A key witness in Mexico has stated that she will not give further evidence against leaders of the Zetas drug cartel, after authorities withdrew her security measures, suggesting that the country’s slashing of its witness protection program has gone too far.
The woman, codenamed “Venus,” was due to give evidence against Lucio Raúl Hernández Lechuga and Félix Pichardo Fernández, both former regional commanders of the notoriously brutal Zetas cartel. However, after being informed that she will no longer receive a security escort to the court, the woman has now refused to attend trial hearings.
Venus has already testified against more than 400 people, including Zetas kingpin Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, "alias Z40." The current trial would require her to be seen on video-monitor by the jailed gang leader, who is allegedly responsible for multiple massacres, assassinations and tortures. “My life and that of my family is at risk, due to the constant threats I receive,” she told El Universal.
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Venus is believed to be a former Zetas collaborator, who was placed under the state’s witness protection program in 2010. She was removed from the program in 2015, and has since had her remaining security measures gradually revoked.
She is not the first endangered witness to lose faith in the scheme. A former policeman, nicknamed “Conde,” reported that the government had not provided him with the new identity he had been promised. A woman known as “Natalia” fled her accommodation and returned to prostitution.
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Venus’ case is emblematic of the radical scaling back of Mexico’s witness protection program since 2012, as the government has appeared to move away from on the strategy.
Felipe Calderón, president from 2006-2012, viewed such witnesses to organized crime criminals and associates as a crucial weapon in his war against the drug cartels. At its peak, 379 people were registered in the state’s witness protection program, each receiving payments of 26,000 pesos a month.
But the strategy yielded poor results. A number of high-profile cases fell apart due to unreliable witness testimony, and the program failed to protect other star witnesses from assassination.
In 2017, the Attorney General's Office revealed it had spent 210 million pesos ($10.7 million) on its protected witness program over 17 years but said that the program had not worked as alleged witnesses changed their stories or lied about what they had really seen.
"It was used as a bargaining chip with members of organized crime, where in exchange for benefits, statements were obtained about events that were never investigated," Rodolfo de la Guardia, former director of Interpol in Mexico, told Milenio. "Those statements didn't stand up in front of federal judges. The collaborating witnesses...contradicted themselves."
President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) responded by drastically cutting back the scheme. By the end of his presidency, only 11 witnesses remained in the program.
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The growing list of witnesses turning away from the justice process shows that Mexico is now losing the insider testimony that can be a key tool in the fight on crime.
Statements by former protected witnesses suggest that more care for collaborators rather than less is needed to get the most out of this precious resource and reduce the problem of unreliable testimony.
Both “Venus” and “Conde” describe being held by the state in a property seized from jailed Gulf Cartel capo, Osiel Cárdenas Guillen, along with people with links to a range of rival drug cartels. There, they claim, they endured unsanitary conditions and threats from security forces, leading some witnesses to feel pressured to fabricate evidence.
So far, the position of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on the issue remains ambiguous. Although he has offered amnesties to protected witnesses in the Odebrecht corruption case, he has stated he knows nothing about the protection of whistleblowers revealing corruption in Mexico’s Federal Electricity Commission (CFE).