Mexico debates its no-bail policy for non-violent suspects
MEXICO CITY (AP) — In Mexico, a long list of non-violent crimes — such as home burglaries and cargo and fuel thefts — automatically result in pretrial detention, without bail or house arrest.
Mexico’s Supreme Court is expected to rule on this ‘no-lease’ policy soon, with some justices saying it violates international treaties that state pretrial detention should only be used in ‘exceptional’ cases to keep suspects to flee justice.
Suspects charged with murder and other violent crimes are rarely released on bail anywhere in the world. But in Mexico, the list of charges allowing a suspect to be detained pending trial has increased to 16, including abuse of authority, corruption and electoral crime.
Yet only two in ten people charged with a crime in Mexico are convicted. This means that of the approximately 92,000 suspects currently being held in cells awaiting trial, often with hardened criminals, around 75,000 will spend years locked up in Mexico’s overcrowded and dangerous prisons, without risk of conviction.
Trials in Mexico can last surprisingly long. Two men were recently released with ankle monitors after spending 17 years in prison while on trial for murder. Strangely, now that they have been sentenced, they are both absent while appealing.
One of them, Daniel García Rodríguez, said: “We are also concerned that nearly 100,000 Mexicans are being held in prison awaiting trial. They and their families are extremely poor, and the pretrial detention has made them even more vulnerable.
All of this results in many innocent people spending years in prison. Activists say a growing number of Mexicans are being forced to opt for some form of plea bargain simply because they are likely to spend more time in a cell trying to clear their name than they would s they were doomed.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has increased the number of crimes considered ineligible for bail and he has publicly called on the Supreme Court to no longer release people pending trial.
His administration argues that this would create additional pressure or threats on judges to accept bribes in exchange for the release of suspects, and would create a “revolving door” justice system in which suspects could get out of prison as soon as they are detained.
“This is to prevent them from fleeing justice, or attacking victims or threatening witnesses, or continuing to commit crimes or direct criminal activity,” a Home Office statement said. by urging the Supreme Court not to change the rules.
Deputy Interior Secretary Ricardo Mejía argued on Friday that because Mexican judges are so corrupt, “we wouldn’t just go back to the ‘revolving door,’ we would rather talk about open doors… when he there was a feeling that judges were releasing some criminals faster than they could be caught.
Activists say there is also the question of whether Mexico should lock people up for years only on police orders. The country’s police force are not known for their sophisticated investigative techniques and often keep suspects locked up on the faintest of suspicions while they try to build cases against them.
“What they’re doing is, ‘I’m going to arrest you first, then I’ll investigate you,'” said independent senator Emilio Álvarez Icaza, a former human rights official.
Luís Alejandro Chávez spent two years in prison awaiting trial for a murder he says he did not commit. The evidence against him? He had the same nickname – “El Potro” or “The Colt” – as a man from a neighboring state.
“Just to have a nickname, they can ruin someone’s life,” Chávez said in a documentary produced by the militant organization Renace (Reborn), which eventually came to his defense and got him released.
Chávez, like most suspects detained pending trial, had no money to pay for a private attorney, so he had to rely on one of Mexico’s underpaid and overworked public defenders, who often has to manage 300 cases at a time. Chávez said that after his first hearing he almost never saw the lawyer again.
Mexico does not have cash or real estate bond like the United States. Instead, for those he releases before trial, there are more than a dozen mechanisms to ensure they show up for court, ranging from electronic monitoring devices to confiscating passports to through periodic checks.
Chrístel Rosales, of the government watchdog group Mexico Evalua – Mexico Evaluates – said these measures have proven to be about 90% effective in ensuring people appear for trial, without the pain, cost and disruption of detention. of a person in prison.
Pretrial detention weighs heavily on women, Rosales said. About seven out of ten women in Mexican prisons are held awaiting trial, a figure that rises to nine out of ten in some states.
Drug cartel hitmen — the biggest culprits of violence in Mexico — are also not the main focus of pretrial detention, Rosales said. About 30% of those incarcerated awaiting trial are charged with house robberies, about 20% with domestic violence and 10% with low-level drug sales or possession.
Senator Álvarez Icaza calls mandatory pretrial detention “punitive populism,” designed to distract from the government’s failure to end violent crime.
López Obrador has been unable to reduce Mexico’s staggering homicide rate, but counters that holding more people in prison is a sign of success.
Álvarez Icaza calls it “an act of desperation, intended to address legitimate public concern about public safety. They think they’re solving the problem, but they’re making it worse…because when these people get out of jail, their situation will get worse.
The president says he will respect the Supreme Court’s decision, whatever it is, but he has publicly lobbied the court in a way no previous administration has done before.
Mexico’s prison population has increased by about 30% since López Obrador increased the number of “no bail” offenses in 2019. Being incarcerated in Mexico’s prisons, which are overcrowded, underfunded and gang-controlled, can be hell for remand prisoners, who often enter without knowledge of the prison or ties to gangs.
“Everything costs money” to prisoners because of bribes and extortion, Álvarez Icaza said. “Tours cost money, food costs money…. Sometimes you even have to pay protection to not get killed. For each visit, you have to pay the guard.
This has led to a growing number of suspects opting for a form of plea bargain, known in Mexico as an “abbreviated trial”, in which they plead guilty. Rosales said research shows that up to 85% of cases that result in convictions are now the result of such plea bargains.
“In the real world,” Rosales said, “when detention means you’re immediately imprisoned, people will look for a solution, a way out,” even if that means pleading guilty to a crime they didn’t. committed.
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