*Update: On Monday, March 7, Cinépolis and other theaters temporarily suspended showings of Presunto Culpable to comply with a direct order from the Radio, Television and Cinematography Directorate of Mexico. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry has lodged an appeal to keep the film in theaters, and Cinépolis said it would pursue all available legal means to continue showing the film in the “legitimate exercise of freedom of expression.”
Late on Wednesday, March 2, a federal judge in Mexico ordered the suspension of screenings of Presunto Culpable (Presumed Guilty), a documentary film about wrongful conviction and the ineptitude of Mexico’s judicial system. Judge Blanca Lobo Domínguez issued the injunction after one of the film’s featured witnesses complained that the film violated his right to privacy. The irony is painful. It would almost be funny if it didn’t put into stark relief the continuing injustices and shortcomings in Mexico’s judicial system that the film sought to call attention to in the first place.
Presunto Culpable was released in Mexico on February 18. Since then, it has been seen by 430,000 people and earned 18,600,000 pesos ($1.5 million), becoming the nation’s highest-grossing documentary ever, according to Cinépolis, a Mexican theater chain and distributor of the film. Originally released in 2009, Presunto Culpable earned wide acclaim on the 2009-2010 festival circuit, including the audience award for best international feature at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival. It also aired on the PBS television series POV last fall and became the most-watched broadcast when it was streamed on its website.
In spite of such a positive international response, filmmakers Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete struggled to find a way to share the film with Mexican audiences, for whom they thought its message would be most poignant. Presunto Culpable describes a corrupt and blatantly unfair judicial process, which is unfortunately the norm in Mexico but about which “most Mexican citizens have no idea,” Negrete told me in an interview for Americas Quarterly last fall. “This film is a picture of a routine homicide trial—not an extraordinary case of human rights violations. We want people to walk away from it with a better understanding of [what actually happens in] the Mexican judicial system.”
Presunto Culpable tells the story of José Antonio “Toño” Zuñiga, who in 2005 was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. His conviction came despite the total absence of physical evidence connecting him to the murder and multiple witnesses who testified that he was working at his market stall—far from the murder scene—at the time of the incident. Director/producer Hernández and producer Negrete, lawyers by training and public policy doctoral students at the University of California, Berkeley, made the film not only to raise awareness about Toño’s story but to campaign for legal reform in a country where, at the time, presumption of guilt was the standard and 93 percent of defendants never even saw a judge.
Although Mexico has taken some steps toward judicial reform in recent years—including the introduction of a constitutional amendment establishing presumption of innocence—it is still common for convictions to be made without physical evidence, defendants to be vulnerable to unfounded claims, and crimes against those who promote greater transparency or demand accountability to go unpunished.
Wednesday’s ruling to suspend screenings of Presunto Culpable was issued after the chief witness for the prosecution, Victor Reyes Bravo (an “eyewitness” who changed his statement over the course of his testimony) filed a complaint stating that he never granted the filmmakers permission to use his image. Although it is true the filmmakers do not have a signed release from Reyes and acknowledge that he may indeed have a legitimate claim to the protection of his image, they argue that such a complaint would be more appropriately addressed through a civil lawsuit. According to Negrete, the judge has taken an extraordinary constitutional measure in this case, violating the filmmakers’ rights to freedom of expression and to a public audience.
What is at even greater stake in this ruling, though, is citizens’ constitutional right to access to information. In Mexico, trials are legally considered public events. “But you can’t say the public has access to information about a trial when they can’t access information [including testimony] about a witness,” points out Negrete. In fact, one of Negrete’s main goals in making this film and campaigning for legal reform is to advocate for greater transparency within the courtroom, including making video recordings of the proceedings.
Despite the judge’s order, the film will continue to be shown until a formal and specific judicial or administrative order requiring its suspension is issued. Alejandro Ramírez, director of Cinépolis, said in a press conference Thursday that “we still have not been notified of the resolution,” but he and the filmmakers would respect the law if such an order arrives. According to Negrete, that is almost beside the point. “If we have to stop showing the film, we’ll stop showing it,” she says. “What we won’t stop doing is demanding transparency and accountability. No one has any idea about the quality of justice in our country because no one has any information, and that is what we must change.”
Nina Agrawal is Associate Editor of Americas Quarterly and Policy Associate at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.