Mexican Justice? Killers Walk

Judge let confessed murderer of American go free, calling him a 'modern Robin Hood.'

The question the American business community here is asking is: How much did the thugs pay the judge?

The case that has Americans and Mexicans alike shaking their heads is that of Peter John Zarate, an American businessman who was murdered in Mexico City Dec. 15.

In a scene that has multiplied as crime has soared over the past two years, Mr. Zarate was assaulted by a gang operating out of a taxi.

What makes this case different from dozens of others is that the executive was shot dead, apparently after resisting the assault.

But fresh shock waves coursed through the city after a judge released all five confessed killers Jan. 2 at midnight. Penal Judge Maria Claudia Campuzano said the gang leader and confessed gunman was simply a "modern-day Robin Hood," robbing the rich to share with his poor comrades.

The Zarate murder, the first killing of an American in the capital's crime wave, continues to convulse a foreign community that finds itself increasingly victimized within Mexico City's deteriorated social and economic conditions.

The Zarate case, and the midnight release of the confessed killers under what even the Mexico City attorney general's office considers suspicious circumstances, appears certain to retarnish Mexico's international image just as a resurgent economy was casting it in a new positive light.

Financial analysts say the high crime problem, along with the recent resurgence of violence in the southern state of Chiapas, could dampen Mexico's reputation as a stable location for foreign investment.

Calling the confessed killers' release "deeply disturbing," the US Embassy said it was "seeking an official explanation of the entire matter."

The Embassy has warned US citizens about Mexico City's crime - particularly about the dangers of taking non-taxi-stand taxis - for more than a year.

Just another case?

But for Mexicans already disheartened by mounting crime and related corruption, the Zarate case is just one more that demonstrates the daunting task Mexico faces in fixing its justice system.

In a country where few people have any faith in the police, residents say that here for once was a case where the police did their job.

They caught the killers - who under interrogation confessed not only to Zarate's murder but to 50 other assaults - only to have a judge let them all go free.

"Foreigners are paying attention to this case because a foreigner was killed, but the point for Mexicans is that this appears to be another travesty of justice, another reminder that we live without a true system of justice," says Sergio Sarmiento, a syndicated columnist with Mexico City's Reforma newspaper who writes on criminal justice issues.

"We are the first victims," he says. "Foreigners can pick up and leave, but we have to live with this."

Mr. Sarmiento recalls another case that rattled Mexico last year in which the kidnappers of a 13-year-old Mexican were released by a judge.

"There was plenty of evidence proving they were responsible," he says. "There are many cases like this."

Judiciary's dark cloud...

Mexico's judiciary has fallen under a dark cloud in recent years. The country's democratic transition has demanded more of judges - and many have been found wanting.

Some judges have been revealed to be on the take from drug traffickers. Other times threats to a judge's family have been at the root of a release of suspects.

In the kidnapping case, the judge was subsequently disciplined.

In commenting on the Zarate case, the city's attorney general not only criticized the judge's action but also intimated that other police and justice officials may have been involved in securing the gang's release.

Stating it would continue attempts to prosecute the Zarate case, the office said it would also "initiate an investigation into the responsibility of both police and justice officials for something so grave as having determined the freedom of these subjects."

At a press conference Jan. 5, the city's assistant attorney general for penal procedures, Victor Carranca Bourguet, said his office was not only initiating an appeal, but was investigating the judge.

"The attorney general can't remain with its hands crossed" in such a case, he said. Mr. Carranca added that "other motivations" the judge may have had in making her ruling would be part of the investigation.

In her 90-page ruling, Judge Campuzano highlighted what she called the "improbable" confessions of the five, noting they did not all match up.

And in comments to the press, she said the attorney general had misinterpreted her "Robin Hood" observation.

Mexicans' distrust of law enforcement officials is nothing new.

Mexican citizens who for decades have been subjected to mordidas, or bribe demands, from the police and other officials, have simply learned to neither trust nor rely on them.

But surveys show rising percentages have been the victims of both violent crimes and corrupt public institutions.

One recent newspaper poll found that more than a quarter of Mexico City residents had been the victim of a taxi robbery. (The same survey found that more than half of all taxi drivers had been assaulted inside their vehicles.)

But crime concerns have grown as well among foreigners here, with the Zarate case only augmenting the worry.

"In the three years since we introduced our products into Mexico, I've never seen the security concern as great as it is today," says Chuck Lane, vice president for international and beverage markets of the Smuckers company based in Orrville, Ohio.

Smuckers is moving its regional operations, although not for security purposes. But the departing American will be replaced by a Mexican, Mr. Lane says.

Lane adds that the company's American representative is a "very close friend" of the Zarate family and that in some ways a "programmed move" is "not coming too soon."

... has a silver lining

For Mexico, the shocking verdict in the Zarate murder does suggest some "silver lining," says Sarmiento.

"What we're seeing for the first time is a judiciary acting independently of the executive [branch]," he says.

In the past, Saramiento explains, such rulings never could have been made without the involvement of the federal attorney general and perhaps even the president.

"So it's a silver lining that there is more judicial autonomy," he says.

"The problem is that the judges are not prepared for it."

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