The weak sentence handed out to Rodrigo Vallejo, son of the former governor of the state of Michoacan who held office during the height of the reign of the Knights Templar, is yet another example of the impotence of Mexico’s judicial system.
A federal judge sentenced Vallejo on September 11 on charges of concealment. The appearance of a video showing Vallejo conversing with Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta,” former head of the region’s dominant criminal group the Knights Templar, had already brought about his father’s resignation. Despite the controversial conversation captured in the video, the sentence, according to Vallejo’s lawyer, might not lead to actual prison time.
Nevertheless, an analysis of the case helps to show the problems and challenges that Mexican judicial and law enforcement systems face when trying to unravel criminal-political networks that have co-opted state institutions in parts of the country.
One notable example is the difficulty that the Attorney General’s Office in Mexico (PGR by its Spanish initials) has had securing a solid accusation against Vallejo. According to some sources, the PGR has numerous videos of Knights Templar members with state and municipal officials, from which it should be possible to draw out a hypothetical organizational structure showing the links between Michoacan politicians and the Knights Templar. Within this network, Vallejo is assuredly not a minor figure, as evidenced by his contact with high-level members of the criminal organization. To strengthen the case against Vallejo, it would have been helpful if investigators had used La Tuta as a witness to explain how the support of the ex-governor’s son came about.
Vallejo’s sentence only corresponds to the concealment charges brought against him for not supplying authorities with information about La Tuta’s whereabouts, that is to say, the sentence is not for his association with La Tuta as depicted in the video, but for a crime committed after the video was shot. And even then, the charges were brought only after Vallejo made a statement in front of the PGR. This shows that even under the most charitable analysis, Mexican authorities do not have a clear image of the level of criminal penetration into the institutions they are investigating, which is only further compounded by the PGR’s poor use of witnesses.
However, this type of shoddy investigation of sophisticated criminal structures has become a habit, as clearly shown in the year-old Ayotzinapa case, where 43 students disappeared in the tumultuous state of Guerrero.
For example, the Group of Independent Interdisciplinary Experts (GIEI), which was asked by Mexican authorities to help support the Ayotzinapa investigation, called for all related parts of the investigation to be brought before a single tribunal. The petition exemplified the various problems with Mexico’s spider web of a legal system, such as the dispersion of related investigations among several tribunals, which contributes to the type of impunity seen in the Vallejo case.
Furthermore, although the PGR has detained hundreds of people who have shed light on the disappearance of the students, the prosecution of municipal representatives and members of Guerreros Unidos — the criminal group responsible for the disappearances — has been done exclusively from a municipal perspective. There has been a lack of focus on exposing the connections between those who have been accused in the case and networks that operate on a scale that goes far beyond the local level.
Faced with the failed strategies described above, Mexico can learn from the policies of other countries. The para-politics scandal of Colombia, which exposed links between politicians and the paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), took place in a different context but the case provides examples of tools that could be used to take on complex criminal structures like the Knights Templar. For example, there are lessons to be learned from the charges brought against those implicated in the para-politics scandal regarding how meetings between politicians and criminal groups can be used to infer certain roles and relationships. Such meetings make clear the shared criminal purpose of both parties and emphasize how important support from political circles can be for those criminal purposes.
More specifically, Colombia has made advances with respect to its judicial culture that Mexico could also implement, provided that the government shows an interest in adapting policies and the law to the actual challenges presented by organized crime. One option is to focus on investigating the larger contextual framework of organized crime. In this type of process, Colombian prosecutors prioritize certain aspects of the investigation that can shed light on the leadership structures of criminal organizations. In exposing the dynamics of organized crime and its relationships to distinct elements of the public sector, the prosecution’s efforts can also serve a larger educational purpose for society at large, something that is essential for a country in the midst of a security crisis like Mexico is experiencing. This type of contextual nuance gets lost with case-by-case investigations.
Along a similar line, the Public Ministry in Guatemala has a team of 120 analysts whose job is to study and compare multiple cases at once to see if there are any connections between them. Using this strategy, prosecutors can save effort and resources. Instead of prosecuting every case at an individual level, they end up taking down entire criminal networks, as they did in a historic case against gang members in 2014.
Returning to the Vallejo case, even though the general public has long assumed it to be true, it is difficult to understand how certain members of Michoacan’s political elites and the Knights Templar are linked — something most citizens see as self-evident — and to understand the ways they co-opted much of the state government without connecting the dots between seemingly isolated cases that share characteristics and a general pattern. In this sense, it would be natural to link the Vallejo case to that of Jesus Reyna, the former interim governor of Michoacan, who is still under investigation for his alleged involvement in the Knights Templar’s political network.
Whether the case ends here or if prosecutors bring new charges, a case like Vallejo’s reveals a larger lesson about what happens when the judicial system introduces a narrative that supplants official propaganda and the conspiracy theories that feed public opinion in Mexico on matters regarding security. In other words, a narrative that emphasizes how the country’s legal institutions understand the nature of organized crime and what image they are sharing with the public. In this case, the focus has been narrow and the image the legal system has projected has been one of impotence.
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