When Alejandro, a criminal investigator with the Mexico City police, talks about “solving” a murder, he means bringing somebody before the judge. Any which way.
“I’ll be honest: at the crime scene, I used to wear a t-shirt (instead of a uniform) and people would approach me. I asked housewives what they’d seen, what happened.” If these “witnesses” pointed somebody out, “even though it violated every protocol, I would arrest that person and say ‘you are being charged with murder’.”
Alejandro, not his real name (at his request), is a potbellied 50-year-old with a big moustache and 15 years of experience in the Homicide Department of the Mexico City Attorney General’s Office (PGJ).
“I used to manhandle them when I arrested them … ‘it’s over, motherfucker!’ … then there was serious abuse,” he admits. Later he clarified that force was not always necessary. Sometimes, “realizing I was a police officer was enough for them to confess their crimes.”
Alejandro wears a pistachio colored shirt, a dark suit without a tie and he carries a rather old briefcase. He arrives in an obvious hurry, because this interview is taking place during his working hours; he made up an excuse to get out of the office. He asks the waiter for coffee only. He is used to not taking care of himself and he’ll grab something to eat later in the street, he says.
Alejandro’s image is far from that of a detective on an American TV show. Perhaps he shares the slovenliness and the appearance of melancholy and loneliness.
His daily routine begins at 9 in the morning, when he gets to the PGJ office to clock in and then he checks in with the prosecutor on duty who hands over a package of subpoenas, or a list of errands or interviews for him to carry out.
That’s his job: to do the city prosecutor’s errands, since attorney is the one responsible for the investigation. The city prosecutor decides who to investigate.
Alejandro then hops into a patrol car he shares with another 4 or 5 criminal investigators and spends his 8-hour work day traversing Mexico City running those errands. When there is no patrol car or they can’t afford to fill it with gas, Alejandro rides the subway. When he has to draft a report, he visits a cybercafé.
In murder cases, the criminal investigations unit or the district attorney leads the investigation and directs the detectives. Ideally, the investigators outline the hypothesis, define the legal strategy that will get the defendant before a judge and make sure the investigative work done by policemen is carried out by the book. The police detectives, on the other hand, work the streets, interview witnesses and suspects, gathers information, data and evidence to take back to the prosecutor and the criminal investigators. However, according to an analysis published by UNAM in 2016, Procedural Reforms and Criminal Investigators, this strategy rarely works like that in real life: the criminal investigations unit lacks the authority to direct the police and the police force is basically an “independent entity” not under its direct supervision.
Promedio de homicidios pendientes por agente del MP: 0
Agentes de MP de homicidios: 0
Homicidios sin sentencia 2010-2016: 0
Laura, a criminal investigator in Nuevo León with 10 years of experience in the Homicide Department, uses the same approach Alejandro does.
“You even do things you shouldn’t,” she says, such as instructing families to testify against somebody, or intimidating and threatening witnesses with jail to get them to make false statements. “Sometimes it works at trial and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes witnesses at trial confess they don’t know (who’s guilty), but the police identified a suspect by name.”
Laura, also a fictitious name, calculates that most homicides in her state have been solved via confession, mostly from witnesses or relatives who know the perpetrator.
Alejandro’s statistics are more convincing: all of the homicides he solved were thanks to genuine witnesses. “Without witnesses, there is nothing,” he sums up.
In his experience, confessions or formal complaints are the only valid evidence to get a defendant in front of a judge and thus they are only evidence worth obtaining. “Expert testimony and basic evidence are not sufficient. The only way to demonstrate a murder is by having somebody say ‘I did it’ or someone testifying ‘it was him'.”
Evidence of widespread torture during criminal investigations in Mexico led to an official condemnation by U.N. human rights rapporteur Juan Méndez during his visit to Mexico in 2017. The official statistics support his criticism: Records from the Federal Attorney General’s Office and from state district attorneys show that in the 10 years from 2006 to 2016, 15,000 accusations of torture were filed in Mexico. Of that number, 59% were made against federal authorities and the rest against state and local authorities.
The new criminal system, which took effect in 2016, discourage witness testimony as primary state’s evidence against a defendant, although records and statements since 2016 indicate that the practice of emphasizing testimony remains.
Only half of Mexico’s states have a specialized department within the district attorneys’ office to solve crimes, according to the National Statistics and Geography Institute (INEGI, for its acronym in Spanish). And there is no standardized protocol for criminal investigations in Mexico, simply a document providing non-mandatory recommendations. In the states where Animal Político conducted interviews while researching this series, most officials were unaware of these recommendations.
According to criminal investigators, judges and detectives we interview, the failure to have standardized protocols is a major problem in coordinating investigations. As such, this third article of our series will focus on how criminal investigations are carried out.
The “official” non-mandatory recommendations suggest, among other things, that:
1.- The first respondent — local police officers — should go directly to the crime scene after it has been reported.
2.- Criminal investigators should perform the fieldwork, interview witnesses and suspects, examine the crime scene and examine all data obtained from the investigation.
3.- Forensics experts should appear in complete protective uniforms to avoid contaminating the scene. They should not disturb the crime scene, should not smoke or eat at the scene, should only handle evidence related to his/her specialization and use proper techniques. They are free to carry out their technical research and should share any pertinent criteria or evidence with criminal investigators.
4.- The criminal investogator coordinates the investigation, observes the chain of custody of all data or evidence collected by detectives and forensic experts and develop lines of investigation or hypotheses regarding suspects and motives.
In Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia and the United States, similar procedures are followed in criminal investigations. There are also specialized units for investigating homicides, at both federal and state levels.
In Mexico City, Alejandro says there is no coordination between the criminal investigators working behind desks at the Homicide Department and the beat cops.
"Investigative work is very nice, but it’s not carried out by the book here. In actuality, the detectives do not investigate. They are just delivery boys for the crimininal investigators. We basically only hand out subpoenas.”
Alejandro left that position a couple of years ago because he got tired of being a “mailman,” but he still works as an “investigator” in the Attorney General’s Office.
Laura, the policewoman from Nuevo León, also critizes the criminal investigators. “Sometimes you take files to the criminal investigators and they say ‘no, I didn’t ask for this.’ Or we might suggest they follow a lead that we are sure will help and they just refuse.” These experiences lead Laura to voice a lack of confidence in the criminal investigator in her office, because although she is carrying out the procedures under his supervision, he shows no confidence in her capability.
But this lack of trust is not limited to the detective/criminal investigator relationship. Almost every public official taking part in murder investigations has a complaint about co-workers: everyone from the beat cop to the forensics experts, to the detectives, to the criminal investigators, the district attorneys and even judges hold grievances.
“The criminal investigator pushes the detectives because he has 300 case files. And the police insist they have already investigated, but found no evidence and ask the criminal investigaror for more leads,” says Said Villalobos González, an agent with Oaxaca’s Criminal Investigation’s Office with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in Criminal Law, in describing why detectives often fail to show initiative.
Héctor Hawley, an expert in femicides in Ciudad Juárez, shared one incident in which a criminal investigator simply failed to do his job. “Once, as I was examining footprints near the body of a girl left in a ditch, I collected some fibers and a lot of biologic material but the criminal investigaotor ‘forgot’ to send them for processing.” That evidence was lost, he says. Fortunately, the case was solved, because the suspects had highlighted a newspaper article about the case and part of the blanket used to cover the young woman’s body was found at their house.
Ricardo Realivázquez Domínguez, director of the Ciudad Juárez Municipal Police and a former detective, says that until a couple of years ago, “police divisions fought against each other: the district attorney fought against the state attorney, the state attorney fought the Federal Attorney General’s Office, and everyone bashed the local prosecutor.”According to him, coordination was non-existent and trust was lacking, one division would hide data or evidence that might help solve the crime.
Information from INEGI confirms the above. In 2017, only two states — Tlaxcala and Querétaro — had information-sharing systems linked to police corporations from other states and only five — Baja California, Colima, Jalisco, Querétaro and Tamaulipas — boasted information-sharing systems for police units within their state.
Less than half of the states, 13 — Aguascalientes, Baja California, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán, Nayarit, Nuevo León, Querétaro, Tlaxcala and Yucatán — had information-sharing systems linked to the Federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR, for its acronym in Spanish) and only four states — Baja California Sur, Chihuahua, Querétaro and Tamaulipas — had similar systems linking with attorneys’ general offices in other states.
“We were required to solve at least one case every month,” says Alejandro, as he drinks another cup of coffee spiked with three sugars.
Here’s how he “solved” them: “One day, a murder took place in an auto repair shop on the east side of Mexico City. The victim was killed in the presence of two people according to witnesses. We found them and arrested them. I took one of them aside and told him ‘your friend has given you up’ and then I did the same with the other guy. Two, three whacks and both of them confessed to the murder.”
It’s not a bit like the coordination between district attorneys, detectives and forensics experts as depicted see on police procedurals on TV, there is no obsession over uncovering the truth, though there are plenty of sleepless nights.
Alejandro’s investigative technique is not very different from Laura’s, the policewoman from Nuevo León. “In assault and battery cases, for example, we talk to the people involved and if two claim it was Pedro even though they were at the scene, we tell them ‘all three of you will go up on charges or you two better testify against Pedro.’ And, so, they end up testifying against Pedro,” even if they were also involved. “It’s preferable to turn them into witnesses and catch the primary culprit.”
The presiding judge for the Sinaloa State Trinbunal, Enrique Inzunza Cázares, explains that when a plea is made during an initial hearing – before the case goes to trial, that is – no evidence is presented and no defense is offered, it’s because a confession was made. This is known as an abbreviated procedure, he told us.
“Most of the resolutions come from abbreviated procedures,” Insunza Cázares said. “The criminal investigator always aims for this option, usually a sort of plea deal with the defendant in exchange for something, i.e., if you confess, you’ll get a reduced sentence. The new oral trials have made this an exception now, though.”
INEGI reported that in 2016, 54% of murder sentences issued under the new criminal system occurred in initial court hearings. In other words, in more than half of murder convictions, the only evidence was a confession.
Guillermo Naranjo, an attorney with the organization Id(h)eas, and David Peña, an attorney with the Action Group for Human Rights and Social Justice, agree that finding somebody guilty is what counts in terms of institutional effectiveness. Uncovering the facts or motives is not important, even when there might be accomplices or connections to other open related to that crime. Unfortunately, in order to find somebody guilty, they argue, it is often necessary to “fit” the evidence with the testimony.
“At the crime scene, they seem to have the mind set ‘let’s find the perpetrators,’ but if they don’t find them, it becomes ‘let’s make them up’,” Naranjo says. “The evidence might disprove the hypothesis they land on, but their focus is to go after ‘the perpetrators’.”
“Criminal investigation in Mexico does not recognize that the main goal is to elucidate the facts and in connection therewith, to protect the victims’ rights, particularly the right to truth,” says Peña. “Instead, they look to punish and this logic of punishing somebody is applauded by a society tired of impunity.”
A Nuevo León judge who asked to remain anonymous admits that “in hearings, it is fairly common to hear witnesses say ‘the police officer told me to say this’.” He calculates that he has rejected more than half of the cases presented to him because of procedural mistakes like forced testimony or violations during the course of arrest, failure to preserve and protect the chain of custody or evidence manipulation. A judge in Ciudad Juárez said that in addition to these common violations, other errors are uncorroborated or conflicting statements and the failure to complete forensics examinations scientifically.
The latter judge, who also requested anonymity, says: “We get annoyed when we hear police officers defend their case by saying ‘yes, but that’s what I heard.” One time, the judge said she found herself literally praying that the district attorney would submit actual evidence during a trial against suspects accused of femicides and human trafficking of young women.
In Sinaloa, Enrique Inzunza Cázares says these deficiencies exist because investigative methods were never established, and because it was easier to just arrest somebody. In fact, the saying “a bench warrant is like a glass of water: you don’t deny it to anyone” has become famous among authorities.
“There have been instances of abuse and arbitrary arrests, planting of drugs and weapons, accusations were made up,” denounces the Sinaloa judge.
The new judicial system uncovered these unlawful practices, says Inzunza Cázares. As such, arrests rate have declined spectacularly and cases that do move forward often fall apart at injunction proceedings.
A recent study conducted by Impunidad Cero called State index of the performance of attorneys’ general and district attorneys shows that, in 2016, only 6.3% of all criminal cases that were filed ever even reached a judge.
Another study, Guidelines for a Standardized Model of Criminal Investigation, published by Cidac in 2017, analyzed the performance of the attorneys’ general and district attorneys in 8 states — Aguascalientes, Baja California, Mexico City, Durango, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo and Tabasco — and found that, on average, only 1 of every 10 complaints reached a judge.
Alejandro, the Mexico City officer, admits that he committed abuses on the job, but he sips his coffee and immediately defends himself. “The bad thing is that now the people arrested complain that their human rights are being violated. Complaints are filed against us now. That seem to be the new rule, it has been turned upside down. Sure, I was tough, but only with the bad guys.”
The issue of corruption arises when reviewing every step of the criminal investigation process.
In a survey of people 18 and older, only half said they trust the authorities involved in the criminal investigation process. The National Survey on Victimization and Perception of Public Security (ENVIPE, for its acronym in Spanish) was published by INEGI in 2017. With regard to judges, 55% of those surveyed claimed to have some or a lot of trust, only 53.4% trust criminal investigators, 52.9% trust detectives and only 51% trust the police.
Experiences with corrupt practices is reported in many parts of the country. In Oaxaca, human rights activist Graciela Zavaleta, says a criminal investigator asked a mother for money to look for her missing daughter. In addition, he suggested a romantic relationship if she wanted the case to progress faster.
Luis Fernando Cuyás, an expert with 30 years of experience working in Guanajuato and Mexico City, reports that at crime scenes “many people take advantage of the situation to steal anything they can get their hands on. Mobile phones, computer tablets, money, jewelry, things that are within reach and not too big to just slip it into their pocket.”
In Oaxaca, Said Villalobos González says bench warrants are rarely enforced because the people who should be arrested are blackmailed instead. “Judges even do it.”
Sometimes the corruption can jeopardize the crimefighters. A forensics specialist who worked for six years in southwestern Veracruz says he knows of cases where alleged gang members were sent by deputy prosecutors ordering that autopsies not be conducted. “If you perform the autopsy, you’ll be killed,” the coroner was told.
Ciudad Juarez District Attorney Jorge Nava says it is easier for investigators to “solve” common law crimes, like domestic disputes or cases or family violence.
It takes months even years to investigate cases involving organized crime, and they are rarely solved.
How can we know it is linked to organized crime, if adjudication does not take place? Nava responds: “Based on experience, (you realize that) the caliber of firearms, if there were multiple gunshots, the type of vehicles used, the background of the victim” all hint at the involvement of organized crime.
And since cases connected with organized crime are hardly ever investigated, let alone solved, common murders might be made to look like they were carried out by organized crime “to fool the investigator.” Planting a “narcomensaje” at the scene (a note often left on the victim by drug traffickers to send a message) or disguising it as an execution, are common examples offered by Luis Genaro Vásquez, former deputy attorney general, district attorney and head of the Mexico City Judicial Police unit.
“(Investigators) are reluctant to follow up, the criminal investigators wash their hands of the case, rationalizing that: ‘no, this is organized crime, send it to the PGR’ and so that homicide goes unsolved.”
In Mexico, 94.8% of the murders committed between 2010 and 2016 remain unsolved. But deducing that therefore 5% of the cases saw justice done, is not possible, says José Alberto Mosqueda, the secretary of Mexico’s Supreme Court (SCJN, for its acronym in Spanish).
“Impunity has many faces,” he told Animal Político. “Impunity is not limited to one guilty person getting off, it also might mean the wrong person is in jail, too.” Mosqueda was the presideng judge in the Alfonso Martín del Campo case, when the defendant was sentenced to 50 years for murdering his sister and brother-in-law, but, 23 years later, he was proven innocent.
When Alejandro, the Mexico city cop, is asked how it feels to talk about justice in Mexico, he replies without hesitation: "Helpless." He then adds: “If I or my family becomes a victim, nothing will happen. I know how bad corruption and impunity are, so if something happens, justice will not be served." He speaks with resignation, no longer appearing to be the arrogant detective who beat and threatened suspects in custody in order to get a confession. Instead, he looks like a man afraid he might become a victim of the system he belongs too.
He finishes his coffee, takes his jacket and his briefcase and strides off to the subway, which he will ride the rest of his workday, delivering subpoenas.