Mexico seeks to repair thousands of judicial irregularities with an amnesty law


The Ministry of the Interior will study the case of Manuel Ramírez Valdovinos, who has been in prison for 19 years for alleged homicide without a victim

Manuel Ramírez Valdovinos takes a deep breath before listing all the things he missed because he was in jail. See their children born, see them grow, accompany their father in the disease, attend his mother’s funeral. “How much is the freedom of a human being worth?” He asks. This 41-year-old man has been in prison for the last 19 after being convicted of manslaughter. Since his arrest on May 26, 2000, he has spent nearly two decades trying to prove his innocence. He has tried to prove that the body attributed to him does not belong to his alleged victim. He has also presented evidence that the alleged murdered person is still alive. Nothing has been enough in the eyes of Mexican justice, which has left him in jail, where he still faces 21 more years of the sentence.

The case of Ramírez Valdovinos is not one out of series. Its history has gained repercussion recently in the middle of a debate on an amnesty for prisoners, an old campaign promise by Andrés Manuel López Obrador that seeks to compensate thousands of judicial irregularities of the previous sexenios. The Interior Ministry has developed a bill to present to Congress in the short term with the intention of releasing those “arbitrarily imprisoned.” At least about 1,400 files have been submitted to the Mexican Executive to analyze in a first instance, a government spokesman has revealed.

The Government of the National Regeneration Movement (Morena) has been designing a plan to release unjustly convicted people for months. The project has had problems determining which files will be reviewed. One of the details that is known is that it aims at indigenous people who have suffered irregular judicial processes and people who transferred small amounts of drugs, popularly known as mules. It would not include serious crimes such as homicides.

Ramírez Valdovinos is not indigenous, but recently a popular Morena local legislator, Pedro Carrizales, nominated him for the Belisario Domínguez Medal, the highest award granted by the Mexican Congress. The gesture has given notoriety to the case and intends to reveal the alleged injustice that the prisoner has experienced since the events of May 2000.

A recent photograph of Manuel Ramírez Valdovinos.
A recent photograph of Manuel Ramírez Valdovinos. 

At that time, Ramírez Valdovinos was celebrating with friends at his home in Tepexpan, north of the State of Mexico, when four armed police entered the house. He was detained without an arrest warrant and tortured two days in a row at the premises of the Attorney General of the State of Mexico, today the Prosecutor’s Office, according to his account. He was accused, along with two other men, of having killed Emmanuel Martínez Elizalde, the son of a friend of his father. The version of the Public Ministry was that between the three they had kidnapped him and taken to an open field where they tried to hang him and then shoot him with a gun. When he saw that he was not dying, he was attacked with an ice pick. There was no evidence to support the story. Neither witnesses nor murder weapons.

A blank sheet was the sentence for Ramírez Valdovinos. “In the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the three agree under threat to sign blank sheets where the confessions are then written,” explains his lawyer, Guillermo Naranjo, of the Idheas Strategic Litigation in Human Rights organization . The other element that the Prosecutor’s Office had was an unidentified body. “They put together a case and the judge makes an autopsy of that body.” The authority fails to give the alleged victim an identity. “The judge prioritizes confessions and dictates conviction for more than 40 years,” says Naranjo.

The chain of irregularities in his process and the frustration with the lawyers assigned to him led Ramírez Valdovinos to study law in prison. The criminal code taught him that he could have access to the judicial file for being accused, something he could only do two years after his arrest. Once with the document in his hand, he sees that the physical descriptions of the corpse did not match those of the son of his father’s friend. “When he sees the autopsy for the first time, as he knew his alleged victim, he realizes that [the body] had different features,” Naranjo says. The differences in skin colors, hair or weight were indications that this corpse was not that of the alleged assassinated. Justice ordered the exhumation of the body in August 2003.

Image of forensic analysis after exhumation.
Image of forensic analysis after exhumation

The process brought more inconsistencies. A 2012 analysis by the Forensic Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) established a “clearly visible anatomical discordance” between the body found by the Prosecutor’s Office and the exhumed. “When [the Public Ministry] lifts the body, it measures 1.74 meters, and when they exhume it, it measures 1.63,” says Ramírez Valdovinos from the Santiaguito de Almoloya de Juárez prison in the State of Mexico. None of these two bodies analyzed coincide with the physical characteristics of Martínez Elizalde.

The case went from having a confession and a corpse to having only one confession obtained under torture. The new evidence was not enough for Ramírez Valdovinos to achieve freedom. “The judge said: Maybe he is not the same person, but you should have killed someone,” says his lawyer.

Valdovinos has tried to prove that his alleged victim is still alive. The defendant believes that Rafael Martínez, father of Emmanuel Martínez Elizalde, orchestrated the simulation of death because his son was accused of having committed a crime. “The son was involved in a crime and they were going to issue an arrest warrant, so the father paid to make him pass for dead,” says Naranjo.

The defense also ensures that the Martinez tried to collect a millionaire life insurance. To support this theory, they presented a witness in 2002 who claimed to have seen Emmanuel 20 days after the alleged crime. Along with the testimony, documents and photographs were presented attesting that the man was in the United States under another name. The evidence was lost in the offices of the Public Ministry and Valdovinos could never prove his theory.

After the impact that won its history in recent weeks, the Interior has assured this newspaper that it will review the case. The ministry has studied files outside the amnesty project since López Obrador came to power and has achieved the release of about twenty people with irregularities in their judicial proceedings.

The landscape has pushed lawyers to take the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to pressure the Mexican Government. Hoping to discredit the sentence, they seek the application of the Istanbul Protocol, an international mechanism used to determine cases of torture. “The Mexican State will have to prove that [Ramírez Valdovinos] was not subjected to torture,” Naranjo explains. “My client was the victim of an injustice. It’s not just a judge, it’s a system. ”

Manuel Ramírez Valdovinos, before being jailed.
Manuel Ramírez Valdovinos, before being jailed. 

The almost 20 years of court trips have taken care of Ramírez Valdovinos, who is no longer that young religious who taught music. “My youth went here,” he laments. His studies in prison have made him an uncertified lawyer who has helped a dozen prisoners to appeal their sentences and cut their time in seclusion. “It hurts to see the injustice of the judges. Some are here for 20 pesos, ”he says,“ it has been the most bitter ”.

Source: el pais

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