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The high-stakes game of being a judge in Mexico

Three federal judges discuss the dangers from organized crime after colleague shot dead

On October 16, a Mexican federal judge who had presided over appeals from high-profile drug kingpins in recent years was gunned down. Judge Vicente Bermúdez handled several legal challenges lodged by lawyers for Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, the jailed leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, as well Miguel Treviño, ex-leader of the Zetas cartel.

The funeral last month of murdered judge Vicente Bermúdez.
The funeral last month of murdered judge Vicente Bermúdez. Cortesía de EL SOL DE LEÓN

Although federal judges have largely avoided the attention of drugs cartels and other criminal organizations, Bermúdez was the sixth to be murdered over the last 16 years, and magistrates are increasingly concerned that they could soon become targets.

Three judges, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed to talk to EL PAÍS about the dangers they face.

Judges say they fear retaliation from corrupt politicians

The first, who asked to be named only as Pedro Pérez, hears cases in one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities. He said that while he refuses to be intimidated by events such as the death of Bermúdez, he takes “precautions.” This means giving up on his social life and rarely leaving his home when not working. He says he is particularly wary of lawyers, especially when they ask for favors.

Another judge, who asked to be named as Dolores Martínez, presides over a court in southeast Mexico. She says that she not only fears retaliation from drugs cartels, but also from politicians facing corruption charges. “It’s the lawyers who pass on the threat, usually indirectly, in the form of a “suggestion.” They spell out that their client has friends in high places and that your job could be at risk,” she says.

“Judges are condemned to mediocrity and discretion if they want to lead stable lives,” says Armando Ismael Maitret, president of the Mexican Association of Judges. He says that judges who attract too much attention run the risk of being transferred. “Being a judge is like being in the army: many people spend their whole lives fearful of being transferred,” he explains

Very few murders of judges have been solved

Standing out in areas where organized crime has effectively taken over, – such as the city where Pérez works (the municipal police has been disbanded) – or playing the hero can mean digging your own grave. In the case of serious crimes, such as homicide, Mexico’s justice system requires two cases to be opened: one at state level, the other federal. “The key is to be extremely objective with the case, and to pray that the state judge has sentenced the accused to more than 20 years. That means I can hand down the minimum sentence for misuse of a firearm, six years, and go unnoticed. The secret is to apply the letter of the law and not to cross the line,” he says.

The murder of Bermúdez has prompted calls for judges to be granted anonymity, as happened in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, but the country’s council of the judiciary has ruled this out.

While killings of judges are relatively rare, EL PAÍS has learned that only 74 federal magistrates out of 1,391 had been granted security measures such as bodyguards, armoured vehicles or bullet-proof vests. Most these magistrates work in courts located in federal prisons or areas where there are high rates of organized crime.

Judges are condemned to mediocrity and discretion if they want to lead stable lives

Armando Ismael Maitret, president, Mexican Judges Association

At the same time, says Maitret, in 90% of the cases involving the murder of judges no sentence has been handed down, as happens with most crimes in Mexico: “This is very serious, particularly in the case of judges. In the case of Bermúdez, who was a young idealist who fought corruption, it sends out a message of impunity. We need to know as soon as possible why he was killed and catch those responsible.”

Pérez is one of the few federal judges who has protection. He says he doesn’t bother using his armor-plated car: “it would only attract attention.”

English version by Nick Lyne.

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