For Mexico’s accused criminals, made-for-TV confessions
By William Booth and in MEXICO CITY,
MEXICO CITY — Hours after his capture, authorities paraded the alleged mass murderer Oscar Osvaldo Garcia before the news media to have his picture taken. This performance — called “the presentation” — is an almost daily ritual in Mexico.
What is new: Mexican law enforcement officers are increasingly bolstering these high-profile “perp walks” with edited video clips of the accused confessing to crimes on camera.
In Mexico, as in the United States, suspects have the right to ask for a lawyer. Yet many in Mexico never get legal advice. Instead they tell police things like, “I killed 600 people,” whether it’s true or not.
Which is exactly what Garcia did in his 15 minutes of fame. And he is not alone.
Though fishy admissions of guilt, coerced and otherwise, have been a fixture of Mexico’s troubled judicial system for decades, the era of the videotaped confession has arrived.
In recent months, El Chango admitted he was the leader of the La Familia cartel; El Pajaro said on camera that he was responsible for a deadly grenade attack; El Mamito agreed that he was the owner of five “narco tanks.”
These sensational videotaped confessions have become the latest tactic employed by media-savvy officials trying to convince a skeptical electorate that authorities are not just arresting criminals, but criminals guilty of the crimes of which they are accused.
“This is for the authorities, who want to show they are working hard and defeating the criminals. It is a publicity stunt,” said Raul Cardenas Rioseco, a lawyer who defended the brother of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari against corruption charges.
“These kinds of declarations have absolutely no value in court,” said John Ackerman, a professor at the Institute for Legal Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
But they make for mesmerizing TV.
Five days after Garcia was arrested, the attorney general for the state of Mexico, Alfredo Castillo, released a video clip of the suspect’s interrogation.
Prosecutor: “How many executions have you ordered?”
Garcia: “Ordered? I believe more than 300 executions.”
Prosecutor: “And how many have you done?”
Garcia: “Another 300, more or less, I have done with my own hands, around 300.”
Prosecutor: “And what did you use to cut off their heads?”
Garcia: “Knives and chain saws.”
During the exchange, Garcia appears relaxed and confident. He is a handsome 36-year-old, with thick, wavy hair, bright white teeth and that just-barely-there beard popular with male models.
His nickname is “El Compayito,” a hand puppet on television. His gang — called “the hand with eyes,” a reference to the same character — is allegedly vying for control of drug trafficking and distribution in and around Mexico City.
“I was trained to kill,” Garcia said in the video, with a shrug.
Castillo said that Garcia deserted from the Mexican marines and that he trained in explosives and worked as a bodyguard for major cartel capos, including Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez, a top assassin for the Beltran Leyva organization who was arrested last year.
La Barbie also confessed on TV, boasting of receiving trailers full of cash from the United States and revealing that he was working with a producer to make a film version of his life.
Why these criminals confess is something of a mystery. Human rights advocates and defense lawyers say that the confessions are often coerced or that suspects are tricked or promised they will get a break if they fess up right away.
“It should not happen,” said Juan Velazquez, an attorney for former Mexican president Luis Echeverria Alvarez, who was charged with genocide but never tried. Velazquez, who is not involved in the Garcia case, said these confessions are not admissible in court unless the defendant is accompanied by his attorney. He said that while confessions serve to bolster the reputations of state authorities, the public might not see them that way.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Velazquez said. “He has to commit 600 murders before the authorities arrest him? How does that illustrate competence by the state?”
The confessions might actually help defendants cut better deals — or avoid prosecution altogether — if the accused argue that they were tortured or threatened.
“It’s all part of a deal. If you confess in public, we might cut you some slack. That’s the deal,” said Ackerman, who is also editor of the Mexican Law Review.
According to a recent report by National Autonomous University, only 5 percent of all crimes go before a judge. Defendants who confess to killing dozens of victims remain in prison without charges or are quietly released for lack of evidence.
Authorities in the federal district of Mexico City said last week that despite his confession in the neighboring state of Mexico, Garcia later denied having any links to drug trafficking and murder.
Roberto Hernandez, director of the popular documentary “Presumed Guilty,” said that forced confessions are a major challenge in Mexico’s dysfunctional justice system and cautioned that just because they are media stunts does not mean they won’t be used — in some way — in a court proceeding.
Surveys of prison inmates in three Mexican states, conducted by researcher Marcelo Bergman, a scholar at the Center for Economic Research and Education in Mexico City, found that 50 percent confessed because they were guilty, but 35 percent said they did so because they were threatened or tortured.
Human rights advocate Jose Rosario Marroqui said the news media are also to blame for their uncritical acceptance of the videotaped confessions.
“It is the media who judge them,” he said.
Researcher Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.