For Mexican police, splashy arrests trump criminal convictions

McClatchy Newspapers

By Tim Johnson

MEXICO CITY — It all began with confusion over a name, and it still isn’t over for Aldo Christopher Granada Rivera. After eight months in a Mexican prison, he developed a facial tic and flinches at the sound of sirens.

Granada finally went free. But he’s one of many victims of Mexican law-enforcement officials’ practice of parading detainees in public “perp walks” and public news conferences, hoping to regain the trust of a citizenry besieged by organized crime.

Human rights officials say Mexican authorities have nabbed innocent people repeatedly and smeared them in front of television cameras to burnish their image as crime fighters. They demand an end to the practice.

“There’s a problem with a lack of confidence in the judiciary,” said Luis Gonzalez Placencia, the human rights ombudsman for the federal district of Mexico City. “It would improve if there were efficient police, and if prosecutors could win convictions.”

But many authorities prefer a triumph in the court of public opinion over a victory in a court of law.

“They’ve settled on having a big arrest in the media rather than on winning a conviction,” Gonzalez Placencia said.

With mounting regularity, security agents detain people they allege are drug lords, murderers or kidnappers, then call in reporters and photographers to display the detainees amid piles of weapons and ammunition, often sandwiched between ninja-looking hooded shock troops.

“It tips the scales of justice against a suspect before they even enter a courtroom,” said Nik Steinberg, a Mexico researcher at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group based in New York.

Few people snared in the web of criminal justice may seem as unlikely as Granada, a 30-year-old chemical engineer who saw his photo — taken from his driver’s license — on television on June 25, 2009, with the announcement that prosecutors considered him one of the capital’s most-wanted criminals. He knew only that the charges were serious. “I didn’t know whom I had supposedly killed,” he said.

He went into hiding and stayed there for months while advocates tried to find out more. After the birth of a daughter, he no longer could bear staying away from his wife, Yuriria Campos, their son and the newborn. He came home.

On Nov. 16, 2009, a commando unit intercepted him as he rode his bicycle.

“They pulled me aboard one of their cars. They never let me see their faces. They said they knew who I was,” Granada recalled. He was taken to the capital’s North Prison and thrown into a small cellblock with more than 20 other detainees.

It turned out that police thought that someone with his name belonged to a gang that had kidnapped a law student, collected a ransom, then dumped the student’s dead body.

The real culprit’s name was Aldo Christopher Granada Gonzalez, slightly different but similar enough that police thought they could pass him off.


Seeking justice, rather than just a warm body on which to pin blame, the victim’s father tracked the right man to Sinaloa state in Mexico’s northwest. After the man’s arrest, he, too, was thrown in North Prison.

The victim’s father went before the judge to explain the mistaken identity.

“He told the judge I wasn’t the right person,” Granada said.

Rather than seek to repair a travesty of justice, however, the judge kept both men in prison.

“She said, ‘I’m sorry but the legal process must continue,’ ” said Campos, Granada’s wife.

It would take another five months for Aldo Christopher Granada Rivera to regain his freedom, only to endure lasting damage to his reputation and psyche.

After seeing his photo splashed on television under the words “Most Wanted,” neighbors began to suspect that the entire Granada family was up to no good.

“We’ve been stigmatized,” Granada said. “We are branded as a family of murderers and kidnappers.”

Gonzalez Placencia, the capital ombudsman, said his office had identified 21 cases of people put through public “perp walks” or portrayed as criminals by law enforcement officials, only to be freed for lack of evidence.

“What’s bad is that these ‘perp walks’ create a public perception. The victims can’t defend themselves,” he said.

In cases where people are arrested by mistake, Gonzalez Placencia wants the state to publicize their release with the same vigor it uses to announce their arrests, and to offer compensation.

Mexico’s runaway violence — and public concern about safety — is the underlying reason for police enthusiasm at showing off alleged criminals and demonstrating headway against crime. Most citizens hold police and prosecutors in low regard.

A report issued this week by a public policy center, Mexico Evalua, found that only one in 10 Mexicans have much confidence in law enforcement.

The report says 80 percent of Mexican crimes go unsolved, including murders.

A blend of factors has led to the high-profile televised exhibition of alleged criminals, experts say, including news outlets eager for higher ratings, a public anxious for any improvement in security and a desire by all levels of government to show improvements in their battle against crime by capturing wanted criminals.

“There isn’t a sense of, ‘We need to prove that this person is guilty.’ It’s just a presumption of guilt,” said Eric L. Olson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington research institution.

Lawmakers addressed the issue of due process for detainees with a 2008 constitutional revision that established rights such as the presumption of innocence. But they’ve never enacted a criminal procedures code to put that presumption of innocence into day-to-day law.

The ambiguity, Olson said, is also apparent in public attitudes.

“On the one hand, people acknowledge that the system is unjust. On the other hand, they want quick and decisive justice against criminals, specifically against those behind the escalating violence in the country,” he said.

Television viewers tend to overlook the bruises on the faces of detainees, apparent signs of torture and coercion, or the scripted confessions they offer.

The tendency of police to stage arrests can backfire. The 2005 arrest of a Frenchwoman, Florence Cassez, has strained Mexico’s relations with France. A day after Cassez’s arrest, police staged a re-enactment and invited journalists from Televisa and TV Azteca to air it live. The journalists, who weren’t told that the arrest had taken place the day before, thought they were broadcasting the event.

That was only one of the irregularities that plagued the case of Cassez, who’s now serving a 60-year jail term for allegedly belonging to the Zodiacs kidnapping gang.

Even in cases where the innocent are freed after being snared in the criminal justice system, they pay a heavy price.

“They go back to their communities having been paraded around as members of a cartel or criminal gang,” said Steinberg, of Human Rights Watch. “They are punished by years of marginalization within their communities.”

Granada, who lost two years of his life to the police’s mistake over his identity, still faces battles. His efforts to obtain a document that declares him free of a criminal record — which is necessary to get a job _have become snarled in bureaucracy.

When he turns on the television and sees alleged criminals presented at police news conferences, it fills him with rage and irritation.

“I don’t believe it at all. I think it’s all made up,” he said.

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