MEXICO CITY — As Terry Mamalis and David Forsberg lay in the dark on the floor of the Mexican police van--bound, gagged, blindfolded, beaten, robbed, tortured and soaked with gasoline--the two New York tourists were certain they were about to die.
All they had done wrong, they say, was ask two men in uniform for directions.
It happened on Feb. 18--five weeks before the videotaped beating of illegal Mexican immigrants by Riverside County sheriff's deputies shocked many in the United States and provoked harsh protests from Mexico.
There is no videotape of what happened to Mamalis, 28, and Forsberg, 23, when they arrived at 2 that morning at Mexico City's international airport for a two-week vacation with Mamalis' mother. But the details of their story are recorded in sworn statements on file with the tourist division of Mexico City's police department, along with several other cases of alleged Mexican police brutality against U.S. citizens.
These victims--tourists, business people and, in one instance, a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball scout--all condemn the Riverside County beatings, but they say their stories are the flip side of the beatings saga.
U.S. and Mexican officials insist that such cases are exceptions.
"Most of the Americans who come to Mexico have no bad experiences," one U.S. official said. "The overwhelming majority have a great time, go home and save their money to come back."
Mexico City law enforcement authorities agreed.
"These are very isolated cases," said one official in the chief prosecutor's office.
But prosecutors here say they are treating all complaints of police brutality and corruption against U.S. citizens seriously. In a city where most foreign residents have at least one personal story about police corruption, the capital's attorney general has been cracking down on police criminals for more than a year and has dismissed more than 900 officers. More than a tenth of them are now jailed and charged with offenses ranging from bribery to brutality.
The issue was also covered in a recent agreement signed by U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Angel Gurria Trevino; that document specifically addressed police treatment of U.S. citizens in Mexico as well as of Mexicans in the United States.
Authorities from both countries say statistics of Mexican police attacks on U.S. citizens are meaningless. They concede that the overwhelming majority of victims are too terrified to file police reports; they just pack up and go home.
But the testimony of Mamalis and Forsberg--added to about half a dozen such complaints filed by U.S. citizens in the Mexican capital in the past year--underscores the anger and frustration of victims who came to Mexico solely to spend or invest money that would help the nation and its shattered economy.
"After this, I started thinking a lot about other people," Mamalis said, explaining why he is still pursuing his legal case months after his return home. "I thought, wow, we were at an international airport when this happened. We weren't walking down a dark alley or anything. This could happen to someone else if I don't do something about it.
"Then I started thinking: We, the United States, have given Mexico so much money to help them. And we're treated like this? I mean, I wasn't asking for the world. I was just asking for directions."
Mamalis said he and his friend were well aware of Mexico City's crime problem before they landed here; they had read the tourist warnings before they left Westchester County, N.Y. And Mamalis' mother had sent detailed instructions on how to catch a bus from the airport to Taxco, where she lives, so they could avoid the capital.
But no one had warned Mamalis and Forsberg to be wary of Mexican police corruption and brutality.
The U.S. State Department's latest official advisory on Mexico warns visitors that the economic crisis and soaring unemployment here "have led to an increase in street crime, especially in urban areas." It makes no mention, however, of Mexican police crime against U.S. citizens.
Minutes after the two young men cleared customs, they learned the hard way. They stepped out of the terminal, asked some uniformed security officers to point them toward the bus station and were told to go around the corner. The moment they did, a marked police van pulled up and several uniformed officers got out, Mamalis said.
"The next thing I know, my friend gets thrown right into the vehicle, I get hit over the head with a nightstick and they throw me in after him," Mamalis said in a telephone interview from New York. "Now we're in the Suburban van, we're locked in, and I'm getting clubbed over and over and over--all over my body."