July 20, 2005

Mexico crime fight sparks police brutality charges

By Lorraine Orlandi

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Nadia Zepeda says Mexico City
police arrested and raped her in 2003, planted cocaine on her
and sent her to prison in the name of a "zero tolerance" crime
policy that rights groups say has run amok.

Amnesty International and Mexican rights groups launched a
campaign on Wednesday to free Zepeda, 20, who has been in
prison for two and a half years for possession and sale of
drugs in a case they condemned as arbitrary and flawed.

"I still don't understand why they did it or why they are
doing it," a soft-spoken Zepeda said on a video tape from her
prison presented to reporters on Wednesday.

Her case is emblematic of a wave of violations being
documented by rights watchdogs under new, tough crime policies
inspired by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

A group of businessmen hired Giuliani in late 2002 for $4.3
million to tackle Mexico City's rampant crime.

Giuliani and members of his security consulting firm made a
series of visits to Mexico City, including high-crime
neighborhoods, and made recommendations to bring order, working
closely with the police chief here.

Officials say his zero tolerance measures are working, but
rights groups warn they give police, prosecutors and the courts
license to commit rights abuse while high crime persists.

"You can do it in New York, where police are trained,
sometimes have a university education, and there are rights
guarantees," said Mexican rights activist Juan Salgado. "Here
police have a long history of abuse and limited training."

Under pressure to solve crime, Mexican police often
fabricate evidence, a practice condoned or promoted by corrupt
prosecutors and a closed, inefficient court system, experts
say. Youth and the poor are often the targets, they say.

Hundreds of criminal complaints against police are pending,
including Zepeda's two-year-old charges against three of the
officers who arrested her.

She was an 18-year-old student when she, her boyfriend and
two friends were picked up as they walked on the street one
evening by police conducting a drug raid in the neighborhood.

When she surfaced in a jail cell more than 24 hours later,
she had been raped and abused and the cocaine planted as
evidence, said rights lawyers.

"She was just like any girl her age, she had just turned
18," said her mother, Carmen Molina. breaking down before
reporters. "This changed life completely."

Amnesty International's Carlos Gomez said Zepeda's case,
like the rapes of indigenous women by soldiers patrolling
Mexico's countryside, or the arbitrary arrests of activists
targeted for their work, shows "the flaws and inefficiencies"
of a justice system in need of reform.

President Vicente Fox has proposed legislation to overhaul
the system, including measures to professionalize police,
depoliticize prosecutors and open court proceedings to the
public. But they have stalled in the Congress.