EL PASO, Texas -- Shohn Huckabee is finally home. He spent nearly two years in a Mexican prison after his conviction for drug trafficking. Now, he will spend Christmas with his family.
The Huckabee home is just off a main road in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Horses roam on a wide patch of grass behind a neighbor's home.
Inside the home, Hucakbee's younger siblings sit and do homework on a long, marble kitchen counter. Behind them, partially blocked beneath a Christmas garland, is a hand written sign that reads: “Welcome Home Shohn” in colored markers.
Huckabee, 24, has a short, strawberry blonde beard. He sits in his parents’ living room, not far from the glow of the Christmas tree, wearing a University of Texas Longhorns cap and jeans. When he recounts his story, he is remarkably composed and his tone of voice is serene.
The ordeal began when he and his friend, Carlos Quijas, were in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez getting Huckabee's truck fixed. On their way back, less than a mile from the international bridge leading back to the U.S., they were stopped and searched by Mexican soldiers. The troops claimed they found more than 100 pounds of marijuana in the truck and arrested the two Americans.
From there, Huckabee says, they were taken away and tortured.
“We were electrically shocked. They were questioning, interrogating us for names and people that we had no clue who they were,” he said. “When we didn't answer, they would shock us, beat us with a rifle, mock execution with guns.”
Three Mexican witnesses testified in court that they saw the soldiers plant the marijuana bags while they searched Huckabee's truck the day of his arrest. The witnesses were street vendors who sell to people waiting in line to cross the border. Despite their testimony, the judge found Huckabee and Quijas guilty and sentenced them to five years in prison.
Huckabee's multiple attempts at an appeal failed. Finally, he managed to get transferred to an American prison this fall. Quijas was also recently transferred.
When the U.S. Parole Commission reviewed Huckabee's case, they determined he had indeed been tortured and his sentence was reduced. Huckabee was a free man on December 2nd.
But U.S. authorities cannot clear his record, which currently reads “felony in a foreign land”. Because the crime was committed outside the United States, Huckabee said he doesn't lose any rights here. He can still vote, run for political office and carry a firearm.
“It's been a long, tough two years,” Huckabee said. “But it's over now so...it's a time for happiness and to be with the family.”
While inside the Juárez prison, Huckabee said he came to know a world of widespread corruption and abuse. He claimed Mexican officials offered him freedom in exchange for money. His father spent tens of thousands of dollars on private Mexican attorneys who accomplished little.
But most shocking, was Huckabee’s story about a visit by Juárez police Chief Julian Leyzaola shortly after a deadly prison riot this past summer.
“He came in and beat people,” Huckabee said. “Saw him with my eyes, two-by-fours in his hands, beating people with it. He broke a two-by-four over a guy's back and the municipal (police officer) said, 'Here, here's another one, here you go boss, here's another one.'”
Leyzaola was unavailable to comment for this story, but has denied similar accusations in the past.
Before being hired in Juárez in March, Leyzaola was the police chief in Tijuana. While there, the former Mexican army colonel is credited with reducing crime. But last month, the Baja California Human Rights Commission formally accused Leyzaola of abuse and torture.
At the public defender's office in Juárez, lead attorney Javier Perez Chavez said his office has experienced an increase in cases where clients allege abuse by police officers and soldiers. Huckabee was eventually represented by an attorney in Perez Chavez office, free of charge.
“Approximately one or two out of 10 clients are U.S. citizens or people with dual nationalities,” Perez Chavez said. “Most face charges are related to drugs or weapons.”
Allegations of human rights violations by law enforcement and the army have increased across Mexico since 2006, when the President Felipe Calderon declared war on the country’s violent drug cartels. According to Diego Zavala, the Mexico representative for the human rights organization Amnesty International, those cases are rarely prosecuted.
“Historically, the issue of human rights violations committed by the police and the military in Mexico has been seen by Amnesty as a problem of impunity,” Zavala said.
By telling his story, Huckabee hopes to call attention to the problems within the Mexican judicial system. But he has no plans of ever returning to Mexico. What happened to him, he said, can happen to anyone.