02/19/12 – A mob lynching in the State of Mexico (Estado de México, Edomex) last week has exposed some of the strengths and weaknesses in Mexico’s public security and criminal justice system. The lynching took place on the night of Friday, February 10, when over 20 people from the town of Chalco, which is about 15 miles from Mexico City, rallied around a youth who was threatened to be kidnapped the day before, and subsequently killed the three alleged kidnappers. The victims– José Manuel Mendoza Gil (26), Luis Alberto Cárdenas Hernández (16), and Raúl Aboytes García (16)– were tracked down by the mob, beaten, and burned to death in the car in which they were trapped. Although reports have varied, it appears that the murders took place after a minor in the town had a dispute with one of the victims on Thursday, February 9, over a girl. The three victims grabbed and threatened the minor, who eventually was able to escape, run home, and alert his family and friends about the incident. The following day, after neighbors had the chance to rally around the youth, the more than 20 person mob found, surrounded, and exacted revenge on the three suspects before police could arrive. Two of the victims were dead by the time police could intervene, and the third died at the hospital. This incident has unearthed a number of discussion points, both for better and for worse.
On the one hand, citizens turning to privatized justice and settling matters on their own highlights the mistrust and lack of confidence many Mexicans have in their police forces and judicial system to adequately handle the problem. When the youth escaped the kidnappers the day before the lynching, that the town members of Chalco did not alert the police of the alleged kidnapping and perpetrators indicates the disconnect between the public security services in place to protect citizens and the citizens actually utilizing and relying on such services. According to BBC News, Edomex State Prosecutor Alfredo Castillo Cervantes acknowledged that, for example, a group of women in Chalco were allegedly running through the streets yelling “Justice, justice, they’re kidnappers!” and ringing the church bells to rally the town members. The members of the mob took justice into their own hands and did not turn to the security forces and systems in place to handle the matter. However, this is not necessarily a surprise when one considers that the failure to report a crime is very common in Mexico, as the readily accepted figures show that only 25% of crimes are reported, and that only one out of every 1,000 crimes is sentenced. Additionally, as a 2011 study called “Justiciabarómetro: Survey of Municipal Police in Ciudad Juárez” indicated, police officers themselves recognize the lack of cooperation between their forces and the people they protect. For example, 35% of the 2,381 surveyed strongly disagree with the statement, “Society cooperates with police in crime prevention issues,” and 36% strongly disagreed that “Society cooperates with the police to locate, identify, and arrest offenders.” While said results are specific to just Ciudad Juárez police, the numbers are telling of the larger problem. Such numbers can often be attributed to the lack of confidence citizens have in their police and judicial systems, and thus the lack of cooperation.
Yet at the same time, the legal action that has actually followed from the lynching is a testament to the work being done in Mexico to strengthen the criminal justice and judicial system. Not six days after the lynching, Edomex state police had already arrested the alleged leader of the mob, Vianey Óscar Vargas Medina, “El Perras,” for his role in the murders, which could land him up to 50 years in prison. Vargas Medina was caught on camera buying the gasoline used to torch the victims at a nearby gas station, which he confessed. He also named three others– “El Güero,” “El Pollo,” and “El Chirris”– for their heavy involvement in the lynchings, although they have yet to be caught. An additional 23 people have also been detained from the incident, three of which were minors who were transferred to a juvenile justice center (Centro para Menores Infractores) in Zinacantepec. The remaining 20 suspects have already heard from Judge Fabiola Catalina Aparicio Perales in the Chalco Court of Control and Oral Trials (Juzgado de Control y de Juicios Orales), who on Friday, February 17, only one week after the lynching, found their to be ties of some sort between the 20 suspects and the murders of the three victims. Nevertheless, Judge Aparicio Perales did grant an additional six months for the defense attorneys to build their cases for their clients, though the suspects will all remain in holding in a preventative prison until further notice. One of the defense lawyers assigned to the case did acknowledge that there would likely be an appeal of the decision at the state level.
Such quick judicial action can be credited to the work being done in Mexico around strengthening the judicial system, largely by way of transitioning away from Mexico’s longstanding mixed-inquisitorial structure to an accusatorial style system that emphasizes transparency, efficiency, and swift justice. At the same time, however, this could be seen as a double-edged sword in that the quickly moving actions against Vargas Medina and the other 23 suspects could be seen as the state falling prey to the notion of “guilty until proven innocent.” Yet the use of oral trials, new judges (juez de garantía, juez de sentencia, juez de ejecución), and a commitment to due process and rule of law, all of which the country as a whole is committing to through its judicial transformations, are in place to ensure that all parties involved in a case, including the suspects of the Chalco lynching, have the right to a fair and efficient trial.