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Film spurs debate on Mexico’s flawed justice system

MEXICO CITY – Antonio Zuniga’s life fell apart when he was thrown into prison for a murder he knew nothing about, but a documentary helped win his release and opened debate on Mexico’s flawed justice system.

After winning recognition at a string of international film festivals, “Presumed Guilty,” in which two doctoral students studied and influenced the case, is now drawing crowds to theaters across Mexico.

Zuniga’s life changed after police picked him up in the street following a murder near a market where he worked in Mexico City in 2005.

“I didn’t know anything. They grabbed me, they put me in the car, they told me: ‘It was you,’ and that was it,” an emotional Zuniga recounts from behind bars at the start of the film.

First scenes show him sleeping on the floor among cockroaches in a crowded cell, as he began a 20-year jail term on charges later shown to have been fabricated by police and a malleable witness who later changed his statement.

Zuniga’s luck changed when he met Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete, Mexican law students at the University of Berkeley in California. They got him a retrial and eventually acquitted by an appeals court with the help of the video they shot of his case.

The documentary gives a rare look into Mexico’s closed-door court system, where trials mainly take place on paper and the accused have to prove their innocence.

According to the film, 92 percent of cases lack physical evidence and are based on witness testimony.

“How can the police invent evidence, ignore evidence or even erase it?” Negrete asked.

Zuniga was condemned on the word of one witness, and his 20-year sentence was upheld in his retrial despite the witness admitting that he had not actually seen who committed the crime.

Zuniga was finally acquitted in 2008, with the help of the video of his retrial, after more than two years in jail.

The film is part of a growing campaign to overhaul Mexico’s justice system, following Latin American examples led by Chile and Costa Rica.

Mexican lawmakers approved judicial reforms in 2008 in a bid to increase transparency and efficiency, and the United States is helping to fund the changes.

The reforms aim to replace Mexico’s written trial system with an oral, adversarial system that guarantees the presumption of innocence and must be in place nationwide by 2016.

Only around a third of Mexican states have applied the reforms and they have also met with problems on the ground — a defendant was let off even though he had admitted to murder in a highly-publicised case in northern Chihuahua, the first state to implement the reforms.

“Presumed Guilty” has meanwhile surpassed Mexican box office expectations, bringing in 6.4 million pesos (530,000 dollars) and 128,000 people in the first three days.

Mexico’s Supreme Court even opened the debate with viewings for its staff, where some court workers gasped when confronted with visible proof of evidence being ignored.

Hernandez and Negrete met with politicians in the capital this week on their mission to boost reform and promote videotaping in interrogations and trials.

Zuniga “was only jailed because someone pointed at him in the street. That proves that the Mexican justice system is a lottery,” Hernandez said.


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© 2010 Sophie Nicholson. All rights reserved.