he doesn’t give us the means… to fight crime. We know about the crimes, but we can’t doing anything about them, many of the criminals are working with the commanders, with federal police, they even have entire municipalities and congressmen in their pockets.
Q: And finally, would you like to say anything more about the events in San Salvador? Would you like to add anything?
A: Well, the truth is that we did get carried away. There were a lot of people that didn’t need to be arrested, there were people sleeping that were dragged away.
There are people that have no responsibility for the demonstrations that were happening. I would say (to the people in charge) that they should reflect on all this and do the right thing.
That if there are guilty people here, bring them in. But there are many people who have no guilt for what happened. We can videos of powerful people, congressmen, videos of them stealing, people like Bejarano and nevertheless the law is not fair.
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