The Mexican border city Ciudad Juárez has undergone something of a transformation. Once the world’s murder capital, today Juárez has peace and stability that would have been unthinkable even three years ago.
Media on both sides of the border have credited at least part of this revival to policy reforms. Arguably the most significant is Chihuahua state’s overhaul of the judicial system including prison reform, oral testimony and grand juries. Many observers say that these measures have made possible the processing and conviction of some of Mexico’s hardest criminals in a place where corruption and impunity have been the norm.
But despite seeming positive results, many residents of Juárez feel that corruption and aggressive policing particularly in the city’s poorest communities have resulted in the unlawful arrests of many of its residents.
The incarcerations of two young men that I first met in 2010 are a recent example. In December 2015, Jonathan Adrián Renovato and Noé Huerta Granados were arrested for kidnapping. Shop owners who witnessed their detention said that the two were walking near the scene of the crime when state police descended on them.
“We don’t have any doubt that they are innocent. We were with them every day. It would have been impossible. There are videos of them clocking in and out of the factories (where they work),” said neighbor and community activist Gerardo Martinez.
Several days after their arrest family members and neighbors protested outside the courthouse and demanded their freedom. They insisted that the two were innocent. According to the defense, the victim never identified Renovato and Huerta. A third accused claims to have never met the two.
But that may not matter. For months now, Renovato and Huerta’s court date continues to be postponed while police build their case. They could stay behind bars for up to a year and a half without trial before they must be released.
Long pretrial detentions have a lasting effect on the community. It’s hard for families to move forward with the unknown. Their Facebook pages are a reflection of their families’ emotional turmoil. Renovato’s wife posts photographs of their newborn while his brother writes, “I should be happy, but I’m missing my brother. Please come back to us, because without you I am incomplete.”
Their case is one that resonates in much of Mexico. According to a report released by the Mexican Comisión Nacional de Seguridad (Commission for National Security), four out of every ten prisoners have not had a conviction. Usually these prisoners have prior charges.
In Renovato’s case, his problems started years before, when he was still a headstrong teenager, after he and a friend were arrested for robbing university students. It was a stupid juvenile crime: Two kids from a tough neighborhood, who were unable to complete middle school, were taking from those who could go to college. They were caught and released a few days later.
But as is so common in much of Mexico, this youthful mistake came back to haunt them years later. In response to protests against Renovato and Huerta's arrest in the kidnapping case, police were quick to point out that this was not Renovato’s first arrest.
Back in 2012, shortly after Renovato was released I went to see him. It was cold, and so we huddled into a small cinder block room and took turns playing handball. Renovato stood quietly in the corner watching his friends and looking ashamed and embarrassed about what had happened. Before I left I told him to stay out of trouble. He said he’d never do anything like that again.
Their story is troublingly similar to so many others that I have heard while working in Mexico. I can't say for sure if Renovato and Huerta are guilty or innocent, but what worries me is that the two will not have the chance for a fair and speedy trial.
My hope is that the same reforms, which have proven a powerful tool in convicting criminals, can also be a powerful tool in exonerating the innocent, and in the case of my friends, bring out the truth. But this is only possible if their testimonies are heard.