10/27/16 (written by Harper Otawka) —On the morning of October 17, 2016, Federal Judge Vicente Antonio Bermúdez Zacarías of the 5th District was shot and killed while jogging in the city of Metepec, state of Mexico. Video from a security camera revealed an attacker who approached Judge Bermúdez from behind and shot him in the head. Judge Bermúdez, who was 37 years old, was pronounced dead soon after being rushed by the Red Cross to a nearby hospital. Even for a judicial system known for its corruption and impunity, the murder of a federal judge in broad daylight has shocked the nation.
Following the murder of Judge Bermúdez, President Enrique Peña Nieto condemned the killing on national television and instructed the Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) to investigate the case. Before becoming a federal judge, Judge Bermúdez served on the Supreme Court of his home state, Guanajuato. During his three years in the 5th District, Judge Bermúdez who specialized in criminal law, presided over many cases involving high-profile narcotraficantes, any of which could be connected to his murder.
Soon after the judge’s death, many news sources revealed that Judge Bermúdez previously presided over cases involving Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The judge halted a petition for extradition filed by Guzmán who in March 2016 requested to quicken the transfer to the U.S. due to alleged torture that Guzmán suffered while detained in Mexico. Judge Bermúdez also authorized the interception of communication of El Chapo’s wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro. Guzmán’s attorney, José Refugio Rodríguez, came to Guzmán’s defense during an interview on a morning talk-show, stating that Guzmán had no connection to the murder of the judge.
The docket of Judge Bermúdez was also filled with other drug traffickers; He ordered search warrants and communication interceptions for members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG); Judge Zacarías also ordered the arraignment of Abigael “El Cuini” González Valencia, the godfather of Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes who is the leader of CJNG. Also on Judge Bermúdez’ docket was Gildardo “El Gil” López Astudillo, who is the leader of group of hitmen of the criminal organization Guerrero Unidos. El Gil was identified by the PGR as one of the main perpetrators in the case of 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa. Although “El Gil” appeared before several federal judges, on September 28, 2015 Judge Bermúdez dismissed an amparo (recurso de amparo is a writ protection, a remedy in Mexican law to protect constitutional rights) filed by El Gil. Judge Zacarías also denied the amparo of Miguel “El Z-40” Ángel Treviño, one of the highest ranking leaders of Los Zetas.
While the Mexican government continues to work towards reform and implementation of the New Criminal Justice System (Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, NSJP) the murder of Judge Bermúdez, who adjudicated cases involving top drug traffickers in Mexico, comes as a blow to this effort. In the state of Morelos alone, there have been 15 organized crime, execution style killings of attorneys since 2012. In a little over a month, Judge Bermúdez was the third judge murdered in Mexico following the murder of two judges killed in Guerrero. According to El País, the Executive Secretariat of the Monitoring Council of the Federal Judiciary (la Secretaría Ejecutiva de Vigilancia del Consejo de la Judicatura Federal), stated that special security measures are taken for judges who work on federal criminal dockets and in locations where there is a particularly strong presence of organized crime. Currently only 70 of 1,391 federal judges enjoy such security measures such as armored vehicles, escorts and bulletproof vests.
Only days after the death of Judge Bermúdez, Attorney General Arely Gómez González attended a conference for prosecutors in Guadalajara, Jalisco where she condemned the murder of the judge. She stated, “impunity cannot rule the country and fear should not condition justice” (“la impunidad no puede imperar en el país y menos que el miedo condicione a la justicia”). Despite her declaration, journalist Alberto Osorio notes attorney groups in Mexico, including Colegio de Abogados Libres de Jalisco “Tomás López Linares”, continue to criticize the Mexican government for the lack of protection offered to workers within the justice system.