Producers of Mexican documentary on court corruption sued for $2 billion in damages

Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete, the producers of the Mexican documentary “Presumed Guilty,” are facing three different civil lawsuits for over two billion dollars in the Superior Court of Justice in Mexico City (TSJDF).

Presunto Culpable, (Presumed Guilty) tells the story of José Antonio (Toño) Zúñiga, a young Mexican street vendor who was wrongly convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison without sufficient evidence against him.

There are several parties suing Hernández and Negrete. One is Victor Daniel Reyes, the witness – then a minor – who is accusing Toño Zúñiga of shooting his cousin Juan Carlos Reyes. Victor Daniel Reyes and the victim’s family accuse the producers of showing a photograph of the Juan Carlos Reyes without authorization. The other plaintiff is José Manuel Ortega Saavedra, the inspector that detained Toño Zúñiga without an arrest warrant and without probable cause. He complains that after the documentary, people point him out on the street as a corrupt policeman.

In Hernández’s message published in the website of Mexican radio show Aristegui Noticias, the producer claimed that the filming of Presunto Culpable had the authorization of Guadalupe Carrera Domínguez, then president of the TSJDF, and Edgar Elías Azar, the current president.

After screening the documentary in the 19th Civil Court on Nov. 5, Hernández testified that “behind the suit for three billion pesos is a vendetta for having shown the vices of the capital’s judicial system.” He also said “he had no doubt” that Édgar Elías Azar” was pulling strings to move the suit forward.

Elías Azar has publically denied that there is any vendetta against Hernández on account of the documentary.

The producers said that if they lose the case, they will exhaust every legal channel in México and go all the way to the Mexican Supreme Court if necessary. They are not discarding the possibility of taking their case to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to make sure that their freedom of expression is protected.

For Hernández, Toño Zúñiga was “judged without a trial, accused without evidence, and arrested without a warrant” adding that he was “only one of the 40,000 prisoners languishing in city jails.”

Presunto Culpable, which was censored three weeks after its premiere in February 2011 and led to a slew of legal cases against its producers, is the most-watched documentary in Mexican history and one of the most internationally recognized.  The year it debuted it received an Emmy for Best Investigative Reporting of the year from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.