David Hartley and Lake Falcon: symbols of Mexico's ineffective judiciary, police

To many it comes as little surprise that Mexican authorities have yet to recover the body of American tourist David Hartley, allegedly shot by Mexican 'pirates' on Falcon Lake.

By , Staff writer and correspondent

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    Texas Parks and Wildlife boats pull away from a wreath laid by family near the site where David Hartley was shot last week, on Falcon Lake, in Zapata, Texas, Oct. 6.
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Twenty men, reportedly on vacation, are kidnapped from a hotel in the resort of Acapulco: No leads.

Mayors are assassinated across the country: Most of the cases unsolved.

In fact, “unsolved” is the defining word for most of the crime that afflicts Mexico, where more than 28,000 have been killed in drug-related violence in nearly four years.

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So to many it comes as little surprise that Mexican authorities have yet to recover the body of American tourist David Hartley, despite US pressure and a week-long search that continued today with helicopters, boats, and vehicles combing Falcon Lake near Zapata, Texas.

“The biggest issue is that the judicial system has not been effective historically in convicting the right people for the right crimes,” says Maureen Meyer, associate for Mexico and Central America for the Washington Office on Latin America. "Mexico also needs an effective police force that can investigate crimes and gather evidence.”

98 percent impunity rate

Mr. Hartley was allegedly shot in the head Sept. 30 by Mexican "pirates" while jet-skiing on Falcon Lake, a 60-mile-long basin straddling the US-Mexico border. His wife, Tiffany, claims the couple entered Mexican waters on Jet Skis to photograph a church, where they were pursued by criminals in speedboats. Neither his body nor his Jet Ski has been found.

His unsolved killing is not a one-off incident in Mexico. While the numbers vary, most groups put the impunity rate here at up to 98 percent, says Ms. Meyer. The number of those actually reporting crime to authorities in the first place is also low, at just about a quarter, due to fears that authorities are incompetent, at best, or corrupt, at worst.

The search effort had been temporarily suspended, according to the Associated Press, because of fears of ambushes from drug gangs, who operate along this stretch of the US-Mexico border. Mexican authorities told the Monitor that they stop searching each evening for fear of attacks.

Mexico 'irresponsible,' says Texas governor

Texas Gov. Rick Perry put pressure on the Mexican authorities to move forward regardless.

"I don't think we're doing enough. When you call off the search the way they did ... and give as the reason because the drug cartels are in control of that part of the state, something's not right," Mr. Perry was quoted by the AP as saying. "We do not need to let our border continue to deteriorate from the standpoint of having drug cartels telling whether or not we can go in and bring the body of an American citizen who was killed. That is irresponsible."

But Mexico says it is doing all it can do at this time.

"The Ministry [of Foreign Affairs] categorically rejects claims to the effect that Mexican authorities are not doing enough to find Mr. Hartley," according to a statement today from the Mexican Embassy in the United States. "The search and rescue for Mr. Hartley started the day of the incident, and intensified this week with additional officers from the Army, the Federal Police, and from state and municipal forces, which cover the area where the incident reportedly took place."

The governor of Tamaulipas – the Mexican state bordering the lake – stepped up the search for Hartley on Thursday by ordering more than 100 state authorities in boats and ATVs to scour the lake and surrounding territory. The Navy is also on the case.

Tiffany talked to press before authorities

Ruben Dario, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office in Tamaulipas, refused to comment on whether a search team of this size is usually employed in suspected murder cases in Tamaulipas. He said the state has a better-than-average track record of bringing criminals to justice.

A formal investigation into this killing was actually delayed by Tiffany Hartley herself, who waited five days before giving formal testimony to Mexican authorities on Tuesday at the Mexican consulate in McAllen, Texas, according to Ricardo Alday, the spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in the United States.

"It took her a good four or five days to go and present her statement, which was the only way we could actually jump-start the formal investigation," Mr. Alday. "The investigation started the day we were notified, but to be able to move it in a more official way...we needed some sort of statement."

"It is definitely a long time, and she went to the press way before she went to the authorities, the US authorities or our authorities."

Few should expect any clear indication of what happened any time soon. Mexico is in the process of revamping its judicial system, and the case at Falcon Lake comes as Mexican President Felipe Calderón has proposed to unify police forces, root out corruption, and increase efficiency among the over 2,000 local forces that currently run autonomously. But the reforms have moved slowly as violence mounts.

A murder is just a blip on the national crime scene on any given day here in Mexico, where beheadings, mass graves, and mass shootouts are no longer front-page news. And from incidents involving Americans, to high-profile political killings or kidnappings, to violence against ordinary citizens here, says Meyer, “things do not move forward at the pace that they should.”

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