An American in Juárez: Why Is Shohn Huckabee in Prison?

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Alejandro Bringas / Reuters

Carlos Quijas (L) and Shohn Huckabee, U.S. citizens and inmates at the jail in Ciudad Juarez, September 24, 2010. The two were sentenced to five years in prison for drug trafficking.

Updated: July 6, 2011

There is a slight knocking noise on the phone line, not nearly the worst interference I've heard on a phone call to Mexico, but Kevin Huckabee apologizes anyway. "Sorry about the noise in here," he says in the same low Texan half-mumble I remember from our first meeting in Juárez two months ago. "Some guy is banging on his cell wall, I don't know why."

Huckabee, 47, is talking to me from a phone inside Cereso prison on the outskirts of Juárez, where he and his daughter-in-law are visiting his son Shohn for what he hopes will be one of the last visits he'll ever have to make to a Mexican jail. Shohn, 24, has launched his last appeal of his five-year-old sentence for drug possession and both father and son expect a ruling as early as Monday.

(UPDATE: Shohn Huckabee's final appeal was denied by a Mexican court on July 6. The 1,200-page decision came as a surprise to the Huckabee family — not least, says Shohn's father Kevin, because the same court ruled in favor of the appeals of three Mexican nationals with similar claims of constitutional violations. With all his appeals exhausted, Shohn can only hope to be included in a prisoner exchange between Mexico and U.S. That way he can serve out the remainder of his term — another three and a years — in an American prison.)

If you live in west Texas, you've probably heard of Shohn Huckabee. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has formally asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a full examination of his arrest and conviction; the city council of El Paso passed a resolution asking for the same. Activists on both sides of the border point to Shohn's case as an example of the broken state of Mexican justice.

Here's what the Mexican military says happened: late one afternoon in December 2009, soldiers at a Juárez checkpoint not far from the border saw the Americans looking nervous in their truck. They were stopped and two suitcases filled with 110 lbs. of marijuana were recovered from the vehicle.

Here's what the Americans say happened: they were returning home toward El Paso after having spent the day in Juárez getting Shohn's truck fixed cheaply. Shohn, who had recently gotten married and had his own construction business, was suddenly run off the road by soldiers who dragged him and his passenger out of their car, and in a procedure favored by the police and military in Juárez, pulled their t-shirts over their head to blindfold them. Instead of being booked at the jail a few blocks away from where they were arrested, they were driven to a military base outside of town and tortured through half the night — with beatings, electric shocks, and a mock execution — looking for information about cartel figures the men had never heard of. The first time either of them saw the drugs was the day afterwards, when they were made to pose for military photographers next to the stash.

The military denied any misconduct, and both men were eventually convicted of drug possession and sentenced to five years in prison.

The world might have forgotten about Shohn, however, if it weren't for his father's efforts. I first met Kevin in April in the justice building in the northern district of Juárez. The building is new, made of glass and steel, but its public waiting room is as desperate a place as you'll find in this very desperate city. It is here that victims and witnesses of Juárez's many brutal crimes — more than 3,000 people were murdered in Juárez in 2010 — come to talk to investigators. Funeral workers lurk on the edges of the hall, hoping to turn grieving family members into clients, but the funerarios, too, are nervous: the cartels and extortionists have been murdering them as well, sometimes alongside their families, in a recent wave of extortion.

Kevin, a former MetLife regional manager for West Texas and New Mexico who doesn't speak much Spanish, is by now used to this building, this scene. "I come over here three times a week now," he told me back in April, as his rather unimposing bodyguard stood nearby. That day, he was there to see Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a lion of a human rights lawyer who is the civil rights ombudsman for the state of Chihuahua where Juárez is located. De la Rosa was ready to file the appeal that will be ruled on next week, a sort of last-ditch Habeas Corpus motion to have the sentence vacated because of constitutional violations.

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