On January 22, the Mexican Supreme Court (SCJN) freed Florence Cassez, a French citizen imprisoned since 2005 on kidnaping and related charges. The court could not decide her guilt or innocence because of numerous errors in her arrest and trial.
On the same day, Mexico’s attorney general said there was no evidence to support criminal charges against a group of high-ranking army officers accused of having ties with drug traffickers.
Also in January, citing lack of evidence, authorities dropped their investigation of most of the 57 stray dogs detained for the murder of five people in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City.
In the town of Ayutla, Guerrero, 52 suspects captured by townspeople in the area face trial under local “uses and customs” because state and municipal officials had failed to protect these towns from depredations by criminal bands.
What these otherwise unrelated cases have in common is that they are products of a police and justice system that at times invents its own reality and at other times disappears altogether.
Florence Cassez was convicted of participating in various kidnappings by the Zodiacs gang led by her boyfriend Israel Vallarta. She was sentenced to 96 years. Seven years later, he has yet to be charged.
Genaro García Luna, former President Felipe Calderón’s then chief of the Public Security Secretariat (SSP), filmed a staged version of his elite Federal Investigative Agency (AFI) freeing kidnapped victims and arresting Cassez and Vallarta. The television duopoly of Televisa and TV Azteca showed the faked operation as though it were a news event unfolding in real time.
Cassez served seven years of her sentence, now reduced to 60 years, before the Supreme Court freed her. The five-member panel unanimously found that the case against her was contaminated from the outset by the phony arrest, the denial of her right of access to a French consular representative, contradictory testimony of witnesses and victims and other irregularities. A majority then voted to free her.
There also was considerable evidence, ignored for seven years, that the kidnapping itself was faked. Statements by the Zodiacs’ ringleader Vallarta and two witnesses suggest that one of the victim’s family arranged the kidnapping and that Garcia Luna filmed the fictitious arrest scene to pump up his reputation as a crime fighter.
Later, García Luna’s elite police were celebrated in the professionally acted police procedural El Equipo (The Team), a short-lived television series partly financed by Televisa and partly by an undisclosed amount of taxpayer money.
There are demands for a congressional investigation of García Luna’s role in the Cassez scandal though the demands are fast becoming fainter. Despite a long list of accusations against him, including claims that he had taken cartel money in return for offering protection to drug traffickers, García Luna is now living in Miami attending to his investments. His protector Felipe Calderón, whom many Mexicans would consider a fugitive from justice, is discussing leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
There are reports that Calderón pressured the Supreme Court to let the conviction stand. According to one such report, Supreme Court minister Arturo Zaldívar admitted that the Calderón administration had tried to influence him and other ministers to keep Cassez in prison.
The court’s ruling forced an uncomfortable reality into the open. If the case against Cassez could be thrown out because of human rights violations and denial of due process, what about the thousands of Mexicans imprisoned by the same incompetent, corrupt and dysfunctional system?
Even to those who still think Cassez really is a kidnapper, the sleazy affair has become an indictment against institutional perversity: the high officials who pursued the case; the succession of jurists who ignored how it was pursued; the television duopoly that substituted theater for news; and the journalists who tried the case by punditry.
Wrestling with the logic of the Cassez ruling, some political analysts are having a hard time distinguishing between presumption of innocence and impunity. An editorial in the Mexico City daily La Jornada illustrates the point:
“…with the decision to grant unconditional liberty to the French citizen, the SCJN rewards impunity and undermines the rights of the victims to justice. Taken to the extreme, the reasoning of the court could lead to the freeing of Florence Cassez’s accomplices because they … also suffered abuses of their individual guarantees and of due process.”
Furthermore, said the editorial, because of the system’s characteristic violations of human rights and manufactured suspects, the Supreme Court could free much of the prison population.
The court’s unexpected burst of concern for due process has people all over Mexico tying themselves into mental knots. Should Cassez have served her 60 years while, in the interest of consistency, thousands of others similarly convicted would have to remain in their cells? Or would it be better to empty prisons of all those — guilty or not — who were improperly treated in order to justify freeing Florence Cassez?
Despite the court’s decision, polls show that overwhelming majorities of Mexicans think Cassez is guilty but that is no doubt because her guilt was established in the public mind from the outset by official manipulation. The Supreme Court simply does not have the credibility to be believed even when it experiences an occasional fit of fastidiousness about due process.
Furthermore, the court has done nothing about impunity. High officials caught red-handed are allowed to keep their pilfered fortunes or are banished to Paris as ambassadors. Some disappear from the public eye for a time only to be brought up out of the cellar of temporary oblivion to serve again in high office.
Generals in jail
Another of Calderón’s achievements that blew up after he left office is the arrest of the narco-generals.
In 2012, retired Gen. Tomás Ángeles Dauahare, once undersecretary of Nation Defense (Sedena), and five other high-ranking army officers were detained on charges of cooperating with drug traffickers.
Ángeles Dauahare was accused of giving protection to the Sinaloa cartel and the proof against him was that he met with cartel leaders in Mexico City in July 2008. When his lawyers pointed out that the general was not in Mexico on that date prosecutors changed the date to July 2007. Prosecutors also said he had dealings with the cartel’s notorious Édgar Valdés Villarreal (“La Barbie”), arrested in 2010. But La Barbie never corroborated the accusation.
The case against the officers began with an anonymous phone call to the government agency investigating organized crime and went downhill from there. Prosecutors never presented any real evidence although they said there was some that could not be divulged.
The officers were initially detained under a law to combat organized crime. It permits the state to hold suspects for 40 days without charges while prosecutors look for evidence to arrest them. The process, known as arraigo, is being reconsidered under the new administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Jesús Murillo Karam, Peña Nieto’s attorney general, informed a federal judge on January 23 that he had insufficient evidence to try the officers since the testimony of protected witnesses in the cases could not be corroborated. Defense attorneys expect the court to dismiss the cases.
Like the Cassez case, the arrest of the officers was apparently based on fabricated evidence and unreliable witnesses. There are also some indications that the officers were victims of conflicts within the military created or exacerbated by Calderón’s bloody narco war that drew the military into police work and the inevitable violations of human rights. The army has clearly lost some of its long-respected political neutrality.
Both this and the Cassez cases fell apart soon after Peña Nieto took office last December, not necessarily because he is more sensitive to matters of due process than Calderón, but because his first task as president is to avoid being associated with any of the spectacular failures of his predecessor. Just as Peña Nieto has downplayed Calderón’s overhyped and bloody strategy of direct military confrontation with the cartels, he has backed away from the little fights Calderon picked against smaller targets.
The murderous dogs
Mexico City police acted with unusual dispatch in a third criminal case involving feral dogs. After the discovery last December of five mutilated corpses in the Cerro de la Estrella Park in Iztapalapa, police acted swiftly and efficiently to round up 57 stray dogs living in the park who were suspected of having killed and partially eaten the victims. Forensic examination of dog hairs found on some of the victims was insufficient to establish guilt.
Pet owners and animal rights organizations objected that police had not considered that the victims might have died the way countless Mexicans do — from assaults by humans. People living near the park said assaults occur there all the time and some said the victims might have been sacrificed in satanic rituals said to be conducted by humans in the unpatrolled ecological preserve. Relatives of one victim told a reporter from the Spanish daily El País that the body showed cuts, not bites.
Accompanying one newspaper report was a picture of a canine suspect, a small floppy-eared dog singularly unconvincing as a vicious predator. Such pictures and stories about Satan cost police some credibility.
The case provoked considerable sympathy for the suspects and little for the police. Questions were raised as to whether feral dogs normally eat people as opposed to garbage. Some suggested that the police centered their attention on stray dogs because they at last had found suspects who had no rights to violate.
Three of the 57 dogs originally detained remain under investigation as of mid-February. Animal rights groups staged a march in downtown Mexico City on February 3 protesting the continued detention of the 54 presumed innocent. For those dogs, the arraigo has lasted longer than 40 days.
José Luis Carranza, president of the one of the animal rights organizations, said authorities reneged on their promise to release the dogs for adoption and instead were trying to substantiate their theory that the dogs killed and chewed up the victims – canine packs as a new form of organized crime.
“They want to clear up all the homicide cases they have not been able to solve by blaming them on three dogs,” he said.
This is probably unfair to the police since an autopsy report released February 7, shows there is evidence of fatal canine bites. Authorities now say the three suspects are most likely Australian dingoes. Unfair or not, truth has become a casualty of incredulity.
According to animal protection groups, there are 50,000 stray dogs in Iztapalapa and similar numbers in each of Mexico City’s 15 other districts. There have been demonstrations, demands for canine justice, the familiar accusations of incompetent police work and a new interest in pet sterilization and adoption campaigns.
The latest reports say a survivor of the dog attack may yet identify the assailants. Some dog in the Iztapalapa case then could become a canine Florence Cassez, leaving Mexicans again to wonder if justice has been served or abused?
Credibility in doubt
Underlying much of what happens daily in Mexico is uncertainty; the inability to believe anything that comes out of its institutions. Even if it tried to do the right thing in the Cassez case, the Supreme Court has been damaged – damaged worse if you believe dark forces were behind the decision.
Peña Nieto began his presidency without much legitimacy after a campaign notorious for massive vote-buying; therefore, he is the most likely to become suspect in future justice system grotesqueries and just as likely to take an interest in quieting public outrage with occasional exercises in due process.
The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), which has the juridical authority to certify elections, is currently dribbling away what little credibility it had after its hardly credible certification of Peña Nieto’s July 2012 election victory. Finding nothing amiss in Peña Nieto’s gargantuan spending and openly contrived accounting techniques, IFE levied a record fine against – not him but against his chief opponent, the center-left candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. IFE claimed he had exceeded spending limits in a campaign notable for its economy-class travel.
There are other examples of an advancing decomposition in the Mexican justice system. There is the system’s failure properly to compensate most of the 44,000 workers left jobless when Calderón destroyed the government’s Luz y Fuerza del Centro, the electric company serving Mexico City.
A lower court first ruled the action illegal and declared that the government-owned Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), which took over serving Mexico City, also had to take over Luz y Fuerza’s obligations toward its workers as their “substitute employer.” This would have meant their union (SME) still had the right to negotiate on behalf of its members, 16,000 of whom had rejected the severance package they were originally offered.
Calderón’s motive for destroying Luz y Fuerza is widely assumed to have been the destruction of the powerful SME, which had blocked privatization of Luz y Fuerza and the transfer of its valuable fiber optic lines to a Spanish firm in which some of Calderón’s cronies have an interest.
During the same month the Supreme Court freed Florence Cassez, it reversed the lower court ruling on the CFE, deciding that the company had not inherited any obligations toward the union after all and therefore, had no responsibility toward the jobless workers of Luz y Fuerza.
Lynching and self-defense forces
Observers in the United States sometimes speculate on whether Mexico is a failed state, but less attention has been given to failed communities. The disintegration of state powers is especially evident in the deterioration and even disappearance of justice in remote communities.
Entire towns in Mexico are without adequate police protection. Endemic police corruption has led to the practice of administering background and competency checks, which large numbers of police flunk, further weakening public security. Some towns with police protection are often no better off than with it.
Among these are communities that resort to spontaneously rounding up and lynching suspects. Sometimes the suspects die from beatings and sometimes by fire, and sometimes the absent police show up to take the live ones off to the nearest magistrate. Whether the suspects are actually processed and sentenced is never certain since only a small fraction of reported crimes are resolved.
Dozens of communities in the area known as La Costa Chica in the western state of Guerrero are experimenting with community-based volunteer police forces (fuerzas comunitarias) made up of townspeople wearing balaclavas and carrying small-caliber rifles and shotguns.
Typically, the fuerzas comunitarias set up roadblocks at the entrances to their towns and occasionally drive off the police or soldiers sent to disband them.
Government human rights commissions declare the process of popular justice unconstitutional but have no remedies to the problem of absent or perverted justice.
Perhaps it proves intelligence on the part of Guerrero state authorities or perhaps their helplessness, but there is a process underway to legitimize the fuerzas comunitarias and their application of popular justice. Guerrero Governor Ángel Aguirre recently announced a decree giving legitimacy to the self-defense forces under a law that recognizes traditional indigenous rights, thus removing some of the taint of vigilantism.
Bruno Plácido Valerio, head of the Union of Peoples and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG) said, “Government authorities in Guerrero have been overwhelmed by the wave of violence and impunity, therefore society has taken over to reestablish peace and order under the principle that sovereignty resides in the people and not in the representatives of institutions.”
In Ayutla, 52 suspects detained in nearby towns will be tried by a Popular Tribunal according to local “uses and customs.”
If nothing else, the community police and popular courts of Guerrero dramatize what a failed state, or one in which the justice system is nonexistent, would actually look like if you were living in one.
Robert Sandels lives in Mexico and writes for Cuba-L Direct and CounterPunch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.