Arrested in Mexico: Illegally Detained While Gangsters Go Free

Arrested in Mexico: Illegally Detained While Gangsters Go Free

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Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico – This week, four men were convicted for their role in the “Villa Salvarcar Massacre”, the now infamous case in which young people – mostly teenagers – gathered at a birthday party on the outskirts of Juarez on January 30, 2010, were gunned down by gangsters, leaving 15 dead and at least 10 seriously injured.

The popular and police presumption, however, is that another 16 gangsters involved in the mayhem remain at large.

In Mexico these days, many gangsters remain at large while tens of thousands of others while away in prison. The official estimate is that 96,000 such individuals are currently in detention – legally classified as “under preventive arrest,” – awaiting charge and trial and said to be under investigation. The majority of them have been in detention for longer than the 90-day limit established by Mexican law during which suspects can be detained without charge.

I Did It

Guadalupe Melendez, a woman in her late forties, knows all too well about this kind of detention. In February 2010, she spent days looking for her son, Israel Arzate Melendez, 26, a father of two. She searched the city’s hospitals and police stations after he disappeared. It turned out that her son, who used to make a living selling counterfeit CD’s, had been arrested four days after the Salvarcar Massacre. Guadalupe Melendez says that army officers apprehended her son—without notifying the family—and tortured him in an army garrison. She describes in detail the marks her son had on his body after being tortured.

“We presented witnesses [to the army] to prove that [my son] had no relation with the victims and that, on the day of the massacre, he was away from the scene. Still, he has been in jail for 17 months without a trial,’’ declares Melendez.

Under international law, honored at least in principle by Mexican law, any admission of guilt extracted under torture is invalid in a court of law. It is common knowledge, nonetheless, that most Mexican judges routinely ignore claims of torture.

Hundreds of claims of prisoner abuse are filed every day at state and local Human Rights Commission offices across the country.

“Anybody could become a victim… either from criminals or at the hands of the authorities. But your chances are higher of being made victim if you are poor. There are no rich people in Mexican jails,” says Imelda Marrufo, a lawyer who heads La Red de Defensoras Comunitarias (Community Legal Defense Network), a nonprofit agency that assists low-income families in Ciudad Juarez.

Beyond Reasonable Doubts

But even middle class citizens who lack political connections can become victims of a legal system that more often than not frees the guilty for a “fair amount of money,” and preys upon poor people. The entire premise of the high numbers of these detentions is to have scapegoats to trumpet the government’s alleged triumphs over organized crime.

Some of the detainees, like Miss Ana—an El Paso, Texas teacher accused a month ago by Mexican authorities of trying to smuggle two suitcases full of marijuana in the luggage compartment of her vehicle—remain in jail even after investigations find them innocent of the charges. In Miss Ana’s case, an independent investigation conducted by the DEA and the FBI has already concluded that she was a victim of “loading,’’ or “planting,”–the latest trend of gangs operating along the US-Mexican border in which drugs are placed into the vehicles and luggage of innocent and unknowing individuals who are crossing the border.

On the other hand, hundreds, perhaps thousands of perpetrators have been set free after victims of their crimes, fearing retaliation, dropped the charges, or unscrupulous judges declared “insufficient evidence,’’ and released the suspects with the help of overwhelmed prosecutors unable to present sufficient evidence of the charges.

A System in Crisis

The Mexican justice system’s problems have been well known by legal scholars for decades. Even current President Felipe Calderon promised to push for judicial reform at the beginning of his administration. Four years ago, Congress authorized modifications, most of them intended to speed up trials. To date, only a handful of states have adopted the changes. But to many legal experts the changes authorized by the legislative branch represent “mere patches,’’ to a system plagued with inefficiencies, and worse, outright corruption.

“The reality is that the justice reform promised by the executive and legislative powers has not been complete,’’ concluded a study by legal researcher Miguel Sarre, a scholar and member of a special council in charge of overseeing reforms.

International organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been calling attention to the host of problems in Mexico’s legal system, such as prison overcrowding, illegal detentions, torture and the disproportionate arrest of the poor and indigenous.

“There are many innocent people in jail with no means, or knowledge about how to defend themselves,’’ says Alberto Mendez, a priest who regularly visits the local central jail to “bring some hope,’’ to those incarcerated.

“Authorities claim that their goal is to rehabilitate individuals. But that is difficult to believe when you see that prisoners awaiting trial are forced to use a toilet as a table, to eat inedible food, and share a cell so tiny and crowded that one person can hardly sleep without sleeping on top of another.”