Mexico’s "guilty until proven innocent" justice system is failing the nation
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Mexico’s "guilty until proven innocent" justice system is failing the nation

Following their arrest in a grimy, working-class borough of Mexico City early Tuesday morning, the fugitive former mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, will now face justice.

They stand accused of ordering the abduction of the 43 students who disappeared outside the town of Iguala in the southern state of Guerrero on September 26.

The negative publicity caused by the case and the immense pressure on the government to solve the crime mean the suspects are likely to be tried sooner than many defendants are in Mexico, where the judicial process can be painfully slow.

But when they do stand trial, there will be no jury to decide whether or not they are guilty, and the judge will hear no verbal testimony from prosecutors, witnesses or the accused.

Instead, as is the norm in Mexico, the judicial process will consist almost entirely of written evidence submitted to a judge who will then singlehandedly determine the outcome of the trial.

Guilty until proven innocent

As the 2008 documentary Presunto Culpable (Presumed Guilty) illustrated, the Mexican justice system is deeply flawed. Not only are defendants deemed guilty until they can prove their innocence, but investigations are often shoddy at best, while police and prosecutors are easily corrupted.

Presunto Culpable detailed the case of a Mexico City market vendor who was wrongfully convicted of murder and given a 20-year prison sentence based on the flimsiest of evidence. The defendant’s conviction was eventually overturned — only after the filmmakers persuaded a judge to watch their footage.

Another judge tried to ban the film, but it was eventually released in 2011 and quickly became the most successful documentary in Mexican history.

In June 2008, Mexico’s Congress passed long-overdue reforms to the criminal justice system . The most significant change was the introduction of oral trials in which judges will hear evidence from the defense and the prosecution.

Mexico’s 31 states have until June 2016 to adopt the new procedures, but only 12 states have reportedly done so to date.

The hope is that fairer and more open trials will “increase due process and accountability in a country where the much-publicized arrests of cartel bosses are common, but the actual convictions of criminals are not,” the New York Times reported in 2012, noting that just two percent of crimes committed in Mexico result in convictions.

And even when defendants are convicted, that does not necessarily mean they were guilty, especially when many of them do not have access to anything remotely resembling a fair trial.

A 2012 survey by Mexico’s CIDE university found that 43 percent of prisoners jailed for drug crimes did not have a lawyer present when they presented their testimony before the public prosecutor’s office; 44 percent said their lawyer did not explain to them what was happening during the trial and 51 percent said their attorneys did not give them any advice.

Victims tortured into confessing

All too often in Mexico, innocent people – predominantly from the poorer and more vulnerable sectors of society – are arrested as scapegoats and tortured into making confessions when the authorities deem it politically convenient to close a case quickly.

This happened to 31-year-old Rogelio Anaya, who was arrested in August 2010 and tortured into telling the press that he had carried out a car bomb attack that killed three people in Ciudad Juárez. The charges against Anaya were eventually dropped and he is now suing the Mexican authorities.

That case was far from unique. The government recently apologized to 66-year-old Ananías Laparra Martínez, a resident of the poor southern state of Chiapas, who was jailed for 12 years after being tortured into confessing to a crime he did not commit.

Elsewhere, Oscar Valle, a 37-year-old pharmacist, was detained and tortured at a military base in Veracruz in September 2011 until he agreed to sign papers admitting links to organized crime. Valle was eventually acquitted and released in July 2013, but many similar cases remain unresolved.

Ángel Colón, an undocumented migrant from Honduras, was beaten and tortured by police and army officers in Baja California in 2009. He was charged with belonging to a criminal gang on the basis of a statement he was forced to make and remains in prison awaiting trial.

Narcos can still beat the system

Mexico’s wealthy criminal elite can often find means of evading justice, whether through bribery or by hiring expensive lawyers capable of exploiting loopholes in the law.

The nation’s most powerful kingpins pay out millions in return for protection from corrupt officials, while even those who end up in prison have been known to continue subverting the system.

When he was first incarcerated from 1993 to 2001, Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán continued to run his operations from behind bars and had regular access to alcohol, drugs and prostitutes at the maximum-security Puente Grande prison, where he is thought to have had almost the entire prison staff on his payroll prior to his escape.

Guzmán was eventually recaptured earlier this year, but the deep cracks in Mexico’s justice system were exposed again on August 9, 2013, when his former mentor Rafael Caro Quintero was quietly released from Puente Grande in the middle of the night.

Having served just 28 years of his 40-year sentence for masterminding the kidnapping, torture and murder of a DEA agent in 1985, Caro Quintero was released under suspicious circumstances on a legal technicality.

The Mexican government soon ruled that he had been wrongly released and the DEA furiously called for his recapture, but the aging fugitive had long since disappeared.

The message the incident left was clear: those with money and influence can still escape justice in Mexico.