It's practically a daily ritual: Accused drug traffickers and assassins, shackled and bruised from beatings, are paraded before the news media to show that Mexico is winning its drug war. Once the television lights dim, however, about three-quarters of them are let go.
Even as President Felipe Calderon's government touts its arrest record, cases built by prosecutors and police under huge pressure to make swift captures unravel from lack of evidence. Innocent people are tortured into confessing. The guilty are set free, only to be hauled in again for other crimes. Sometimes, the drug cartels decide who gets arrested.
Records obtained by The Associated Press showed that the government arrested 226,667 drug suspects between December 2006 and September 2009, the most recent numbers available. Less than a quarter of that number were charged. Only 15 percent saw a verdict, and the Mexican attorney general's office won't say how many of those were guilty.
The judicial void is a key reason why Mexican cartels continue to deliver tons of marijuana, methamphetamines, heroin and cocaine onto U.S. streets.
"It in effect gives them impunity," U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual told the AP, "and allows them to be able to function in ways that can extend themselves into the United States."
Secretive justice system
Mexico's justice system is carried out largely in secret and has long been viciously corrupt. Add a drug war that Calderon intensified, and the system has been overrun. Nearly 25,000 people have died in the war to date, and the vast majority of their cases remain unsolved.
The AP obtained court documents and prison records restricted from the public and conducted dozens of interviews with suspects' relatives, lawyers, human rights groups and government officials to find out what happened after suspects were publicly paraded in key cartel murder cases.
In Ciudad Juarez, where a war between two cartels over trafficking routes killed a record 2,600 people in 2009, prosecutors filed 93 homicide cases that year and got 19 convictions, the AP found. Only five were for first-degree murder, court records show, and none came under federal statutes with higher penalties designed to prosecute the drug war.
"They never charge anyone with homicide because they don't have the evidence, they don't have proof," said Jorge Gonzalez, president of the public defenders association. "They just show them to the media to give the impression that they're solving cases."
Soldiers in Juarez routinely announce to the public that suspects have confessed to a shocking number of murders.
Hector Armando Alcibar Wong, known as "El Koreano," killed 15, they said. But a year after his August 2009 arrest, authorities don't even know where he is. Chihuahua state officials say they handed him over to federal authorities; the attorney general's office says it never had him.
Soldiers told the media in 2008 that Juan Pablo Castillo Lopez was tied to 23 killings. He was never charged with homicide and was freed from state prison less than a year later. The army quickly arrested him again, saying he killed two more people within three days. Nine months after that, he still doesn't face a homicide charge.
Oswaldo Munoz Gonzalez, known as "El Gonzo," admitted to killing 40 people, according to the joint police-army operation in Ciudad Juarez. His family says he was tortured into that confession. Eight months later, he hasn't been charged with a single homicide either.
Munoz was first detained in 2008 and accused of aggravated robbery but he was released after prosecutors failed to present enough evidence.
Two months after he was released, authorities say they nabbed Munoz during a traffic stop, and found drugs and guns in his truck.
His sister, Petra Munoz Gonzalez, says they're lying — he was dragged from his home while his wife and two young daughters watched. She says her brother, a taxi driver and occasional bus driver with a third-grade education, does not drink or use drugs.
Munoz's family didn't know where he was until they saw him paraded on television days later, with guns and drugs in front of him.
"He told me, 'I never killed anyone,'" Petra Munoz said. "He said he confessed because he had been tortured. He told me they put a bag over his head so he couldn't breathe and gave him electric shocks down there (on his genitals) and beat him until he fell over in pain. Who would endure that?"
"I just ask that the truth be told," she added. "Why haven't they presented proof, or witnesses, or anything that incriminates him? It's been almost a year."
Chihuahua authorities say they can't discuss open cases. Mexico Attorney General Arturo Chavez declined several AP requests for comment.
Pattern of catch and release
The attorney general's records show the same pattern of catch and release in all states where Calderon's government sent federal police and soldiers to crush the cartels.
In Baja California, home to the border city of Tijuana, nearly 33,000 people were arrested but 24,000 were freed. In the northern state of Sinaloa — the cradle of the powerful cartel by the same name — more than 9,700 were detained, but 5,606 freed. In Tamaulipas, birthplace of the Gulf cartel, nearly 3,600 were detained while 2,083 were freed.
Calderon first launched his military assault in December 2006 in his home state of Michoacan, deploying thousands of troops shortly after a new cartel called La Familia rolled five severed heads onto a nightclub's dance floor.
Since then, federal forces have arrested more than 3,300 drug suspects. Nearly half have been released.
In 2008, drug traffickers in Michoacan lobbed hand grenades into a crowd celebrating Mexico's independence. Eight revelers died, including a 13-year-old boy, making it one of Mexico's highest-profile murder cases. Police and federal authorities arrested three suspects within 10 days. None of the men had criminal records. All three confessed.
But at least 16 people say the three men weren't even there.
The witnesses — next-door neighbors, relatives, bar owners, waitresses, a corner store owner and a doctor — told authorities they saw all three that night in Lazaro Cardenas, more than 300 miles from the colonial square in Morelia where the attacks occurred, according to interviews and statements obtained by the AP.
Neighbor Gloria Ortiz and her daughter, Selene, told the AP they had dinner with one of the men in his cramped living room. Juan Carlos Castro, a mechanic who loves to cook, invited them over for a favorite dish — stewed pig's feet in chili sauce — and discussed a menu for Selene's 15th birthday party, which Castro had offered to cater.
Edith Franco, a Lazaro Cardenas doctor, testified under oath that she had dinner with Julio Cesar Mondragon at her mother's taco restaurant that night.
Three days later, Castro's wife, Esperanza Fajardo, was told that gunmen had taken him away in a car. She reported a kidnapping to police.
Three days after that, Mondragon was kidnapped as he washed his car outside his house. His wife said she heard her husband scream for help, but by the time she rushed to the window he was gone.
Alfredo Rosas' girlfriend said he was abducted in a similar way two days later.
The next time the three women saw them, the men were being paraded in front of television cameras in Mexico City by federal police, who identified them as terrorists and members of the Zeta drug cartel.
Castro was cut and bruised. Mondragon's face was black-and-blue. Rosas, who was wearing a hospital robe, had five broken ribs and a black eye.
"At that moment, you cry, you scream. You feel impotent," Fajardo said. "I said, 'How is it possible that they are accusing him of something he didn't do?'"
Castro says he was beaten until he not only confessed, but gave them Mondragon's name as an accomplice.
"They showed me videos in which they were cutting someone's head off, and they told me they would cut me up finger by finger, arm by arm, and my family, too," Castro said in handwritten court testimony obtained by the AP. "I would repeat what they told me to say, and if I made a mistake, they would hit me."
Mondragon said in his court statement that his captors took him blindfolded to a spot where he heard what he thought were the screams of a man being burned alive. "Set him on fire!" Mondragon's captors shouted. He prayed he "would die quickly."
Instead, he said, his captors took him to a house and repeatedly dunked his head into a bucket of water, beat him with a rifle butt and hung him from a tree, singeing his ears with a lighter. Mondragon said he gave them Rosas' name.
Federal police say an anonymous phone tip then led them to a house in the Michoacan town of Apatzingan, a known stronghold for La Familia, where they found the three men tied up, blindfolded and whimpering.
The tip came days after the government accused La Familia of staging the grenade attack, and the cartel responded by hanging a banner claiming its innocence and vowing to find the killers.
Police say the battered men confessed and claimed allegiance to La Familia's biggest rival. They were flown blindfolded to Mexico City, still unaware who their captors were.
'I was afraid'
"I started to think, 'Could this be the government?'" Mondragon said in his statement. "'What if I tell them the truth, that I didn't do any of the things I've been talking about?' But I didn't say anything. I was afraid."
The attorney general's office had two secret witnesses who claimed Castro and Mondragon smuggled drugs and attacked police, but said nothing about the grenade attack. One witness was killed last year, said Rosas' attorney, Raul Espinoza de Los Monteras Santillan. The other, he said, admitted he never met the defendants.
In February, the prosecution's own expert dismissed as unreliable a blurry surveillance video that supposedly placed two of the suspects at the celebration.
A year after the arrests, an appeals judge dismissed charges of organized crime, terrorism and grenade possession against all three men. The confessions have been retracted, but homicide charges still stand.
The proceedings have been delayed because at least eight hearings have been missing at least one of the three arresting officers, the lawyers said. The government says it cannot comment on an ongoing trial.
All three men remain in jail.
"I'm really disappointed in the government," witness Franco told the AP. "They didn't look for the culprits. They looked for someone to blame."
Calderon: 'We need profound change'
Even Mexico's president admitted the court system is inept recently as he touted a new judicial system that Mexico has begun to adopt.
"It fosters injustice, impunity and corruption," Calderon wrote on the presidential website. "We need a profound change and that's why we have begun an unprecedented effort to modernize and redesign our legal system."
That effort, with aid from the United States, started under a constitutional amendment passed by the legislature, approved by all 32 states and signed by Calderon in 2008.
Under the old system, defendants are presumed guilty until proven innocent, proceedings are carried out almost entirely in writing, and judges usually rubber-stamp whatever government prosecutors and investigators hand them. Without public scrutiny, mistaken arrests, bungled investigations and false confessions are commonplace.
With the reform, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty; police must investigate crimes and collect evidence before making arrests; a panel of judges decides whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed, and trials are argued orally in courts open to the public.
The law calls for the changeover to be completed by 2016. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided training in forensics, interviewing and courtroom arguments to 550 Mexican prosecutors. Some 5,000 federal police officers have taken basic investigation courses, also with U.S. funding. The Obama administration is requesting $207 million in its 2011 budget for judicial and government reforms in Mexico.
The new system was piloted in Chihuahua state, home to Ciudad Juarez, in 2007 — just before the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels began their bloody war to control drug routes into the United States. All Chihuahua prosecutors and judges were trained in the new techniques.
But even state prosecutors say the drug war has stymied the new system.
Soldiers, who under Mexican law can't do police work, routinely bring in evidence such as illegally obtained confessions that judges are forced to throw out.
"The numbers of arrests increased tremendously but the numbers of prosecutions virtually didn't change," noted Pascual, the U.S. ambassador.
Since the reform was implemented, 98 officials who had received training — police investigators, forensic experts, prosecutors — have been assassinated by gangs, said Carlos Gonzalez, spokesman for the Chihuahua attorney general's office.
Nobody has been arrested in any of those killings.