The last time that Antonio Almanza’s son Ricardo came home, he didn’t have this tremor in his face, the first signs of Parkinson’s disease sneaking into his words. His wife, Laura Cerriteño, hadn’t yet been diagnosed with breast cancer. Antonio hadn’t lost his job with the local government—where he had worked for almost three decades. He hadn’t sold his home, tried to drive a taxi to earn a wage, or asked his wife to sell tacos on the street—all to pay his son’s legal bills. And if he hadn’t told me he had Parkinson’s, it would be hard to tell if the shaking was the mere trauma of reliving the last nine years. When he says in a quiet voice, jaw hesitating, “I have lost everything,” he is not exaggerating.
On August 13, 2002, Mario Ricardo Antonio Alamanza Cerriteño was apprehended by police in his home state of Tlaxcala along with five other people, several of whom Ricardo had never seen before. Their supposed crime was undertaking two kidnaps for ransom in January 2001. But none of the arrested that day — neither Ricardo nor the others — were told why they were being taken away. Then, within hours of arriving, they were forced to confess under torture and presented to the world in a press conference celebrating supposed justice done.
If Almanza’s story was unique, it would be a tragedy. The fact that it may be closer to the average standard of justice is unimaginable. While there are conflicting statistics about just how rarely procedures are followed, recent estimates by Mexico’s Center for Economic Instruction and Research (CIDE) have found that as many as 93 percent of arrested persons in Mexico never see a warrant and 80 percent never had the chance to speak with a judge. Another prison survey conducted by the regional research group FLACSO found that 70 percent of statements were taken without a lawyer present. Nearly three quarters never even have the chance to make a phone call from prison, and an equal proportion of defendants never have a lawyer.
Of course, justice systems challenge developing countries the world over; they’re expensive, complex, and are predicated on the strength of a country’s institutions—which take time and political will to grow. But at this particular moment in Mexico, security forces are arresting more alleged criminals than ever in a crackdown on organized crime, meaning that more alleged criminals than ever are passing through a flawed system. Last fall, the Associated Press reported that Mexico’s prison population has doubled since 2006. That’s a rise in proportion to the population as well: in 1995, 100 people were incarcerated for every 100,000 people. By 2007, 250 of every 100,000 Mexicans are in jail. To be certain, at least some proportion of those inmates haven’t had their fair day in court.
Without institutions to turn to for help, the families of these six men arrested in Tlaxcala have spent the last nine years trying everything to undertake their own investigation and appeal their case in court. They have gathered some 400 documents, testimonies, phone records, and alibis that all corroborate the arrested men’s innocence. Medics have certified that the confessions were obtained under torture. The state’s case is also full of holes and inconsistencies; one of the kidnapping victims, for example, has testified that she never saw her captors, yet the police case claims that she positively identified the perpetrators. Despite all the evidence and countless appeals both national and international, five of the six remain jailed — on sentences of 77 years — for participation in organized crime.
Almanza doesn’t even know where Ricardo is anymore; he was transferred to a jail without warning. But he has to keep fighting, he says, to prove his son’s innocence. “Because it’s not just what happens to the person in prison,” he told me. “It ruins so many lives.”