Local councillor Heliodoro Morales Mendoza, third right, was at work when four armed police officers arrested him in front of his colleagues. Denied bail, he faces up to 10 years in prison. Photograph: Handout
Morales was denied bail and has been held in pre-trial detention for seven months; he is facing up to 10 years in prison.
His alleged offence is not corruption, kidnapping, drug trafficking or involvement with the many criminal factions which have unleashed bloodshed across the country.
Morales stands accused of killing three rabbits.
The case highlights the absurdity and inequity of a justice system in which less than 1% of crimes are punished; a system in which drug capos can repeatedly escape from high-security prisons and politicians can face credible allegations of money-laundering or drug trafficking with little consequence, yet prisoners accused of minor crimes can languish in overcrowded prisons for months – or even years.
Morales, from the mostly indigenous Zapotec town of Tlacolula de Matamoros in the southern state of Oaxaca, was arrested in January. He was charged under legislation governing serious crimes against biodiversity, which his lawyers say is intended to protect endangered species like jaguars and pumas.
The charge may be unusual, but his prolonged pre-trial detention is not: more than 100,000 prisoners – about 41% of the total prison population – have been refused bail while their cases drag through the notoriously slow system.
Ana Aguilar, director of projects at the Institute of Criminal Justice Procedure (IJPP), said that preventive detention had traditionally been used as a populist measure to generate public confidence in the justice system.
In June, the government implemented sweeping judicial reforms intended to address the abuse of preventive detention, and for the first time introduce a presumption of innocence.
“That’s how the system was designed, to be against the presumption of innocence. This case is a clear reflection of what we’re trying to change with the new system, but these cases are still happening,” Aguilar said.
Under the new legislation, prisoners like Morales who were remanded under the old system are entitled to have their preventive imprisonment reviewed.
But the judge has so far refused, according to Morales’s lawyer, Rodolfo Moreno. “The judge is being very rigid and has rejected every appeal and effort to resolve this absurd case – something I see time and time again with indigenous defendants,” he said.
Since international human rights standards were incorporated into the Mexico constitution in 2011, judges are supposed to remand suspects only in the most serious circumstances, such as when there is a risk of flight or violence.
“You have to also take a step back from the judge and wonder why, when we have such big problems with organised crime and other important cases, that the public prosecutors think it’s worth putting resources into a case like this,” said Aguilar.
The alleged crime was committed in 2012, when Morales – a car mechanic and member of the local council – was clearing a plot of land where he grows maize and beans.
Court documents show that another family member admitted shooting the rabbits to police and paid a cash bond at the court, pending trial. But the case did not proceed, and was forgotten by the family.
More than three years later, Morales was arrested in the municipal government offices where he was serving as the public security councillor.
His relative’s admission of guilt was rejected by the judge, who is also demanding that Morales prove his ethnicity by appointing an anthropologist as an expert witness.More than three years later, Morales was arrested in the municipal government offices where he was serving as the public security councillor.
“Even if he had killed the rabbits, this is completely disproportionate. It could take another year to meet the judge’s demands, which is expensive and will cause even more damage to the whole family,” said Moreno.
Morales’s 22-year-old son, also called Heliodoro, is studying law, but he finds the case against his father incomprehensible.
“My dad has worked hard his whole life to give us opportunities he never had. We can’t understand why this has happened to him. We feel desperate.”
The severe response could in part be explained by the location of the alleged rabbit cull. Morales’s land lies within a large area which in 1998 was designated a protected zone because of its proximity to the important pre-Columbian archaeological site of Yagul.
Despite a legal requirement to inform landowners, none of the families with plots in the area were formally told of the new rules or offered alternative lands. So they continued farming.
Rabbits are often killed for food, or to control numbers when they became pests. They can be bought for as little as £2 (50 pesos) in the local market, according to the younger Morales.
“I’m reading law books at university but justice doesn’t exist in Mexico – the system just goes after people who can’t defend themselves,” he said. “There are murderers and kidnappers walking the streets and my father is in prison for killing three rabbits.”