MEXICO CITY (AP) — In Mexico, the hit-and-run death of a tamale-cart vendor on Christmas Eve has opened a heated debate over why some suspects are allowed to get out of jail despite being charged with the equivalent of involuntary manslaughter.
Authorities said a drunk driver smashed into Jorge Claudio as he pedaled his tamale cart in a neighborhood on the northern outskirts of Mexico City. The driver was detained after fleeing the scene, but was released after promising to pay damages.
Video of the crash shows an expensive Mini Cooper taking a corner too fast and too wide; Claudio was at the edge of the curve, and was killed instantly. It was not clear if the suspect has a lawyer who could comment.
The victim’s family was enraged and has mounted protests. The scandal recalled the 2021 collapse of a Mexico City subway line that killed 26 people due to construction defects. Several ex-officials have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in that case, but none were jailed.
“The man who killed my father should by obligation be made to pay damages, but he should also be put behind bars, because a homicide is a homicide, drunk or not,” the victim's son, Jorge Claudio López, wrote in a statement.
“It appears everyone thinks that all we want is money, but that is not it, I want my father back,” he wrote. “I want justice for my father.”
The case reinforced the widespread belief that the wealthy, powerful or politically connected are given preferential treatment by Mexico's antiquated, corrupt legal system.
“In Mexico, high-level politicians, millionaires, high-ranking military officers are bulletproof,” said security analyst David Saucedo. “The law enforcement system allows people who have influence or economic power to get preferential treatment.”
The case caused so much fury that social media users began posting photos of the suspect and demanding an investigation of local prosecutors, who have not yet commented on the case.
One posted a cartoon showing the symbolic “scales of justice” weighing a tamale cart against an expensive sports car; the car wins.
Part of the problem is that hit-and-runs are commonplace and are seldom prosecuted as separate crimes in Mexico.
But the larger issue is the low damage payments required under Mexican law, even if a person kills someone. While civil lawsuits could function as a deterrent, damage payments can be as low as $5,000 or $10,000. Even in the case of the subway collapse, a highly publicized where the government was clearly at fault, victims' families got the equivalent of $100,000.
“I think that civil lawsuits are a much more persuasive deterrent,” said security expert Alejandro Hope. “I think that this, damage and suffering payments, are what is lacking, not putting more people in jail.”
But Hope acknowledges that Mexico's alternative or reparative justice system isn't there yet. Poor families, like those of the tamale vendor, can stage marches, but few can afford to hire lawyers and bring lawsuits.
“Trying to solve this issue through the penal system hasn't worked,” Hope said. “And there are no alternative routes for low-income people to try to bring civil lawsuits.”