EMEEQUIS .– In 2008, the Third Company of the Independent Infantry/Compañía de Infantería No Encuadrada (CINE) of the Mexican Army had a secret name, according to the mission it carried out in the shadows during the Operativo Conjunto Chihuahua/Chihuahua Joint Operation: it was known as the "Pelotón de la Muerte"/"Death Squad" and their task was to kidnap, torture, murder and disappear suspected criminals, as part of the strategy of the recently started "war against drugs."
Its headquarters were in Ojinaga, Chihuahua, 400 kilometers from Ciudad Juárez, which that year would be named the most violent city in the world. From its facilities, a compact group of soldiers left every day whose instructions were to exterminate civilians, as well as steal proceeds from organized crime and keep a part of what was stolen—weapons and drugs—to "plant" it on detainees who had not been able to run.
“Most of the people were cremated after long torture. Gasoline was used as the raw material for work,” says Major Alejandro Rodas Cobón from military prison #5 in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, where he has been held for almost 11 years, accused by the Mexican Army itself of belonging to the “Death Squad”.
Communication between Major Alejandro Rodas and this reporter was made through his lawyer in order for the military serviceman to tell, in his own voice, who was at the top of the organization chart of that extermination group that killed, without distinction, criminals and innocent.
"The orders were given by President Felipe Calderón," he reveals to EMEEQUIS without hesitation. "He was the supreme command of the 'Death Squad'."
THE SURPRISE WAR AGAINST NARCO
Major Alejandro Rodas is a veteran in the country's Armed Forces. A native of Tapachula, Chiapas, he entered the Mexican Army in 1984, at age 14, through the Heroico Colegio Militar. From then on, he rose in the directory of the Secretariat of National Defense until he reached the rank of Chief and earned a gold star, the symbol of a Major. Before being incarcerated, his reputation was that of an honest and efficient career military man.
In December 2006, with the arrival of Felipe Calderón to the Presidency of the Republic, he was surprised by the strategy of a “war against drugs”. Flustered, he saw on television how the new president sent 4,000 soldiers to Michoacán to take on the tasks of local policing, a mission for which the military was not prepared.
A month later, it would be his turn to jump right into the "war on drugs." In January 2007, he was sent to the Third Company Independent Infantry in Chihuahua, where the Sinaloa Cartel was fighting the control of the city to the Juárez Cartel.
The largest state in the country had become a battlefield between five groups of violent hitmen, who to prove their courage tried to outdo their enemies in sadism: La Línea, Barrio Azteca, Gente Nueva, Los Mexicles and the Artistas Asesinos were in a deranged competition for the title of the bloodiest.
"WE HAVE TO BE ABLEED"
Throughout that year, Major Alejandro Rodas and his 219 companions who made up “The Third” savaged organized crime without a single complaint being filed against them with human rights organizations, he says. But that changed dramatically the following year, when President Felipe Calderón ordered the dispatch of 2,000 military personnel to the north of the country to start the Chihuahua Joint Operation.
The then Secretary of National Defense, Guillermo Galván Galván, appointed General Felipe de Jesús Espitia Hernández as coordinator of the spectacular operation before the media. The general removed the older officers in the Army to install his subordinates, who were instructed to produce results at all costs. "The Third" was no exception.
“A generalized policy was established from above. Secretary Guillermo Galván Galván himself brought together the commanders of regions and military zones and issued precise instructions: members of drug trafficking organizations must be killed,” recalls Major Alejandro Rodas.
“It was always emphasized to us that this had the green light from the president. He headed the chain of command. It was a perverse policy. Felipe Calderón did not mind the sacrifice of lives in order to retain power. For me, it has been the most disastrous of all the high command that I can remember."
YOU CALL, WE TORTURE
The strategy of terror, recalls Major Alejandro Rodas, was based on the supposed attention to citizen complaints. The military traveled the state encouraging the population to anonymously report members of organized crime through a secure tip line. When a tip arrived, the military would move to the point, verify the information and, if they came across a crime or the suspicion of the commission of a crime, they arrested those who were nearby, often without search warrants or arrest warrants.
"This method of citizen reporting in general was used by the criminals themselves to incriminate each other and part of the population even used it to take revenge for personal reasons against their neighbors," recalls Major Alejandro Rodas.
The detainees, whether guilty of a crime or not, were usually tortured to obtain more information about criminals in the area, according to the file 15/2010 of the military justice that confirms the existence of the “Death Squad”. Some arrested survived with their bodies destroyed; Others died keeping the secrets of the cartel or assuring that they were innocent and their remains were turned into ashes with cans of gasoline that left the military installations.
“From comments made by officers who operated in Ciudad Juárez in those years, it was known that General Felipe de Jesús Espitia Hernández himself, who was also the commander of the Fifth Military Zone of Chihuahua, personally tortured and disappeared 'members of organized crime' in Ciudad Juárez. That was allowed.
“This is the Army: when an order is given and I know that it's illegal, I am not legally obliged to comply with it. But when the orders come from a supreme commander, such as the president, in no case can they be questioned”.
ALLIES OF "LA LINEA"
Major Alejandro Rodas maintains that he never participated in or was an eyewitness to an extrajudicial execution. But he did know that an extermination group operated in "The Third" that, in addition, had arrangements with old members of the armed group La Línea, of the Juárez Cartel, so that they would leak data that would allow them to make arrests and seizures of millions that they approved from Mexico City.
That group was behind the execution, among others, of Esau Samaniego, José Heriberto Rojas and Erick Valenzuela, alleged members of organized crime, whose participation in criminal groups was never confirmed by a judge. Of other detainees and cremated, innocent until proven otherwise, it is believed that they are still wanted by their relatives who consider them missing.
The fate of Major Alejandro Rodas was sealed on June 25, 2009, when a lieutenant colonel from “The Third”, Juárez Ramírez, was pursued by municipal police from Ojinaga for allegedly speeding. The military man did not stop when they pulled him over for fear of being assassinated, as it was rumored that the police were on the payroll of organized crime.
The lieutenant kept driving to a soccer field, where he knew there were soldiers playing. When the police officers tried to take him into custody, the soldiers defended him. That turned into a pitched confrontation that ended with a military man pointing his service weapon at the municipal president of Ojinaga, César Carrasco Baeza, who had appeared on the soccer field to defend the police.
"I'LL CALL MY COUSIN"
The affront was not ignored by the mayor, who days later complained about the military to his cousin, José Reyes Baeza, the governor of Chihuahua. He, in turn, complained to the Secretary of National Defense, Guillermo Galván Galván, about the military from "The Third" and threatened to reveal the existence of the extermination group, if he was not imprisoned at the command of that military unit, according to the account of the major Alejandro Rodas.
But there was no way that Mexico City would endorse the imprisonment of the members of the extermination group. Their results were the ones that shone the brightest in the media: spectacular photographs of seizures of weapons, drugs and an unprecedented number of detainees paraded before the cameras with their faces swollen from the blows and pitiful delirium from the electric shocks to the genitals. The narrative was powerful and useful to the "war on drugs."
So they sent scapegoats, like me, to prison. They had to keep the chain of command untouched, of which General Felipe de Jesús Espitia was an important part. Always, I emphasize, with the orders of the president.
On August 26, 2009, Major Alejandro Rodas was detained at a military training center in Ensenada, Baja California. Three agents of the then Military Judicial Police surrounded him and without showing him any order, they transferred him by air to Military Camp #1 in Mexico City.
There he learned that, along with him, 30 soldiers were accused of homicide, kidnapping, torture, robbery, stockpiling of weapons and cover-up. That trip was a formality to pretend that his trial had begun in an impartial setting like the capital of the country. The following day, August 27, he was returned by air and land to Ojinaga, to "The Third", where he was locked up in a cabin for 25 days, and held incommunicado from his family.
There, Major Alejandro Rodas experienced the horrors of the extermination group. They beat him nearly to death, suffocated him with plastic bags, gave him electric shocks until he lost consciousness several times. To further humiliate him, they stripped him of his military uniform. All to force him to sign a statement, without his lawyer present, that he was the true command of the "Death Squad."
In adjoining rooms, other soldiers suffered the same torture. Their own companions demanded that they sign, without reading, supposed confessions in which they admitted to having murdered civilians on the orders of Major Alejandro Rodas.
When they could not withstand any more torture, on September 13, 2009, the Army sent a plane to Chihuahua that landed, with them on board, in Sinaloa. Since then, Major Alejandro Rodas has been sleeping in the processed area of military prison #5, from where he communicates with this reporter.
ELEVEN YEARS WITHOUT SENTENCE
Time would prove Major Alejandro Rodas right, but justice never came.
The statements of one of his main accusers, Sergeant Andrés Becerra, would be dismissed after it was verified by means of the Istanbul Protocol that they had been obtained through torture. The same happened with the incriminating statements of the military officer Gabriel Roque Bernardino, who was acquitted after it was proven that his confession was extracted through beatings and threats.
Other irregularities in his case include the supposed cremated skeletal remains of his victims that were found: According to an expert report held by Major Alejandro Rodas' lawyer, bones that were unearthed were not from people, but from "medium to large mammalian animals, not humans”.
“We are in prison to pretend that justice was done for the human rights violations committed by the Armed Forces in Chihuahua. They do it so as not to call the chain of command to account, so they imprison lower-ranking chiefs and officers.
“Some who could testify to what I say are still imprisoned, such as General Manuel de Jesús Moreno in military prison #1. Others are dead. Such as in the case of Major General Jorge Juárez Loera, who was killed shortly after leaving his last post in the Secretariat of National Defense," Major Alejandro Rodas complains.
There are only a few days left for him to serve 11 years in preventive detention, that is, he was never sentenced. No judge has found grounds to declare him guilty of what the Mexican Army accuses him of, but despite this, he remains in detention.
“The Ministry of National Defense itself has lobbied with the judges in Chihuahua so that there is no progress in my criminal cases. They do not allow me to close my files and already have a sentence. My criminal cases are stalled with the complicity of the judges”.
"I AM THE VOICE OF MANY MILITARY"
Since he has been in prison, his life has been one routine after another: reading, playing sports, working in workshops. But, mainly, he spends his days planning how to get acquitted of the crimes he is accused of.
Despite the fact that his family does not visit him as often as he would like for work reasons, Major Alejandro Rodas assures that he feels encouraged by his wife and children to eventually regain his freedom.
"Who am I? I'm a person who, like many, joined the Armed Forces out of a call to serve my country. I'm a family man who loves intensely and I'm someone who struggles every day to get through this difficult test.
"I am also the voice of many military personnel who maintain that there was a military squad that committed terrible atrocities under strict orders and obedience that came from former President Felipe Calderón."