Exposing Mexico's Poisoned Justice System

Exposing Mexico's Poisoned Justice System

How can a system work when there are no incentives for it to do so? That is the basic dilemma confronting reformers of the Mexican justice system. For years, police, prosecutors and judges in Mexico have known that they don’t have to find and punish people who have actually committed crimes to create an illusion of law and order; just filling the jails will do.

The award-winning documentary Presumed Guilty, which airs on PBS on July 27, 2010, exposes the disturbing contradictions of the Mexican justice system.  It follows two attorneys as they attempt to prove the innocence of a young man wrongfully accused of murder, taking the viewer behind the scenes into Mexico’s prisons and courtrooms, as well as into the lives of the defendant’s family and friends.

The judge and prosecutor rush to convict an innocent man, willfully ignoring the overwhelming evidence that should set him free. When the prosecutor is asked why she continues to pursue this case against the wrong man,  she chuckles and responds: “because it’s my job.”

These attitudes must be challenged.

Presumed Guilty is an eye-opening film for all those calling for harsher sentences and fewer protections in a system that is all too willing to go through the motions of justice, while incarcerating innocent people and allowing criminals to go free.

Mexico’s continued struggle with crime has been wrongly blamed on “light” sentences and “too many rights” for the accused. Yet it is the lack of checks and balances, and the widespread reliance on scapegoats, that poisons Mexico’s justice system. In the absence of genuine investigations, criminals can safely assume that unless caught red-handed, they will not be prosecuted. Meanwhile, people who are innocent and vulnerable take the blame.

Presumed Guilty has been lauded at film festivals, and the producers are now seeking to convert the buzz into real  reform of the Mexican justice system.  The Open Society Justice Initiative Global Campaign for Pretrial Justice supports this film as part of the “Presumption of Innocence” project in Mexico, and I encourage you to watch it on PBS this month (check local listings).

To learn more about the flaws in pretrial justice in Mexico and potential solutions to these problems, you can go to the Presumption of Innocence project website, as well as the film’s website and Facebook page.

The Mexican people and victims of crime deserve better; this documentary and project are steps towards building a better,  more accountable system.

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The film captures the tragic consequences of a burocratic approach to administering justice that limits debate and access compromising the transparency of the system.
But even more importantly it leads you to ask questions that go to the core of the problem: why the unquestioning deference to authority even when reason dictates otherwise. Put another way, what are the real considerations of those involved in justice administration in Mexico.
A judge once told me, "I dont do justice, I apply the law". In the film the prosecutor just shrugs and says she is doing her job. What do these perspectives reflect?
Answering this question could well be the key to actually achieving an improved administration of justice in Mexico.

Dear Jan,
This is a very thoughtful question. I wonder what others think about it. From my point of view there are two large forces at work (among other factors). First is the general frustration with the high level of violence and criminality in Mexico. Regular citizens feel that the guilty are not being punished and push for a harsher justice system in response. Unfortunately, as we can see, this creates more problems than it solves because a heavy-handed justice system lacks the ability to distinguish the guilty from the innocent and the incentives to do the long hard work that it takes to build a case against a “narco” or a kidnapper. All that brute force gets directed at low-impact, petty crimes.

A second reason I can identify is this sense – by both politicians that support a blunt, harsh and inefficient justice system and the people who vote for them – that “this doesn’t concern me”. The average middle-class Mexican still believes that they could never find themselves falsely accused; therefore protecting the rights of the accused is not needed. I think this view gets reinforced because wealthy, dangerous, famous, or otherwise powerful individuals are seldom arrested (or even investigated) and the perception is that only the poor or uneducated commit crimes or should be punished. This view misses the reality of sophisticated drug-trafficking and organized crime operations and the need for a system that is equally sophisticated and skilled at investigating to solve major high-impact crimes.

Any other opinions about the question that Jan poses?

Dear Jan,
Your question “what do these perspectives reflect” hits it right on the nail. Mexico faces a huge challenge in implementing its new criminal justice system; if its operators (Judges, Prosecutors, and Defenders) do not change their perspectives they will continue to apply the new system with their tradition notions. In the tradition written system defendants and victims are not the center of the criminal process or the subjects of rights but rather are voiceless bystanders in which the court file portrays their stories. The traditional system tries a written court file, whereas the new system attempts to humanize and give voice to the central actors by creating actual hearings in which they can present their stories directly to the judge. However, if the system’s operators continue to have the same perspectives and work as an assembly line mentality without questioning their practices, using discretion and giving voice to the defendants and victims, we will continue to have similar types of violations.

As one who has witnessed Mexico's poisoned justice system from the inside, and someone who continues to strongly believe that Mexicans can effect real change in their country, I urge everyone who cares about this issue (as the issue affects anyone who may ever step inside Mexico's borders) to:

1) Watch the movie on PBS or streaming online
2) Join the "Presumed Guilty" cause through their webpage, or any cause that works for transparency and justice (in Mexico or anywhere)
3) Think about ways large and small that you can make a difference. Visit a prison. Write your elected officials. Inventory your talents and apply them somewhere. There is so much need for hands on deck with work around this issue.

Behind every innocent person like Antonio Zuniga or like me, there are many, many more innocents who didn't get the attention needed for release. They may wake up every day with their freedom unjustly revoked, unless we pay attention. Unless we care enough to ask the questions and search for answers. Unless we decide to do something.

More than happy to exposed the justice of Mexico.
Is a petty , that Mexico is full of corruption.
Specially in the justice.
My lawyer Lic. Joaquin Ortega
He is one of the few lawyers fighting with the corruption of the system.
I took him time and courge.
But he won.

Unfortunately, for those who have been in touch with the Mexican system, we know for a fact that this is not an isolated case. The violation to due process rights has been systematic for years, as many research studies have proved. And yet, there is still a lot of people challengig the recent reforms to the criminal justice system which turns it in an adversarial model seeking, among others, transparency, accountability and, well, fairness.
Whether changing the inquisitorial system to a adversarial is not so much the issue (there is evidence of vicious practices withing the new systems, dragged from the old system) as the importance of "humanizing" a system based for so long in what a paper says.

Mexico’s criminal justice system is undergoing a historic reform attempting to establish an accusatorial model with the objective to attend to the due process violations the Presumed Guilty illustrates. The challenge on implementing the new justice system is to avoid the infiltration of practices from the traditional model. To that effect, let me point out some of the human rights violations present in Mexico’s traditional model – as shown in recent studies and presented in the film: 1) At the national level, over 80% of defendants never saw a judge, in some jurisdiction it is over 90% (law clerks and scribes in Mexico’s written system preside over court proceedings – which are not hearings – with the objective to create a court file that they will later read and prepare a written sentence for the Judge’s signature); 2. Around 90% of the convictions are based on a confession (in these cases, usually, the defendant’s “confession” is the only evidence in the court file; there are strong indicators that investigative police uses coercions, pressure and torture to extract confessions); 3. Over 50% of the defendants did not have an adequate defense; 4. Over 60% of arrest warrants are never executed; 5. Over 80% of the defendants were arrested “red-handed” (the Mexican concept of this type of arrest allows the police 48 or 72 hours window of opportunity to do so without a warrant, contravening international standards of “while committing a crime or in hot pursuit”); 6. Around 42-44% of defendants are in pretrial detention; 7. As a result, an individual that finds himself/herself in Mexico’s traditional criminal justice system in essence has to prove his/her innocence rather that the Prosecution prove his/her guilt.

The new criminal justice system, per the 2008 constitutional reform and that is now being implemented in 6 of the 33 Mexican jurisdictions, attends to change the legal concepts and practices that resulted in the violations cited above. Changing the law is not enough, creating a new system requires changing the legal culture, paradigms, and a total reengineering of its institutions (Courts, Prosecution, Defense, Public Safety, and Prison System).

Mexico is a fascist country ruled by a Harvard educated man who is destroying everything from unions-he puts out 45,000 families of SME, the most militant union,only for bizz with powerful monopoly Televisa's triple play; now accounts 30,000 people killed in the streets by paramilitary army us trained by Clinton in 1997, the powerful Zetas, now under the control of Blackwaters of Mr Bush; the unemployment rate is near 30%, the economy was down 20% using the same methodology of US for GDP; only in this year 3 millions of mexicans is crossing to US,the recent Hurracaine destroyed all the Northest of Mexico,border with TEXAS of Mr Bush, no one in US is trying to help millions of people that sooner of later will trying to cross to US because narco-money will rebuild this fragile economy, US is passive not using NADBANK in San Antonio to implement a development plan;the economic model was a copy of the ideas of U of Chicago, so this University is guilty of the GENOCIDE, the most important advisers of Mr Obama came from this University, so Mr Calderon will be a Genocide like Pinochet

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