Skip to main content

In Mexico, guilty till proven innocent

By Maureen Meyer, Special to CNN
updated 10:06 AM EDT, Wed June 5, 2013
An inmate peers through the bars of a cell at the Federal District Penitentiary in Mexico City.
An inmate peers through the bars of a cell at the Federal District Penitentiary in Mexico City.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maureen Meyer: U.S. woman jailed in Mexico one of many caught in corrupt system
  • Meyer: Thousands arrested in drug wars on little evidence, and some tortured
  • Woman tricked into carrying heroin was raped, forced to sign confession, she says
  • Meyer: Mexico, "a factory for producing guilty people," needs new justice system

Editor's note: Maureen Meyer directs the Mexico program at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonprofit group promoting democracy and human rights in that region. Her work focuses on U.S.-Mexico security policies and their relation to organized crime-related violence, corruption and human rights violations in Mexico.

(CNN) -- The case of Yanira Maldonado brought international attention once more to the innocent people getting caught in Mexico's drug war.

Maldonado, a U.S. citizen and mother of seven children, was released late last week after spending more than a week in a prison in Nogales, Mexico, accused of trying to transport marijuana aboard a bus.

She and her husband, Gary, were returning on the bus from a family funeral in Sonora, Mexico, when soldiers at a military checkpoint stopped them. The passengers were told to get out so that the soldiers and an official from the public prosecutor's office could inspect it. She was arrested and handed over to the official because soldiers said marijuana was found under her seat -- conviction could have meant a minimum of 10 years in jail.

Maureen Meyer
Maureen Meyer

A surveillance video showing her boarding the bus with only her purse, blankets and two bottles of water apparently exonerated her.

Opinion: Shakedown 'justice' in Mexico

Unfortunately, not everyone is as lucky as Maldonado. The Washington Office on Latin America recently interviewed Rosa Julia Leyva Martinez, who described how one day in 1993 she decided to travel for the first time from her home state of Guerrero to Mexico City to buy some seeds for her plant nursery.

According to her video testimony, she was afraid of traveling alone, and some people from her town persuaded her to travel with them. Without her knowledge, she says they had her carry a bag with heroin through airport security.

She was blamed for the drugs and taken to police custody, where she says she was tortured and raped and forced to sign a confession. In jail, she learned to read, and the first thing she read was her conviction for drug trafficking for smuggling heroin, which sentenced her to 22 years in prison. She was released after nearly 11 years.

As the Mexican government has stepped up its efforts to combat drug trafficking, the number of people who have been detained and accused of crimes related to drugs has dramatically increased. But they must struggle to defend themselves with often poor, or no, legal representation.

A 2012 survey of the prison population by the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in eight of Mexico's federal prisons found that the majority of the prisoners, 60%, were in jail for drug crimes. Of these prisoners, more than 43% said that they did not have a lawyer present when they presented their testimony before the public prosecutor's office, 44% said their lawyer did not explain to them what was happening during the trial, and 51% said their attorneys did not give them any advice.

Just as telling is the small number of cases that are ever brought to trial.

Arizona mom released from prison
Young people go missing from bar
Yanira Maldonado speaks out from jail

The Washington Office on Latin America and Transnational Institute did a study on drug laws in Latin America, including Mexico. It found that during the first four years of the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderón -- whose term ran from 2006 to 2012 -- of the 226,667 detainees accused of a drug crime, 33,5000, or less than 15%, were ever sentenced.

This finding suggests that in the majority of cases, the evidence presented against the accused wasn't strong enough for charges to be filed, and of those, relatively few held up in court.

Mexico's justice system has a reputation for being rife with corruption -- with officials too often accused of negotiating with criminals or demanding or accepting bribes to set someone free. Indeed, Gary Maldonado said they demanded $5,000 to let his wife go.

According to the Mexican Ministry of the Interior's 2012 National Survey of the Criminal Justice System, 6% of the Mexicans surveyed had confidence in the justice system. Responders said the main problems were that criminals are not held accountable, the system is corrupt, the judicial process slow, and the service from public servants is poor.

In one high-profile case, 23 municipal police officers and two citizens from Tijuana, Baja California, were arrested in March 2009 and held under arraigo, a controversial pre-accusation detention period, while evidence was supposedly being gathered against them for alleged links to organized crime. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission documented that the agents were tortured during this detention period. Thirteen of the detained were released after spending almost a year and a half in jail; the rest were released after 3½ years, and the charges against them dropped.

The Mexican government has recognized the urgent need to change the country's criminal justice system. In 2008, important constitutional and legislative reforms were passed that could transform Mexico's legal system to an adversarial judicial model with oral trials.

This new system is very different from Mexico's traditional inquisitorial model, where most of the evidence is presented in written form to the judge and the proceedings take place largely outside of the public view. If fully put into place, the reforms should make the justice system more effective, efficient and transparent.

In his first few months in office, new Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has affirmed his commitment to implement fully the justice reform at the state and federal level.

It will be no small task. Five years after the constitutional reform went into effect, only three of Mexico's 32 states are working under the new system, and it is partially operational in only 10 others. In support, the United States has provided more than $100 million to help Mexico fully adopt the adversarial justice system and to address weaknesses in criminal justice institutions.

Last year, Mexican human rights defender Leopoldo Maldonado stated that the country's justice system had become a "factory for producing guilty people." Mexicans -- and indeed anyone accused of committing a crime in Mexico -- deserve better.

A full transition to an adversarial system is essential to bring criminals to justice, strengthen the rule of law and provide due process guarantees for the accused. Continued U.S. support is essential as more states and the federal government work to build the criminal justice system that Mexico desperately needs.

As in Yanira Maldonado's case, too many people in Mexico have been deemed guilty until proven innocent.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maureen Meyer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT