Last week, the Secretary of the Mexican Navy announced the arrest of Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar, alias 'El Gordo,' the alleged son of drug kingpin Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán. Alfredo Guzmán, 23, was detained with cash, assault weapons, and two grenades.
The detention was the culmination of a long investigation and surveillance by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Mexican National Navy.
The capture occurred only ten days before the elections this coming July 1 and was a great achievement for embattled President Felipe Calderón, who in his six years in office has pushed forward armed confrontation with organized crime groups which has left 55,000 dead. This was the most recent blow against the drug lord's organization in the last few months.
In early June, the U.S. Treasury Department added the names of his ex-wife and another son to the Office of Foreign Assets Control List (OFAC) which blocks assets in U.S. jurisdiction of those included in the list. For months, the rumor has been that 'El Chapo' could be nabbed before Calderón leaves office in December.
A Mistake of Large Proportions
The son of El Chapo faces extradition to Chicago on multiple charges of drug trafficking and money laundering dating to 2009. But immediately after the arrest, rumors flew that perhaps they had the wrong person. Old photos of El Chapo's son did not match the face of the man in custody. The Mexican Attorney General's Office and the DEA carried out photographic and DNA testing to verify if the arrested man was Guzman Salazar.
Twenty-four hours after the arrest, U.S. authorities and Calderón's government had to accept that they had the wrong man. The DEA confirmed that the detainee was Félix Beltrán León, and a second man apprehended with him was his cousin Kevin Daniel Beltrán Ríos. Their family even alleged that they were framed by authorities who planted weapons during their arrests.
Presumed Guilty: The Faults of the Mexican Judicial System
This case reminded me of the controversial documentary that came out in Mexico last year, Presumed Guilty (Presunto Culpable). The documentary told the story of José Antonio "Toño" Zúñiga, a street vendor who was wrongfully detained and incarcerated for four years, framed with a murder he did not commit. The film narrated the inconsistencies and many imperfections of the Mexican judicial system -- any person can be accused unjustly of a crime and end up in jail, without recourse. The film hit a chord with the Mexican public because it made them wonder how many Mexicans were in jail under the same circumstances.
The Mexican Judicial System: Losing Credibility
The arrest of the wrong man could have been forgotten if it all had unraveled behind closed doors. But the El Chapo son case is an example of an event that has become a tradition in the Mexican justice system -- it was played out in front of the public and the television cameras. By the time the case disintegrated, the world had seen Beltrán León as the real thing.
Despite the justifications, and whether they are valid or not, for the public opinion, the judicial apparatus lost credibility even further.
Mexican citizens must wonder that if authorities made such huge mistakes in this high-profile case -- where Mexican and U.S. agencies collaborated with intelligence and resources -- what happens in low-profile cases?
There is still doubt whether Beltrán León is tangled up with the real life Chapo son, or whether he is involved in organized crime. But the bungling of this case erodes the credibility of the judicial system.
This case elucidates that the Mexican judicial system needs internal reforms. Whoever wins the July 1 presidential elections must consider those changes.
Here is the Presumed Guilty trailer with subtitles.
By Natalia Cote/MEPI