Sarah DeVries
Two police officers in a security convoy Two police officers in a security convoy.

The search for justice in a broken system

Whether the crime is a stolen bike or a murder, red tape and dysfunction make justice unlikely

One year when I was living in Querétaro, my bike was stolen. So was my digital camera (this was before the era of great camera phones) and two very full piggy banks. The owner of the house knew who had probably done it because he’d left his copy of my keys unattended with some of his workers and there had been no break-in.

If you’ve ever had property stolen from you — especially when you worked hard and sacrificed to get it — then you know the specific type of impotent rage it can make you feel.

If you’ve had something stolen from you in Mexico, that rage comes in two parts: first, when you realize that someone has committed a crime against you and second, when you realize that there will very likely be zero justice.

In my own case, the owner of the house replaced my camera, at least; I would not have gotten it back otherwise. But I still had to go file a police report, something that took upward of three hours.

In the case of another friend whose vehicle was stolen, the part about filing a report is what made him (and what makes most others) ultimately give up.

Before they would even start looking for the vehicle, he needed a variety of signatures from a variety of institutions — all of them across town from one another, of course, making him spend days running around as if neither telephones nor the internet existed.

By the time he had gotten most of the ones he needed, he was out quite a bit of money in taxis and a full week had passed.

If you happen to be the victim of a crime, the message is loud and clear: you’re on your own.

Sure, the bureaucratic machine will go through the motions for you … as well as demand a lot of work from you. Will justice be done? Though it might be once in a while — even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, as my high school calculus teacher used to say — you’re probably better off making peace with what’s happened and moving on.

Having property stolen is frustrating and sad, and it’s thankfully the only crime I’ve been a victim of so far here (unless you count the occasional unwelcome butt grab). But when crimes are essentially those of terror — like kidnapping, torture and murder — patience with a dysfunctional and ineffective justice system can downright disappear.

Just ask the people of Fresnillo, where a full 96% of people feel unsafe, or any of the other numerous communities that have been completely overtaken by narcos. As offended and dismissive as the president was about the United States claiming that one-third of Mexican territory is controlled by narcos, I’d like to see him live in one of those places and then talk about how “peaceful and tranquil” the country is.

Underpaid and uncertified police officers, narcos who have essentially taken over entire communities and bureaucratic policies that actively discourage crime victims from seeking justice; we ignore our clunky, ineffective system at our own peril. Because when there’s not a functioning system, something comes up and takes its place; it doesn’t just stay a vacuum.

When a security and justice system is ineffective, a new one will be built by someone. This is what happened with the “El Machete” defense force in Chiapas most recently and what’s happened in various other parts of Mexico such as in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán (spoiler: the results are not typically what they hope to achieve).

And while the recent news of armed citizen groups in Chiapas running security forces out of town and taking matters of justice into their own hands is either alarming or inspiring (depending on how you look at it), what it’s not is surprising.

It’s simply what happens when people know for a fact that justice will not be served. It’s what happens when they know they are not safe. It’s what happens when they know that the system is not meant to work for them.

According to locals, known violent criminals were living among them and the authorities were doing nothing about it, so the group decided to handle it themselves. What’s disturbing is the way they did so, raiding the homes of some and taking one suspected motorcycle thief and literally setting him on fire (he survived).

There’s a certain portion of the population who I think would be perfectly happy to see criminals face this kind of punishment. But if we want human rights to be respected, we can’t simply torture people who are accused of crimes, even if they’re certainly guilty. Preventing that kind of mob justice is why the institution of criminal justice exists.

I understand anger. I’ve been so angry before that I’ve literally wished for certain people to get hit by a bus. I get it. But do Kill Bill-like fantasies have a place in real life? Probably not.

I also worry about the absence of a system for truly proving someone’s guilt or innocence when citizens take the law into their own hands. What’s to stop someone with a personal vendetta from accusing someone of a crime and having communal rage wrongly brought down upon them?

On the other hand, seeing justice done in a place where there’s precious little of it can be so, so, satisfying; I understand people who say, “Well, it’s better than nothing.”

I don’t have a solution. I’m just spinning the most anxious of my wheels. Making sure all security forces are well-trained and well-paid enough to resist bribes is one step; a cutting-down of the tasks that a crime victim must complete to even begin to try to find justice is another.

The president said, “There is governability, there are no risks of instability. We’re fighting the scourge of violence every day, and peace and tranquility can be spoken about throughout the country.”

I know virtually no one who would agree with this statement. It’s time for a real overhaul.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com and her Patreon page.

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