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'Presumed Guilty' sheds light on failures of Mexico's justice system

August 19, 2010 |  5:21 pm

Presumed guilty abogados con camaras

In late 2005, a young street vendor in the crowded Iztapalapa borough of Mexico City was picked up by police, hauled to jail, and told: "You did it."

Just like that, Antonio Zuniga was accused of the murder of a man he had never met. No physical evidence implicated him in the death, and multiple witnesses saw him elsewhere at the time of the killing. Yet, in Mexico's Kafkaesque criminal justice system -- where police are pressured to slap charges on anyone in order to secure convictions -- Zuniga was presumed guilty from the start.

There are no jury trials in Mexico, so a judge found the 26-year-old rapper and break dancer guilty and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Just like that, his life screeched to a halt.

Zuniga might still be wrongly incarcerated were it not for the efforts of a lawyer couple carrying video cameras, Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete. Struck by luck time and again, they found a tiny procedural error that allowed Zuniga to get a retrial. The presiding judge allowed the two to record the proceedings. The result is the 2009 documentary "Presumed Guilty," a stirring and often shocking examination of the built-in failures in Mexican justice.

The documentary premiered internationally at last year's Toronto Film Festival and in Mexico at the Morelia Film Festival, where it won the best documentary award and left moviegoers cheering or in tears. Last month a shortened version of the film began airing on PBS stations in the United States. Now, the filmmakers tell La Plaza, talks are underway to secure a wide release of the film on Mexican screens, which could happen as soon as this winter. 

Hernandez, reached this week at UC Berkeley where he and Negrete are working toward doctorates in public policy, said it is essential that everyday viewers in Mexico are exposed to the film.

"Civil society is putting pressure on the wrong places," Hernandez said. "Civil society wants the death penalty and wants the crime surge to stop. Whenever a judge releases someone from prison, they automatically presume the person is guilty and that there was some corruption."

He added: "Anyone who sees this film will realize they have some misconceptions about justice in Mexico."

Hernandez and Negrete have worked for a decade for justice reform in Mexico, first conducting surveys of inmate populations in Mexico City for the research center CIDE. Their findings were astounding: 93% of prisoners never saw an arrest warrant, 92% of charges are based solely on witness testimony and without physical evidence, 95% of trials end in guilty verdicts, and 71% of inmates are fed by their  families.

When they presented their findings before prosecutors and judges in Mexico, Hernandez and Negrete found their data were met with skepticism. "It's the normal reaction from a world not accustomed to statistics," Hernandez said. "People tend to remember more salient events or the rare events than the routine. It was scary, that they didn't trust any of this."

So the lawyers decided to pick up video cameras. They first produced a short documentary titled "The Tunnel," which galvanized media and political support for a judicial reform movement in Mexico. In April 2006, as the two were "packing our boxes leaving for Berkeley," Hernandez and Negrete got a phone call. A relative of Zuniga's had seen the lawyers in the news and pleaded with them to take on Zuniga's case.

The pair "decided to get involved right on the spot," Hernandez said. "The first thing I filmed were the eyewitnesses in the marketplace."

In the tense and violent climate of Mexico's drug war, President Felipe Calderon signed a judicial reform package in June 2008 that toughened some aspects of the justice system but, crucially, made presumption of innocence replace presumption of guilt. The filmmakers behind "Presumed Guilty," however, say implementation is slow, and many more people like Zuniga are languishing in prison unjustly.

Zuniga was acquitted by an appeals court and released from the bleak and overcrowded Reclusorio del Oriente prison in April 2008, after 842 days behind bars. But the viewer gets the sense from watching the film that his freedom would not have been won without the presence of video cameras and dogged lawyers. The realization is chilling.

"Last time I saw him was at my daughter's birthday party a couple months ago," Hernandez recalled. "We broke a pinata together. Sometimes I see it, and I think, 'I can't believe we pulled it off.' "

 -- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Judge Hector Palomares during the retrial for Antonio Zuniga, seen behind the window and bars. Credit: Abogados con Camaras

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