Presunto Culpable and the Mexican Criminal Justice System

Last Saturday I watched the film Presunto Culpable (Presumed Guilty) for the first time. If you haven’t watched it, allow me to summarize it here briefly: a young man, Antonio “Toño” Zúñiga is accused of a murder in Mexico City that he did not commit and the film documents his labyrinthine journey through Mexico’s bureaucratic criminal justice system to prove his innocence. One of the key facts that we learn at the outset is that in Mexico one is assumed to be guilty until proven innocent rather than the other way around, as is common in the U.S. and other countries. I often heard laughter ripple through the audience as a sign of disbelief during interactions between Toño, his lawyer, and the accusers. The detective and the sole witness lacked viable evidence and credible arguments while demonstrating their inability to answer simple facts about the alleged crime. Although Toño was ultimately proven innocent, it was sad to realize that this outcome was inaccessible to most incarcerated Mexicans.

In spite of the grim picture that the film portrays through statistics at various points, the panel discussion we had at the end with the director of the film, Roberto Hernández, and the director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, Dr. Duncan Wood addressed some key reforms since the film was released. Many have been at the institutional level, but the film has also resonated with civil society and has had wide-reaching impact. I asked Roberto after the discussion which achievements he was proudest of as a result of the film. His response: the justice and human rights reforms. This was also along the lines of Dr. Wood’s response when I asked him why he has hope for Mexico, given his optimistic attitude during the panel discussion. Having lived in the country for 17 years, he has personally seen that things are getting better overall.

For example, the government is asking for more accountability and on the civil society front, citizens are now equipped with more tools to pressure the government. The case of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa is a great recent example of the grass-roots efforts Dr. Wood highlighted to me when I asked him about progress being made in the country. Roberto agreed with this point as well and had some advice for CLAS students who are interested in human rights in Mexico and contributing to the quest for greater transparency and accountability by the government. His main recommendations were not to work alone; to seek out organizations with a regional focus, such as the World Justice Project and the Wilson Center; to look at Mexico’s Plan Nacional de Desarrollo in which all international aid is included; and to put pressure on the U.S. government to increase its human rights-related requirements for international aid. In sum, my biggest take-aways are that change is happening, we can be a part of it, and there is reason for hope.

Ana Paz-Rangel is a second-year student in the Master’s in Latin American Studies (MALAS) Program at Georgetown. Originally from California, she brings several years of work experience in the nonprofit sector and in philanthropy as well as a year in Paraguay coordinating a human trafficking monitoring project with the government’s human rights ombudsman. Her concentration within MALAS is government, though she has also developed an interest in development, security, trade, and urbanization through her coursework. Throughout the program, Ana has interned at the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs’ (WHA) Front Office and with the Inter-American Dialogue’s Migration, Remittances, and Development Department.

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