Toño Zúñiga sleeps in "el tomba" or the "tomb"
Toño Zúñiga sleeps in “el tomba” in the film Presumed Guilty

Toño Zúñiga was just your average aspiring rapper and break dancer who made a living running a small electronics repair stand.

That all changed in December 2005, when two men grabbed him off the streets of Mexico City just a few blocks from his stand and threw him into the back of what he later found out was a police car.  Though no one would tell him what he was accused of, he was kept in a holding cell for two days and forced to stand against a wall for hours.   Eventually he discovered he was being held for the first degree murder of someone he didn’t know. Though he was nowhere near the crime scene, he was still convicted and sentenced to 20 years.

Last week I went to the closing night reception of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival with my friend and former WITNESS Program Manager for Latin America, Tamaryn Nelson to see a documentary about Toño’s ordeal, “Presumed Guilty” and hear a discussion with the filmmakers, Roberto Hernández, Layda Negrete, and Geoffrey Smith.

Hernández and Negrete had already made one documentary, “El Túnel” about the Kafkaesque Mexican court system in which guilt is presumed and officials are paid based on the number of arrests and convictions. It was through this previous effort that they were connected to Toño.

The “courtrooms” depicted in the film are basically open cubicles buzzing with the sound of dot matrix printers that drown out the sound of testimony, which doesn’t make much difference as the official record consists only of what the judge tells the court reporter to write.  Hernández brought in multiple cameras in an attempt to get better audio and inadvertently ended up shooting a bunch of compelling b-roll footage, which is something we at WITNESS always advise people to have.  However, the real kicker for us social justice video geeks was the fact that this footage was later used during Toño’s appeal and ultimately led to his release.

Both Tamaryn and I have seen a lot of human rights documentaries, and some are more successful than others at telling a compelling story.  “Presumed Guilty” is engrossing and plays out like a really good episode of “Law and Order,” as one audience member commented during the Q and A session.  The story of arbitrary arrest and incarceration in Mexico is unfortunately a familiar one Tamaryn pointed out. She cited one of WITNESS’ videos, “Dual Injustice” in which the cousin of a victim of feminicide is wrongfully arrested and tortured by the police into confessing to her murder.  “Presumed Guilty” was a reconfirmation of my belief in the potential of video to make a difference.

The filmmakers continue to lobby for Mexican judicial reform and are promoting the electronic recording of interrogations and trials citing:

  • There is no objective record of police interrogations or interviews.
  • Police and prosecutors become unaccountable.
  • Trials are conducted in facilities attached to prison structures.
  • Interrogation of suspects and interviews with witnesses often violate human rights’ standards.

More information can be found at, and PBS will air the film on POV on July 27.

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