MATAMOROS, Mexico (AP) — Authorities Friday were investigating a possible police connection to the killing of three U.S. citizens visiting their father in Mexico who were found shot to death along with a Mexican friend more than two weeks after going missing.
Parents of the three siblings, whose bodies were identified Thursday, have said witnesses reported they were seized by men dressed in police gear calling themselves "Hercules," a tactical security unit in the violent border city of Matamoros wracked by cartel infighting. Nine of the unit's 40 officers are being questioned, Tamaulipas state Attorney General Ismael Quintanilla Acosta said.
It would be the third recent case of alleged abuse and killings by Mexican security forces.
The country is already convulsed by the case of 43 students from a teachers college in the southern state of Guerrero, their disappearance blamed on a mayor and police working with a drug cartel. Fifty-six people are under arrest, including dozens of police officers.
In a separate case in June, soldiers killed 22 suspected gang members in Mexico state, then altered the scene and intimidated witnesses to hide the fact that most of the dead were executed after they surrendered, a National Commission on Human Rights report said last week. Three soldiers face murder charges.
"We will apply the full force of the law and zero tolerance," Tamaulipas Gov. Egidio Torre Cantu said of the latest case, lamenting the death of the three Americans and a Mexican citizen, even though their identities had yet to be confirmed by DNA.
Presidential spokesman Eduardo Sanchez declined to comment when asked about the newest case. The U.S. Embassy said it was aware of the reports but had no information to share "due to privacy considerations."
The father of the three Americans, Pedro Alvarado, identified his children from photographs of the bodies showing tattoos, Quintanilla told Radio Formula. Clothing found with the bodies also matched that of Erica Alvarado Rivera, 26, and her brothers, Alex, 22, and Jose Angel, 21, who disappeared Oct. 13 along with Jose Guadalupe Castaneda Benitez, Erica Alvarado's 32-year-old boyfriend.
Each was shot in the head and the bodies were burned, most likely from lying in the hot sun for so long, Quintanilla said.
Tamaulipas authorities said it could take 24 to 48 hours for DNA tests to further confirm that the bodies were those of the Alvarado siblings, who were last seen in El Control, a small town near the Texas border west of Matamoros, about to return home to Progreso, Texas.
"They were good kids," said an aunt, Nohemi Gonzalez. "I don't know why they did that to them."
The three siblings shared their mother's modest brick home on a quiet street in Progreso less than three miles from the border. Erica, who has four children between the ages of 3 and 9, had been scheduled to begin studying next month to become a nursing assistant.
Brothers Jose Angel and Alex had been set to make their annual pilgrimage to Missouri as migrant farm workers more than a week ago, Gonzalez said. When they weren't on the road, they divided their time between their mother's house in Texas and their father's in Mexico.
On Sunday, Oct. 12, Erica drove her black Jeep Cherokee across the border to El Control. She dropped it at her father's house and went to visit with her boyfriend.
Her mother, Raquel Alvarado, had told her to be back in Progreso by early Monday morning, because Raquel had to work and Erica's kids had to get to school. Raquel put the kids to bed Sunday night and awoke at 4 a.m. to see Erica was not home. She began calling her daughter's cellphone and continued through the morning. "I'm always worried about her when she goes over there," the mother said.
Around 1 p.m., she reached her former husband. He told her Erica had called her brothers and asked them to bring her Jeep to a roadside restaurant under a bridge near El Control where she was eating with her boyfriend. One brother drove her Jeep and the other drove his Chevrolet Tahoe because they all planned to return to Progreso from there.
According to Raquel Alvarado, witnesses told family members that the brothers arrived around 12:30 p.m. and saw members of the police unit called Hercules pushing their sister and Castaneda and hitting Erica. When the brothers intervened, the police took all four of them, along with their vehicles. The witnesses said the armed men identified themselves as members of the Hercules unit and warned against intervening.
The Alvarados say they later found their children's cars at an import car lot belonging to Luis Alfredo Biasi, Matamoros' director of social services. Quintanilla could not confirm that. Biasi did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
Mayor Leticia Salazar officially introduced Hercules in September as a group with particular skills to confront crime in high-risk operations, according to a press release.
City Clerk Joe Mariano Vega, who was identified in the release as the group's commander, said in an interview earlier this year that Hercules was comprised of former marines and soldiers who policed hot zones for crime in the city's neighborhoods.
Neither Salazar nor the city's spokeswoman returned messages seeking comment.
Quintanilla said he saw no reason so far to interview Salazar or Biasi in the Alvarado case.
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — A former Florida A&M band member accused of being the ringleader of a brutal hazing ritual known as "Crossing Bus C" that killed a drum major was convicted Friday of manslaughter and felony hazing.
Dante Martin, 27, was the first to stand trial in the November 2011 death of 26-year-old Robert Champion aboard a band bus parked outside a football game where the well-regarded Marching 100 band had performed. The case brought into focus the culture of hazing in the band, which was suspended for more than a year while officials tried to clean up the program.
Martin was known as "the president of Bus C," witnesses testified, and he organized the initiations that required fellow band members to try to make their way through a pounding gauntlet of fists, drumsticks and mallets from the front of the bus to the back, including on that November day. Two other band members went through the bus before Champion, who was from Decatur, Georgia. Martin was convicted of misdemeanor hazing counts in their beatings.
Champion's parents sat silently as the verdicts were read. Martin sat with his head down as several members of his family wept in the gallery behind him.
"No one won here today — no one," said Robert Champion Sr. "We hate to see anyone's child go to prison. To know that my son's life will not be in vain, that he will make a difference, I hope that people will get the message that hazing isn't cool. It doesn't work. It doesn't need to be here. You need to stop now."
The jury deliberated for about an hour before delivering its verdict.
Martin's sentencing was set for Jan. 9 and he was taken into custody immediately after the verdict. Manslaughter is punishable by up to 15 years in prison in Florida. The hazing conviction means he could spend up to 22 years in jail.
In the aftermath of Champion's death, the storied Marching 100, which had played at Super Bowls and before U.S. presidents, was suspended for more than a year, only starting to perform again at the beginning of the 2013 football season. Also, the university's former president, James Ammons, resigned and the band's director, Julian White, was fired before being allowed to retire.
Several other former band members have pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and three await trial. Former band member Jessie Baskin pleaded no contest to manslaughter in March and received a year in county jail. He is the only one of the previous defendants to receive jail time.
After the ritual, Champion complained of trouble breathing and vomited, then collapsed and died in a parking lot.
Like Champion's father, state attorney Jeff Ashton said he hopes Martin's conviction will serve to deter other from engaging in hazing. The university now requires all students to sign pledges not to haze others.
"That's why they (Florida lawmakers) passed the hazing statute in 2002, it was to say this process has got to stop," Ashton said. "It hasn't worked...I hope the message that gets across to anyone out there who is thinking of participating in these very dangerous activities is that if you do it, and something goes wrong, you're going to be responsible for it."
Defense attorneys told jurors the ritual was more akin to a competition and that there was no actual hazing. They said Champion and the others voluntarily took part.
"You can't take it in isolation and act like it was just any other band," defense attorney Richard Escobar said during closing arguments. "Brutal as it was, foolish as it was...it was competitive."
Escobar and his co-counsel Dino Michaels left the court room without commenting. But they told Judge Renee Roche they planned to file a motion for a mistrial before the January sentencing.
Ashton argued to jurors that the testimony made it clear that band members were looking for a measure of respect and acceptance by "crossing Bus C." But he challenged the defense's argument.
"Tradition didn't kill Robert Champion," Ashton said. "Tradition isn't to blame. Tradition is not an excuse...It's not a defense to those that got caught."
Champion's parents still have a wrongful death lawsuit pending against the university after settling with the charter bus company.
Champion's mother, Pam Champion, said she would not be celebrating Friday's verdict.
"Right now I don't have any tears," she said. "But those tears — and they will come I guarantee you— will not only be for my son, but for that young man (Martin) because of what was done to alter his mindset.
"That's sad, because of the things that happened and what was allowed to occur."
SAN DIEGO (AP) — A Mexican judge has ordered the immediate release of a jailed U.S. Marine veteran who spent eight months behind bars for crossing the border with loaded guns.
Family spokesman Jonathan Franks told The Associated Press on Friday that the judge decided to release retired Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi (Tah-mor-EE-si).
Franks said the judge released him without making a determination on the charge against him.
The family issued the following statement: "It is with an overwhelming and humbling feeling of relief that we confirm that Andrew was released today after spending 214 days in Mexican Jail."
The 26-year-old Florida man said he got lost on a California freeway ramp that sent him across the border with no way to turn back. His long detention brought calls for his freedom from U.S. politicians, veterans groups and social media campaigns.
In Mexico, possession of weapons restricted for use by the Army is a federal crime, and the country has been tightening up its border checks to stop the flow of US weapons that have been used by drug cartels.
His attorney, Fernando Benitez, says Tahmooressi carries loaded guns with him because his weapons, which were bought legally in the U.S., make him feel safer. He is often distracted, which could have contributed to him becoming lost, Benitez said.
Still, Mexican prosecutors say Tahmooressi broke the law, and they have denied claims by his attorney that he was held for about eight hours without a translator before authorities notified the U.S. Consulate.
But a psychiatrist hired by Mexican prosecutors to examine the Afghanistan veteran agreed with the defense that he should get PTSD treatment in the United States, noting in a Sept. 30 report that Tahmooressi, who now serves in the Marine reserve, feels like he is constantly in danger.
Tahmooressi did not admit wrongdoing, and he still maintains his innocence, his attorney said.
His mother, Jill Tahmooressi, has said her son's time in a Mexican jail has been worse than his two tours in Afghanistan.
Tahmooressi left Florida for San Diego in January to get help after dropping out of college, unable to concentrate or sleep, his mother said.