Mrs. Wallace’s quest

20 Dec

Yesterday I learned from the Mexican press that a guy called Salomon Tagle had been arrested in Mexico, and charged with kidnapping and murder. Tagle represents the final piece of a tragic puzzle. He is the last member to be arrested in a Mexico City gang that kidnapped and killed Hugo Wallace, who thought he was going out a date with a pretty young dancer named Juana Gonzalez and was beaten to death a few hours later. Other gang members said that they had worked him over to keep him quiet, and went too far. Even so they spent months trying to extort ransom from his mother Isabel Wallace. And it was she who carried out the entire investigation that has now ended in the sixth criminal responsible for taking her son’s life. Through a long and painstaking search, she found out who the gang members were, found them one by one, and called the police to come and arrest them. She had posted huge billboards throughout the city offering a reward for information and has attended every day of their trials in order to make sure they didn’t bribe their way out of their charges.

I met Mrs. Wallace in 2006, a year after her son was killed. Her story really is an extraordinary one. When she described how she figured out where the crime had taken place (Hugo’s car was still parked outside the apartment building) talked to neighbours, went to Veracruz and pretended to interested in hiring the dance troupe for which Juana Gonzalez worked, showed around their photos and thus managed to identify the young woman used to lure her son to his death, it struck me as utterly amazing. And that was just the beginning. All the things one expects the police to do – talk to witnesses, check phone records, find addresses and so on – she had to do herself. And all the while, she too has been receiving death threats from people within a dangerous power structure, its justice system.

As far as I know, she is the only person in Mexico who has lost a child to kidnappers and seen them brought to prison. “The whole thing was very hard,” she told me, “only revealing the incompetence in the search for justice, in every sense. Yet this also shows that if I can do this, then they (the police) could if they wanted to.”

I wrote an article for the Globe and Mail in 2006, (one it didn’t think “quirky” enough to publish in the end), where I quoted a lawyer campaigning for more effective policing in Mexico. “The inefficiency of authorities in solving cases,” he said, “the slowness, and really the disdain, this laziness on the part of some of them, has made many desperate Mexicans start to look for those responsible for homicides or kidnappings or crimes committed against them.”

Mrs. Wallace’s four-year quest is emblematic of the huge problem of impunity the average Mexican will confront at one time or another in his or her life: a police force that is inept, uninterested in solving crime, corrupt — and in about a third of all kidnapping and murder cases apparently —  responsible themselves for serious crimes. Her determination has been truly remarkable and I am happy for her achievement, if not the circumstances which demanded it. And there is really little doubt that the corruption is top-down. Table may have been found and a terrible crime solved, but will Mexico’s politicians change their ways and try to do an honest job of governing? The solution to that puzzle is a whole lot harder to determine.


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