Wednesday 22 February 2012

In Mexico, guilt by association is often enough

(For an examination of all the players in the SNC-Lavalin/Cynthia Vanier story, and in particular an extensive and close tracking of money and influence, read: Former SNC-Lavalin exec may face Mexican extradition request.)

(For a highly detailed look at the evidence in the  Bruce Beresford-Redman case, see: The damning evidence against Bruce Beresford-Redman).

A look at four cases of foreigners who have been held in Mexican prisons – the French national Florence Marie Louise Cassez Crepin (Florence Cassez), the Canadians Pavel Kulisek and Cynthia (Cyndy) Vanier, and the American Bruce Beresford-Redman – reveals some commonalities: in Mexico, guilt is by association, the burden of proof is low, “evidence” is arbitrary, and domestic politics counts.

In the case of Florence Cassez, on February 10, 2011, a Mexican appeals court upheld her conviction for three kidnappings in 2005, as well as for organized crime and illegal possession of firearms. As a result, her 60-year sentence remains unchanged.

Ms. Cassez was arrested December 8, 2005. She was travelling on the road from Mexico City to Cuernavaca with her boyfriend Israel Vallarta. The two were detained overnight, and then moved to Vallarta’s farmhouse in the early hours of December 9. On the morning of February 9, the Mexican Federal Police then “tipped off” some journalists, and staged a fake arrest, which they video-taped. The video was splattered all over Mexican television, showing the faux heroics of Mexican police rescuing three kidnap victims, among them a child.

There were four arrests, including Cassez. She has always maintained her innocence. Her boyfriend, the leader of the presumed "Los Zodiaco" kidnap gang, has declared that Cassez knew nothing of his illegal activities.

Sadly, there was no-one within all of Mexican officialdom who was willing expose the fraud. Instead, it was Ms. Cassez herself who called in to a live television show to confront Genaro García Luna, the head of the Federal Police, with the truth of the staged arrest. As part of his damage control, Genaro García Luna then blamed pressure from the media, which resulted in one journalist, Pablo Reinah, being fired from his job. Reinah courageously filed a lawsuit, and won on the key facts of the case: the judge ruled that the media had no fore-knowledge of the staged arrest.

The three kidnap victims have given inconsistent testimony – some of it seems even to have been informed by the events staged by the police. Nonetheless, they do appear to have been kidnapped and to have been kept by Israel Vallarta’s gang. At least one of the victims also clearly states that, while blindfolded, she heard Ms. Cassez’s heavily accented voice.

The case has caused a huge dust-up between France and Mexico, with the French president Nicolas Sarkozy taking a personal interest in Ms. Cassez’s plight. No matter, the Mexican’s have dug in their heels, partly in response to victims' rights groups exhausted and terrified by the violence plaguing the country.

In the Cassez case there is a certain amount of Mexican pride involved. Once the Mexican authorities have a person in custody, they don’t like to move backwards. In effect, they arrest first, and then build the case later. This happens to some degree in most jurisdictions, but in Mexico it can take on a life of its own, resulting in forced confessions, altered witness statements, and planted evidence. These and other corrupt actions can be seen as “helping” the case along.

Of course, without the omniscience of God we cannot say if Ms. Cassez is innocent or guilty. But what we can say is that in most jurisdictions in Europe, as well as in the United States and Canada, her case would have been thrown out immediately upon the revelation of the staged arrest. It simply wouldn’t stand.

So, what we have, ultimately, is that Ms. Cassez, who has no prior criminal record, is guilty of having Israel Vallarta as her boyfriend. There is no visual or material evidence that places her at the scene of the crime. Nothing. 

Florence Cassez and Israel Vallarta after the staged arrest. Did she know?

In fact, there is strong evidence that suggests the victims never set foot in Mr. Vallarta’s ranch. The victims were able to offer excellent descriptions of Mr. Vallarta’s house in Xochimilco, where they were also allegedly held in captivity, but had confused and contradictory descriptions of “La Cabañita” located inside of Vallarta’s ranch. The inconsistencies are astounding: one of the victims declared that the TV was always loud, yet there was no electricity;  the gardener, who went in and out of La Cabañita daily, never saw any kidnap victims;  early testimony by the victims never mentioned that a woman was present with  kidnappers. The contradictions and lies are so extensive as to challenge one’s imagination.

What happened was clearly this: after her arrest on the highway with Israel Vallarta, Florence Cassez was “inside” the guilt-proving system – all police actions from then on were geared to advancing her guilt, as opposed to determining what, if any, role she actually played.

But she will get no sympathy in Mexico: there were weapons in the vehicle when she was arrested, and there is very strong evidence that Israel Vallarta was involved in a kidnapping ring. This is the kicker. Politics counts – the pressure from France was unprecedented – but at the end of the day you play for the home team crowd. And that crowd, all over Mexico, overwhelmingly believes that Florence Cassez is guilty.

Sadly, one could easily arrive at the same conclusion with regard to Pavel Kulisek, a Czech who immigrated to Canada 20 years ago. In 2008, Mr. Kulisek was on an extended family vacation with his wife and two young daughters in Baja, Mexico. He had befriended a Mexican named Carlos Herrera who, unbeknownst to Kulisek, was a drug dealer. The reason for the relationship was purely innocent: the two shared a passion for dirt biking.

In fact, the Mexican’s real name was Gustavo Rivera Martinez and he wasn’t just a dealer – he was a high ranking cartel member. Mr. Kulisek was arrested at a hot dog stand during a drug sweep that brought in Rivera Martinez and some other Mexican nationals.

As is common procedure in Mexico, Mr. Kulisek was then held for 80 days without charges. Once this passed, he was charged with drug trafficking and being a member of an organized crime organization. He was then held at the Puente Grande high security prison in Guadalajara.

What followed was a nightmare of judicial technicalities and corruption – the original prosecutor ended up in jail for taking bribes. Two days after his third anniversary in prison, Mr. Kulisek attempted suicide, whereupon he was transferred to a psychiatric facility in the state of Morelos.

Finally, after 1,254 days in prison, on April 19, 2011, Pavel Kulisek was released and returned to Canada. From a legal perspective, he was let go for one very simple and obvious reason: there was no evidence against him. The only evidence was that his friend was a criminal. By that standard, anyone who ever met Conrad Black would be in prison.

But practically speaking, the prime reason Mr. Kulisek survived his ordeal and was released was due to the superhuman efforts of his wife, Jirina Kuliskova. The sacrifices she made, the financial hardship she endured, the network of people she gathered around her – in short her untiring advocacy for her husband is the main reason he is free and alive today.

Yet there is third, perhaps equally important, reason for Kusilek’s release. His case was not a matter of domestic political pride. It was a much easier, and less controversial, case than Ms. Cassez’s. It was also more straightforward than the situation now faced by the Canadian Cynthia (Cyndy) Vanier.

As readers of La politica es la politica know all too well, Ms. Vanier was arrested on November 10 in Mexico City, and has subsequently been charged with organized crime, falsifying documents and attempted human smuggling.

The accusation is that Ms. Vanier was the financial ringleader of a group that was attempting illegally to smuggle Saadi Kadhafi – former Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi’s third son – from North Africa into Mexico.

This is an exceedingly complex case, with much contradictory information, but one thing is clear: it is a matter of domestic pride for the Mexicans that their country not been seen as refuge of convenience for bad people.

As a result, the domestic pressure on the Mexican judiciary to convict will be high, and the potential influence of the Canadian Government and Ms. Vanier’s family and friends will be limited. This is not to say that Ms. Vanier can’t be found innocent and released, but simply that the odds are longer when there is political pressure within Mexico to convict.

In the three examples given so far, all of the “presumed guilty” parties were, in effect, accused of being part of criminal conspiracies. Yet Mexican authorities have never provided evidence  of criminal collusion on the part of Ms. Cassez, Ms. Vanier, or Mr. Kulisek. Despite these individuals’ apparent close involvement in some very, very serious crimes, there are no emails, financial transactions, or incriminating phone calls that would suggest they were colluding with others to commit crimes.

The challenge is that one of the requirements for the success of much criminal activity is that it be kept secret. This is why conspiracy charges have their own burden of proof. It is not good enough simply to know someone, or to engage in suspicious activity. There has to be proof that individuals are colluding. But, sadly, in Mexico appearances often count for more than hard evidence.

The final example is that of Mr. Beresford-Redman, a U.S. reality television producer now facing trial in Quintana Roo for allegedly murdering his wife Monica at a Mexican resort in April, 2010. The body of Monica Beresford-Redman was found in a sewer cistern at a Cancun hotel three days after her husband reported her missing.

The U.S. Marshals Service turned Mr. Beresford-Redman over to Mexican federal police almost two weeks after State Department officials signed a warrant clearing his extradition. Beresford-Redman had opted in December, 2011, not to appeal a U.S. court ruling upholding his extradition.

Consequently, Mr. Beresford-Redmond returned to Mexico from the United States just before midnight on February 8th, 2012. He came via a government jet, escorted by more than a dozen Mexican agents, and was immediately incarcerated in Cancun.
Mr. Beresford-Redman: the odds may be against him
Beresford-Redman then had six days to hear the charges against him, and for his legal team to challenge both witnesses and evidence. At that point the judge was to determine if a trial would proceed or not.

What followed was a complete fiasco. The defense wanted to question the police investigator and a criminal expert, but both were out of town. Worse, all of the relevant physical evidence that might incriminate Mr. Beresford-Redman was missing, and no explanation was forthcoming as to how this could be so.

Then, late at night on Monday Feb. 13 around 10:00 p.m., the prosecution presented a box containing a wallet, some cards, a feminine hygiene product and other small items. None of this was actual evidence – it in no way materially pertained to whether or not the judge could make a determination of whether or not to proceed.

As well, according to defense experts, other than a set of footprints taken from the crime scene – neither of which were Beresford-Redman’s  – the evidence was hopelessly contaminated.

But the judge felt that the circumstantial evidence was strong, and ruled in favour of having Beresford-Redman stand trial for the murder of his wife Monica.

The trial will begin next week. At present, for his own protection, Mr. Beresford-Redman sits in isolation in his cell 24 hours a day.

The evidence against Mr. Beresford-Redman includes statements from hotel guests that on the night Monica Beresford-Redman went missing they heard arguing, and even cries of distress, coming from the couple's room. As well, the couple were apparently in Cancun to patch up their marriage, which was allegedly in crisis due to Mr. Beresford-Redman’s infidelity.

Given what we now know of Mexican judicial practices, what are the chances that Mr. Beresford-Redman will be found innocent?

There is limited political support from the United States. The U.S. government approved Mexico’s extradition request, and Mr. Beresford-Redman has complained he didn't have a consular representative when investigators questioned him after the murder. So, he can’t expect much support there.

But there is little domestic Mexican pressure, either – this is a case of one foreigner killing another, and does not tie in with larger questions of national security or public interest, as the other examples in this article do.

That said, the Quintana Roo state attorney general, Gaspar Armando Garcia Torres, stated early on that he expected the judge to order the case to go to trial, which means he felt strongly that there was political advantage to moving forward.

We are now left with the Mexican judicial system itself. In Mexico, you don’t build a case and arrest someone – you arrest someone, then build the case. The complete lack of forensic evidence should make it hard to reach a conviction, but that scenario might change.

Because in Mexico, once the arrow is launched, the guilty target must be hit.

Twitter: @TimothyEWilson
Email: lapoliticaeslapolitica [at] gmail [dot] com

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