Mar 9, 2011

Presunto Culpable/Presumed Guilty

I just saw the harrowing Mexican documentary Presumed Guilty online.
You can watch it, and should watch it here.
If you are in Mexico, buy a ticket and see it at a theater. Bring everybody with you. Every Mexican citizen needs to see this film. And every Mexican citizen needs to demand intelligent and immediate reforms to the legal system.
By following just one case of a man falsely convicted of murder, this film shows that there is absolutely no justice or legality in Mexico. Watch this film and you will feel you are falling into a darkest rabbit hole of byzantine lies. 
Presunto Culpable reminded me of Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line. Every Mexican citizen knows that the legal system in Mexico is something to dread, but until you actually hear the story of one man, see his face, the smug faces of the judge and the prosecutor, until you see the mother, sisters, wife of the accused -- it's out of sight, out of mind. Whoever has money can buy themselves their freedom, those who can't are in jail.
Reforms are planned to introduce the novel concept of presumption of innocence in Mexico by 2016. Right now, the presumption is of guilt. The accused needs to prove his innocence; the accusers need not prove culpability. This is beyond barbaric. The trial process is worse than anything Kafka could have imagined. The prosecutor always wins the cases because the file they prepare with the police is considered incontrovertible evidence. Furthermore, physical evidence is not sought to prove culpability. Witnesses supply testimony. In a land of corrupt cops and judges, you can only imagine what this means. The movie gives some horrifying statistics: something like 95% of the accused are convicted.
One of the reasons why the system has not been scrapped may be that the police are too lazy to do their jobs. Investigating a crime and gathering evidence is hard work, but scouring the streets for people to falsely accuse is a breeze. But I suspect something deeper. Mexicans live in such a corrupt country that their default mode is suspicion and cynicism. They are not used to facts and evidence and questioning. This evil, bizarre system, which has been in place for centuries, is a manifestation of this dark side of the national psyche. Nobody believes anybody. Everybody suspects everybody. Everybody is out to get you.
Watch this film and you may be inclined to feel the same way. Mexicans know full well that they are on their own, because if anything happens to them, whether guilty or innocent, they have no legal recourse. The law is against them either way. A judge is shown beyond a doubt that evidence was fabricated and this does not change his mind. He is either saving face or in cahoots with the cops. Or, he believes in a power stronger than evidence and reason. He believes in distrust.
The movie claims that reforms are planned, but now they include a statute in which people can be held for up to 80 days without any proof of wrongdoing! This is insane.
I guess this is to give time to bad detectives to build cases and malignant bureaucrats to type the reams of capitalized, baroque verbal diarrhea they type to collect their wages. Millions of Mexicans make a living through a monstrous bureaucracy whose last interest is to stop the hundreds of thousands of tons of paperwork it produces.
Beyond the atrocious facts, no mortal can possibly fathom the antiquated, obtuse and florid legal language of the courts. The protagonist of the movie, Toño, is a smart man. At one point he asks the prosecutor (probably currently the most hated bitch in Mexico) to explain to him in language that a normal person can understand, why she considers him guilty, when all the evidence points to the contrary. I think her cynical response is: because it's my job.

Presunto Culpable is the biggest grossing documentary in Mexico (over $3.5 million dollars so far). Recently, it was pulled from theaters since the sole "witness" that testified asked a judge to ban it because he did not consent to being filmed. This is a kid with no education so I imagine someone more crafty told him to step forward and whine. An appellate court reversed the decision. This "witness", who was a minor when the police told him who to accuse, has not been charged with giving false testimony. The actual killer is presumably still at large and the judge and prosecutor who convicted on false evidence still have their jobs. What's more, the detective who planted culpability on an innocent man was promoted for his conduct.
As is usual, the contempt and disrespect of the Mexican government for its citizens is felt not only in the appalling law system, but in the realm of the day to day. There is no courtroom. There are no seats. Like every other government office in Mexico, the courts are a dump. The film claims that many convicts never even get to see their judge. In this case, after an appeal, the accused is brought in behind a narrow cage and he goes through a medieval ritual called a careo, a face off, where he is supposed to interrogate his accusers. The defense lawyer is barely allowed to ask any questions.
For years, the people who live off the maze of the penal-legal system in Mexico have inflicted their chaotic damage happily unimpeded. Nobody films them, nobody demands accountability, nobody even wants to know what goes on in there. But times have changed, and they haven't noticed that Mexican society today is evolving, while they remain mired in dangerously archaic processes and total impunity. They hide beyond massive webs of lies and brazen stubbornness, but it is clear that they are bewildered by the presence of cameras and of questioners. They have never had to explain themselves before.

Mexico should be ashamed of itself. It cannot call itself a modern country. It cannot call itself a functioning civil society as long as the legal system is not reformed. As long as this legal system is in place, it is a dump no better than Libya.
New technologies now allow people to bear witness to and produce evidence of  injustice, whether through a video camera, a cellphone, twitter or facebook. This is what hopefully will bring reform. As we have seen recently in the Arab world and in this powerful documentary, the powers that be are desperately hanging on to their archaic, corrupt systems and they try to suppress information, while citizens are using new tools to demand change. The whole world is watching.


  1. ¡Bravo! It helps to have citizens bring this important film and its message into the light, in English as well as Spanish. It takes courage, especially for those who are living here but also for you in the north. One thing this system has is a very long memory. I can not comment publicly without risking my visa, but I feel safe in saying that it is clear that reform is needed.

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