Two Years Inside a Mexican Prison

A U.S. citizen says he was wrongfully sentenced to jail on drug smuggling charges while on a trip across the border with a friend. Now he's writing a book about the ordeal.
Inmates at the sports field inside the state prison in Ciudad Juarez. (Reuters)

The days of Sopranos-style Italian-American mob bosses are over, or so it seems. Pop culture's newest ruling mafia lives south of the border. In Oliver Stone's most recent film Savages, three kids from Laguna Beach face the consequences of breaking a business deal with the deadly Tijuana Cartel. AMC's hit show Breaking Bad tells the story of a chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-producer with a complicated relationship with the powerful drug lords of Ciudad Juarez.

He paid a prison guard $100 to put him and Huckabee in a less crowded cell. They were placed with two other men. One had been charged with kidnapping, the other for murder.

Hollywood's new fascination with the Mexican drug trade might turn out to be a blessing for Carlos Quijas, who recently got a call from a movie producer who was interested in meeting with him. A contractor and former golf instructor from El Paso, Quijas has never directed a movie or written a script. But it's not his movie-making credentials the studio seems to be after -- it's his criminal record. 

Almost four years ago, Quijas, a U.S. citizen, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced for drug-smuggling in Mexico. He has spent that time trying to prove his innocence and clear his record of what he considers to be the result of a corrupt judicial system and bad timing.

"I guess that day God wanted me to get in trouble," he said.

The day was December 18, 2009. Quijas went to Ciudad Juarez for the first time in a long time. Like many Pasoans, he dreaded the border. That year the death toll in Juarez reached an all-time high: eight murders a day. The Juarez-El Paso border, one of the oldest and most important drug corridors in the Americas, has never been immune to crime. But violence peaked in Juarez since 2007, when former Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched a large-scale attack against drug traffickers in the area. Within a few years, Juarez earned the title of the most dangerous city in the world, followed by Baghdad.

Unfortunately for Quijas, Juarez was also the hometown of his grandmother, who was dying of throat cancer. The fear of not saying goodbye to her finally convinced him to take the risk. Luckily for him, his then-22-year-old friend and employer, Shohn Huckabee, was planning a trip across the border to get a cheap repair for his pickup truck. Quijas joined in.

The trip went as planned. Around 5:20 pm, Huckabee picked him up a few miles from the Americas-Cordoba Bridge, their route back to El Paso. This is what Quijas and Huckabee said happened next: As Huckabee merged into the long car line heading to the border checkpoint, a group of soldiers surrounded them. They dragged them out of the truck, pulled their sweaters over their heads, and pushed them inside a military van. The soldiers drove the van away from the border and into Mexico. Quijas' sweater had slipped down and he was able to see Huckabee next to him, still and quiet. "I was amazed at how calmed he was," Quijas recalls. "I whispered to him, 'They're probably going to kill us, we might not make it.'" He replied with a weak "OK."

Huckabee declined to speak on the record, but he confirmed all of Quijas' statements regarding their relationship and their experience in Juarez. His father, Kevin Huckabee, wrote in an email: "Shohn has moved on and spends no time worrying about events he can't change."

The night of the arrest, the military authorities in Ciudad Juarez called a press conference. Quijas and Huckabee were escorted to an auditorium, handcuffed and blindfolded. Quijas could sense camera flashes flickering around him. When the soldiers took the blindfold off, he saw dozens of small packets wrapped in brown tape and plastic lined up in front of him. Minutes later, an official told reporters that soldiers had arrested Quijas and Huckabee after finding 99 packets of marijuana inside their vehicle, 52 kilograms in total, valued at $100,000.

The story ran in several local and national newspapers the next morning. One of the headlines read: "Americans arrested in Juarez for smuggling."

A medic at the Mexican General Attorney's Office in Ciudad Juarez detected signs of torture in Quijas' body, but the Mexican Army denied any instance of torture during or after the arrest.

Two days after their arrest, Quijas and Huckabee spent their first night in the Ciudad Juarez municipal prison. As might be expected, the most dangerous city in Mexico also hosted one of its most dangerous and overcrowded prisons. Quijas saw cells with up to 12 inmates crammed inside. He paid a prison guard $100 to put him and Huckabee in a less crowded cell. They were placed with two other men. One had been charged with kidnapping, the other for murder. They told Quijas they had seen his arrest on Channel 44, Juarez's local news channel, dubbed the "tragedy network" by the locals.

Quijas' family notified the U.S. consulate in Juarez about his arrest. Two officials visited him and Huckabee at the local prison. The two told the consulate officials the soldiers who arrested them had planted the bags of marijuana inside their truck and then tortured them to keep them quiet. Quijas received several blows to the head and electric shocks to his chest, lower back, legs, testicles, and rectum. A medic at the Mexican General Attorney's Office in Ciudad Juarez detected signs of torture in Quijas' body, but the Mexican Army denied any instance of torture during or after the arrest.

The consulate officials told the Americans that while the investigation was taking place, they had two options: stay in Juarez and go to trial, or request a transfer to a U.S. prison and keep their drug smuggling charge. Quijas didn't want to have a criminal record in the U.S., so he decided to fight for his acquittal at the Juarez district court. "I knew the jail was dangerous, but I decided to take the risk anyway," he said.

It did not work out as he hoped it would. In March 2010, he and Huckabee were sentenced to five years in prison for marijuana possession with the intent to sell. They appealed twice, but lost. The court dismissed their complaint of human rights abuses and the testimonies of the witnesses who saw the soldiers planting bags inside their truck. Gustavo de la Rosa, former human rights commissioner for the Chihuahua state government, said during that time, the courts would never challenge the military. "Judges publicly stated they were supporting the Army in its fight against drug cartels," he said. "If the military said someone was guilty, he was guilty.

"During the trial, the soldiers stated the arrest happened around 9:45 pm, not around 6 p.m., as the two accused men had said, and that about half an hour later, they questioned the men briefly at the military base and then took them to the attorney general's office in Juarez to be booked. De la Rosa said that under Mexico's penal code, the soldiers should have taken Quijas and Huckabee directly to the attorney general's office. "The offices are practically 10 minutes away from where they were arrested," De la Rosa said. "Instead they drove to the other side of town to do the questioning."

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Monica Cruz is a reporter based in Mexico City.

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