Presumed Guilty: Shaming the Legal System in Mexico

Presumed Guilty is a documentary about Antonio Zúñiga – Toño – a 26 year-old Mexican street vendor who was sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime he did not commit. Rebecca Jarman and Helen Ronald met with award-winning director Geoffrey Smith, along with lawyers Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete, to talk about the film and its potential impact on the failing legal system in Mexico.

The commercial release of Presumed Guilty has, it seems, ruffled a few feathers in Mexico. The premiere of the feature-length documentary this weekend wasn’t quite your usual Hollywood affair; the coiffed soap opera starlets who pranced down the red carpet were upstaged by a host of political big-wigs following close behind. First Lady Margarita Zavala, wife of President Calderón, was certainly noted for her presence.

Amongst gushing praise for the movie – ‘1000% recommendable’ and ‘utterly moving’ – there was one comment that revealed not everyone was so pleased with the exposure.

Diego Fernández de Cevallos, politician, lawyer and former presidential candidate, was visibly hesitant when asked his opinion for the cameras. ‘It was interesting, in some ways, to see the drama of a poor man’, he mumbled through his overgrown beard on the way out of the theatre, ‘but most legal cases aren’t like that, it’s not that simple’.

His hesitation is, perhaps, understandable upon seeing a production purposefully set to show up the government. In classic exposé style, the feature-length documentary follows the trials and tribulations of Toño, street vendor and aspiring rap star arrested for the murder of a neighbour he’s never met. Several witness statements confirm an alibi and a ballistic test shows up negative, but Toño is unlucky. Presumed guilty, he gets life.

So the story descends into the depths of a failing judicial system, as the documentary explores fundamental flaws in the way Toño’s case is handled start to finish. The street vendor recounts being bundled into a car and beaten at a police station, before being taken to jail two days later and finally informed of the murder charge he faced. The audience watch in horror as he’s convicted solely on (a rather shaky) eyewitness testimony – a fate, apparently, that awaits 92% of those tried.

We caught up with Australian director Geoffrey Smith to talk about the impact of the film in Mexico. Smith, acclaimed for his 2007 film The English Surgeon, is currently touring the UK to promote the film. A commercial deal with Cineworld, who agreed to 430 screenings if filmmakers foot the bill at £440 a go, means that Smith is also on a mission to raise much-needed funds.

We agree to meet, quite fittingly, in the Faculty of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. As the film is being shown to hundreds of eager law students, we sit in the swish reception waiting for Smith’s small entourage to disappear. A large, articulate man, Smith seems pleased with the controversy that the film has whipped up in Mexico – almost too pleased, rehearsing well-worn Churchill quotes and lines about ‘a David and Goliath struggle.’ It’s the ‘universal, human appeal,’ he says, that attracts viewers from around the world.

‘If you can marry a great cause with a film that works as a drama then you get a big audience,’ Smith pauses, reflecting on the documentary’s success at the International Film Festival in Morelia.

‘The public was totally shocked and outraged. In the main plaza screening we had two thousand people who were gripped. And then Toño stands up in front of them and speaks about the ordeal – it was so empowering.’

Despite the airs and graces of promotion and publicity, it is clear that Smith truly believes in the power of film. As he anticipates its general release, his ambition goes far beyond a fistful of award nominations. ‘No one knows that this injustice is being done in their name. Nobody even knows what a Mexican courtroom looks like. And to see it, and be shamed by what is happening – that is so powerful. This act of deliberate shaming penetrates deep into the Mexican make-up. A government does not like being deliberately shamed.’

News of the documentary is spreading like wildfire – the film has a heavy presence on Facebook and Twitter – this ‘deliberate shaming’ could hit the legal system hard, piling extra pressure on public figures like Fernández de Cevallos. On Friday, the film began its theatrical run all over Mexico, showing simultaneously at more than 125 commercial screens in five different states. Once the initial impact is made in its home country, Smith plans to take it global through free screenings at universities and institutions all over the world.

Aside from gaining international recognition, the director hopes that the documentary will buffer the ‘Lawyers with Cameras’ campaign to have sound-enabled CCTV installed in all Mexican courtrooms. The camera, insists Smith, will act as an infallible guarantor of justice – as we see in Toño’s case. ‘You have to remember the mechanism by which Toño is freed,’ Smith says slowly and deliberately. ‘It is through footage of the trial shown to the three appeal judges. Only one of three doubts the previous conviction based upon what he saw – he looked at the body language of the witness, he could see that the man was lying. And he managed to bring that home to his colleagues.

‘The campaign’s called Lawyers with Cameras because in essence it’s the camera that changes things. Not just what’s on the paper, not what someone reads. Actual footage. The force of this creates an immediate shift. You can’t change people’s thinking overnight but you can change their idea of accountability quite quickly. It’s the camera that makes the difference. Footage sets Toño free.’

Later that day, we speak to the Lawyers with Cameras themselves. Married couple Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete are both graduate students at the University of Berkeley and heavyweights on the Mexican legal circuit. Currently based in Mexico City, they are working endlessly to promote the film and, for them most importantly, its cause.

When we first call the Mexican number, we catch Negrete off-guard – she’d been told we’d ring at a later time and is reluctant to talk without her husband. Half an hour passes and we try again. This time Hernández answers. Over the crackly line he seems rather aloof, almost suspicious. As we explain who we are, however, we sense an immediate change. He soon launches into the story of how he and Negrete were seduced by Toño’s charisma and persuaded to take on the case.

‘We felt very touched by Toño’s story,’ Hernández tells us warmly. ‘It would have been impossible for him to regain his freedom if somebody didn’t help him. If we didn’t take the case, nobody else would. When we started out, we didn’t think we were going to be making a film. We just thought we should document the corrosive, nasty way that Toño was interrogated.’

Toño’s case is not unique. The film shows how thousands of innocent young men in Mexico are locked up, some for 50 years, living in cramped conditions (Toño sleeps in the ‘tomb’, on the floor beneath the lowest bunk bed) amongst rats and cockroaches. The prison service budget is tiny – most inmates are fed by their families for lack of food inside – yet almost all trial hearings result in a prison sentence. For the filmmakers, this isn’t a case of one or two bad apples but an endemic rot that is eating away at legal framework.

One of the main problems Hernández identifies is the murky process of getting a lawyer. ‘When a person hires a lawyer, they are normally in prison and obviously can’t shop around. They need urgent legal advice and lawyers take advantage, so there is no relationship between the price and the quality of legal services offered. You can pay for a qualified lawyer but still get the worst legal advice possible!’

The solution? ‘State intervention. Inmates must be given objective information about a lawyer’s previous record before they can hire them. Currently that information does not exist, so that’s why Toño loses all his life earnings when he pays for a lawyer who’s a fake.’

Hernández goes on to talk passionately about fighting the routine application of injustice in his country. He reels off figures that show how 93% of those arrested never see a warrant and 80% of defendants never meet a judge. Poorly educated and badly paid police regularly employ torture methods on their detainees, whilst bribes between authorities and drug cartels are the norm. In order to protect vulnerable suspects, big changes need to happen.

‘What we need now is something similar to what the UK needed back in 1983,’ Hernández says. ‘In Britain the police were also torturing suspects – there were several salient cases of innocent people who confessed to committing crimes during torture. So, the government approved the PACE Act (Police and Criminal Evidence Act) which regulates the custodial interrogation of suspects.

‘Right now, it’s the best in the world – a fantastic piece of legislation grounded in scientific research that requires police to videotape interrogations and allows a lawyer to be present in proceedings. It also prohibits certain practices – suspects cannot be interrogated for more than two hours, for example. If it was replicated in Mexico we could prevent the police from committing crimes when they are trying to investigate crimes. That is what Mexico needs.’

For Toño there’s a happy ending – the last scene of the film pans out like an Oscar-winning finale as the hero walks out of prison head-high to embrace his loyal wife and newborn boy. It’s a triumph for a young man that could so easily have been left to grow old, alone. But Toño’s success is not representative. In reality, this is a tiny, crystallized victory that shines amongst tens of thousands of hopeless cases gathering dust.

If Smith, Hernández, and Negrete can guarantee that millions of viewers are touched by Toño’s story, perhaps just one or two bearded politicians might stand up to fight a failing system where the vulnerable are always guilty. And that is what matters most.

Presumed Guilty was released in cinemas around Mexico on Friday, 18 February. Find out more at

BREAKING NEWS 03/03: Judges have sought to ban screenings of Presumed Guilty in Mexico. Since its release, the film has scored #2 at the box office and broken records for highest-grossing documentary in Mexico. Layda Negrete, producer of the film, announced from her Twitter account yesterday that ‘this is a blatant attempt at censorship’. Find out more at BBC Mundo