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LatAm in Focus: Shining a Light on Police Abuse in Mexico

Mexican police

A police officer in Mexico. (AP)

June 18, 2020

Underfunded defense services and overwhelmed systems. Mexico's judicial system has a long way to go, says expert Roberto Hernández, @PresuntoC. Get the latest on #LatAmFocus.
"There is positive change, but not enough in Mexico's criminal justice system...Mexico still has a long way to go." — Roberto Hernández, @PresuntoC, WJP senior researcher to @CarinZissis on #LatAmFocus

Earlier this month, as demonstrators across the United States took to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and to oppose police violence, Mexico was witnessing protests of its own.

On May 4, police detained a construction worker named Giovanni López just outside of Guadalajara because he wasn’t wearing facemask amid the coronavirus pandemic. He later turned up dead, his body showing signs of torture. While the types of bodycams that have frequently exposed police violence in the United States are not widely used in Mexico, López’s family had recorded a video of the police taking him and they released it to the public in hopes of speeding justice. The video went viral in early June, and protests erupted, primarily in Guadalajara and Mexico City. Three municipal police officers were arrested for the extrajudicial killing.

The case of Giovanni López drew attention to a problem in Mexico’s criminal justice system: police abuse is highly prevalent and rarely reported, let alone investigated. A 2019 World Justice Project (WJP) Report based on a survey of nearly 52,000 people found that only about 10 percent of cases of police torture get reported in Mexico, while nearly 8 in 10 prison inmates experience some form of violence or ill treatment at the hands of police. Torture—which can range from a bag over the head, to threats against family members, to electroshocks, to sexual violence—is frequently used to extract confessions.

“Mexico is using torture and ill treatment as investigative tools,” the report’s co-author and WJP Senior Researcher Roberto Hernández told AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis. Hernández also co-directed the Emmy Award-winning film Presunto culpable (Presumed Guilty). On top of being Mexico’s most-watched documentary to date, the film exposed why the country’s criminal justice system so frequently leads to the conviction of innocent people and, after its theatrical release nearly a decade ago, helped usher in a judicial reform.

“Mexico is using torture and ill treatment as investigative tools.”

Hernández, who is also a lawyer, says there has been some progress in conjunction with the reform. For example, the system has shifted from a point in which only 7 percent of inmates say a judge was present in the courtroom to hear a case to one being present in most cases. In addition, he cites the example of a municipality called Escobedo in the northern state of Nuevo León that implemented successful policing practices, right down to using bodycams when making traffic stops, that reduced abuses. “I think it’s going to be these small examples of, if you will, islands of integrity that could set forth positive change and prove that it is possible to make these things happen in Mexico,” says Hernández.

But, in the meantime, there is a lot of room for progress, from strengthening the public defense system to implementing a recommendation from Mexico’s human rights commission for police forces to use bodycams across the country. “The main problems, the persistent problems of Mexico’s criminal justice system are still there—the use of torture and ill treatment, the overuse of eyewitness testimony…the overuse of confessions,” says Hernández. “Mexico still has a long way to go.”



Luisa Leme produced this episode. The music in this podcast was performed at Americas Society in New York. Learn more about upcoming concerts at musicoftheamericas.org.