The Florence Cassez Affair: Mexico v. France

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On Thursday, December 8, 2005, the Mexican police arrested a couple in a car near Mexico City. The man, Israel Vallarta, was the suspected leader of ”Los Zodiacos,” a gang held responsible for a dozen kidnappings and at least one murder. The police kept both Vallarta and the woman who was with him incarcerated that night despite the fact that the woman had no criminal record. The following day, on Friday, December 9th, the police drove the couple to Israel Vallarta’s ranch, Las Chinitas, about 20 kilometers away from Mexico City. The police discovered three people confined inside the ranch, along with an extensive supply of weapons and explosives. The Mexican media, who arrived shortly before, saw for the first time the face of the woman that would soon become a major point of contention between France and Mexico: Florence Cassez.

In March 2003, Florence Cassez, born in Lille, France, decided to join her brother Sébastien, who had been living in Mexico. While there, she met Sébastien’s friend, Israel Vallarta, who introduced himself as a car salesman. They soon entered into a love affair and she moved into his ranch. However, in April 2005 they broke up and Cassez returned to France, but eventually found herself back in Mexico. From September to December 2005, she stayed with Vallarta until she found her own apartment. When they were arrested in December, they were moving her furniture. She was not suspected of any crime by the police until live coverage of the incident aired on television. At this point, Cassez was suspected of being a member of ”Los Zodiacos,” and was moved to a detention center to await further investigation and trial. Mexican public opinion and the bulk of the media raged against her as she waited in prison. The trial lasted from February 15, 2006 to October 2007 and was eventually charged with four kidnappings, conspiracy, and the possession of weapons and ammunitions, and condemned to 96 years in prison. However, due to the pressure from the French government, her sentence was reduced to 60 years.

The three individuals that were found on the Vallarta ranch were Ezequiel Yadir Elizalde, Cristina Ríos Valladares, and her son, Cristián. After being questioned by the police, Elizalde said he could identify Florence Cassez as one of his kidnappers because of her voice, her accent and the color of her hair, even if he had never seen her face. However, the two other victims were unable to identify Florence Cassez when initially interrogated by the police. Nevertheless, on February 15, 2006, Valladares and her son testified that Florence Cassez was a member of ”Los Zodiacos.” In March 2008, the mother also sent an open letter to the media, reaffirming that the French woman had kidnapped and mistreated them. One year later, in May 2009, another victim of ”Los Zodiacos,” David Orozco, affirmed that Florence Cassez was a gang leader. However, despite the evidence that was mounted against her, Cassez continued to claim innocence.1 After December 9, media coverage in Mexico routinely described Florence Cassez as a horrendous character, going as far as calling her a ”diabolic and bloodthirsty criminal.”2 Moreover, numerous organizations fighting against kidnappers, such as Mexico unido contra la delincuencia, the Movimiento blanco, and Alto al secuestro, assured that Florence Cassez was guilty, and that her sentence should not be reduced.

France to the Rescue of Florence Cassez

In France, the reaction to the Cassez affair was dramatically different. The public was not initially concerned until President Sarkozy went to Mexico in March 2009. As a result of the incident with Cassez, the minister of Foreign Affairs, Michèle Alliot-Marie, asked to cancel the “Year of Mexico” in France, a cultural festival celebrating the relationship between the two countries, and described the Cassez affair as a ”denial of justice.” Similarly, the French embassy in Mexico warned that they would bring the case to the International Court of Justice based in The Hague.

President Sarkozy was also very outspoken about this case. On May 7, 2008, he met Florence Cassez’s parents in the French presidential residence, the Elysée. On March 3, 2009, he went to Mexico, where he met the leaders of various organizations insisting on Cassez’s guilt, and asked for her transfer from Mexico to France. Facing President Calderón’s refusal to accommodate this request, Sarkozy decided to dedicate the “Year of Mexico” to Cassez, causing Mexican authorities to withdraw from the celebration. The cancellation exemplified the strong tension between the two governments.

The intense reaction of the French government to the Cassez affair progressively drew the French public’s attention to the story. More and more French were galvanized into supporting Florence Cassez. On December 8, 2009, several hundred people gathered outside the Mexican embassy in Paris. Five months later, a ”flashmob” in her honor took place in northern France. Only a few denounced her actions, the most famous being former Minister of Justice Robert Badinter. According to him, even if some points remained unclear in the case, France should not have intervened in the Mexican judicial process. On February 15, 2011, Christine Brunel, a deputy, also affirmed that ”being French abroad does not mean that one is innocent.” However, France remained largely on the side of Cassez.

Mexico v. France, a diplomatic crisis

For Mexican officials, the reaction of the French government and its citizens was disproportionate and feckless. Mexicans felt France was interfering, and interpreted French actions as provocative and intolerable, especially when France tried to use a cultural event as a means of diplomatic pressure. As a result, the relationship between the two countries became very tense.3 On February 10, 2011, during a session of the French Senate, the Mexican ambassador to France decided to leave before its end due to the criticisms leveled at his country by Alliot-Marie. Similarly, a few days later, in an article published by El Universal, Carlos Fuentes compared Sarkozy’s behavior to the conduct of dictators in banana republics, and claimed that the French president was trying to use the Cassez affair to improve his very low popularity in France.4 On the front page of Milenio,5 Carlos Marín also strongly criticized Sarkozy, Cassez, and her French lawyer, Franck Berton. It seems that both the deportment of the French president and government, and the content of their criticism irritated Mexican officials. Sarkozy and his government publicly denounced the Mexican judiciary without any real effort toward an amicable agreement with President Calderón beforehand. Such an unexpected and provocative accusation from the French government led to a flash of nationalistic pride in Mexico and triggered a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Yet, Calderón and his government initially seemed well-disposed to seek an agreement with France. On March 9, 2009, both presidents created a ”binational committee” to analyze the case and find possible solutions within three weeks. This decision by President Calderón to let France participate in the decision of a case under Mexican jurisdiction appears surprising. However, this was motivated by France accepting new contracts and new investments in Mexico.

Unfortunately, the manners of the French president offended the Mexican public, who already considered Florence Cassez guilty.6 They criticized Calderón’s excessive flexibility toward France. On March 10, 2009, La Jornada published an editorial titled ”A National Disgrace” in reference to Calderón’s foreign affairs policy regarding the case.7 Consequently, Calderón’s behavior toward France changed. According to Raymundo Riva Palacio in an article published in El Informador, under international conventions Calderón could have come to an agreement with Sarkozy without being humiliated or violating the Mexican constitution.8 However, he opposed the transfer of Florence Cassez to France on June 22, 2009. Such a transfer was made possible by the 1983 Strasbourg Convention, but Calderón worried about Sarkozy’s ability to reduce Cassez’s sentence. If Cassez’ sentence were reduced, it would have triggered a scandal in Mexico and further deteriorated his popularity. Since Mexicans wanted Cassez to serve her full sentence in Mexico, Calderón decided to please his voters rather than the French president.

Doubts and Revelations

Mexicans were very irritated by the French government’s reaction, which led them to focus on Florence Cassez in even more dramatic terms. However, as new elements of the affair were being made public, a growing number of Mexicans became doubtful about the case. It soon emerged that many elements of the story were less clear than it seemed, leaving serious room for doubt. On February 11, 2006, during an episode of the TV show Punto de Partida, Florence Cassez talked on the phone with the Chief of the Federal Investigations Agency, Genaro García Luna, and got him to admit that her publicized 2005 arrest was actually a stunt organized for the media. According to Mexican law, an individual under arrest has to be taken to a police station within two hours; therefore Florence Cassez’s arrest and van confinement were patently illegal. Her lawyer also explained that, according to Article 16 of the Mexican Constitution, this media event should have led to the cancellation of the whole case, due to procedural defects. Similarly, in an article published in Reforma, Sergio Sarmento criticized the staged arrest organized by the police.9

The testimonies of the witnesses also turned out to be very suspicious. One of the victims found at Israel Vallarta’s ranch, Ezequiel Yadir Elizalde, had affirmed that Florence Cassez was one of the kidnappers and had shown a scar on his finger, explaining that it had been caused by injections that the French woman had given him. However, doctors later pronounced that it was a birthmark. The two other victims, Cristina Ríos Valladares and her son Cristián, initially did not identify Florence Cassez. It was only on February 15, 2006, four days after the televised clash between Cassez and Luna had occured, that the mother changed her mind and began accusing the French woman. Many sources confirmed that Valladares met with the police before changing her testimony. The most unreliable witness turned out to be David Orozco. In May 2009, this man introduced himself as a victim of ”Los Zodiacos” and affirmed that Florence Cassez was a member of the gang. However, he declared 13 months later that he had been tortured and coerced by the police to deliver a fake testimony and that he did not know either Cassez or Vallarta. This confession was written down on an official document signed by a Mexican magistrate, Javier Sáenz Hernández, but was ignored during Cassez’s trial. Moreover, there were other leads ignored by the police. For example, identification cards of several victims of ”Los Zodiacos” were found in the home of Israel Vallarta’s sister, but the police did not bother her and preferred to focus on Cassez’s far less-certain guilt.10 There is also reason to believe that the Mexican police fabricated evidence. One example of this was an article titled “Florence Cassez’s condemnation based on evidence,” published in El Excelsior. The author of this article provided new information that had been given by the police which did not appear in the judicial process. It later emerged that the new evidence was indeed invented by the police to condemn the French woman.11 These elements forced the Mexican public to question the neutrality of the government and the judicial system.

The Impact on Mexico’s Public Image

In an article published in El Universal, Alejandra Cullen claimed that substantial changes are necessary for Mexico to remain a reliable country.12 Indeed, many media organizations regret the effect this affair had on Mexico’s image. In an article published in La Razón, Julián Andrade explained that even thought the French government’s reaction was disproportionate, it is essential to think about the detrimental consequences that police propaganda has on the justice system, as well as on the country’s image as a whole.13 In another article published in the comments column of El Universal, Lydia Cacho accused President Calderón of manipulating the public, and described Florence Cassez as the victim of a judicial system that ”creates” convicts for political reasons.14 The French woman’s Mexican lawyer, Agustín Acosta, explained that the die was cast even before her trial. The legal proceedings were only means for the police and the government to further accuse Florence Cassez; in fact, the media had already determined the outcome of her trial, stealing her democratic right to defend herself.15 More and more people began saying that there had been some kind of corruption and manipulation by the government in the Cassez affair.16

In the wrong place, at the wrong time

Many reasons have been mentioned to explain the behavior of the Mexican government in the Cassez affair. First, the political and social climate in Mexico was very tense. After the democratic transition that occurred in the 2000s, with the conservatives taking power after a 70-year-long reign of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), crime rates sharply increased in the country. Narcotrafficking and kidnappings dramatically rose, terrorizing the people and destabilizing the government. Numerous gangs began to appear, using the transitional period the country was going through to gain more power, making kidnapping a burning issue in Mexico.17 In his presidential campaign in 2005 and 2006, Felipe Calderón focused strongly on the topics of drug wars, security, and corruption. The Cassez affair that started in 2005—becoming a highly polemical matter in 2006—was the perfect occasion for Calderón to show his determination to fight crime in the country. He first tried to find an agreement with Sarkozy, but the Mexican public reacted violently to their president’s behavior and accused him of trying to please France rather than keep his promises to the nation. Therefore, Calderón decided to show no mercy toward Florence Cassez in order to demonstrate his dedication to the national fight against crime. According to one of Cassez’s Mexican lawyers, Jesus Horacio García, Calderón also had been reproached for poor management of the economic crisis, and used the Cassez affair to reassert his legitimacy by devoting his full attention to domestic security.18 Calderón’s decision not to extradite Cassez was also based on the serious electoral concerns he was facing. Legislative elections were scheduled for July 5, 2009. By the time the Cassez affair had occurred, his party, the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), was struggling to maintain popularity amid the economic crisis and the endemic insecurity in the country, and was being threatened by the increasingly popular PRI. As a consequence, he had no choice but to bend to the desires of the Mexican public in order to win votes.19

According to Francisco Reséndiz in an article published in El Universal,20 the Cassez affair was also a good opportunity for the police to restore their reputation, tarnished by accusations of corruption and inefficiency.21 This explains why the December 2005 arrest was filmed by the media and aired on several major TV channels. The issue of kidnappings was a very sensitive topic among Mexicans, and by using the media, the police department and its chief, Genaro García Luna, wanted to make a big splash. However the coverage of the arrest brought about Mexican condemnation of Cassez. She became a scapegoat for Mexican problems. Numerous voices also affirmed that Police Chief García Luna, had a personal score to settle with Cassez because of their televised clash. The revelations made by Cassez had detrimental consequences on the reputation of the police and for García Luna’s personal image. Cassez consequently became his personal enemy and there is little doubt that he did what he could to prevent her from being transferred to France. According to Cassez’s lawyer Franck Berton, this affair was a matter of political life or death for García Luna. With his career at stake following the televised argument, a few months after the beginning of the affair, President Calderón threw his support to García Luna by appointing him to the post of Minister of Public Security. According to Procesco, Calderón’s Secretary of the Interior Roberto Gil Zuarth explained in a secret meeting that if Cassez was eventually declared innocent, this would cause the fall of García Luna and would gravely impair the fight of the government against crime.22 Magistrates, of course, denied these accusations.23 However, García Luna is now the second most powerful man in the country and is also very close to President Calderón, who is not likely to change his mind unless forced to by the Mexican people.

Many journalists also claimed that the reaction of the French government, and Sarkozy’s head-on intervention in particular, were harmful to Cassez by turning public attention against her, as explained by Denise Maerker in an article published in El Universal.24 France had given Calderón a perfect opportunity to mobilize the attention and nationalism of the Mexican public against a haughty France that defended a woman that had become the symbol of Mexico’s overwhelming crime problem. By refusing to comply with Sarkozy’s request, Calderón showed his countrymen that he was a strong president and that Mexico was a gutsy independent country. Economic reasons could also explain why Calderón and the Mexican government used the Cassez affair to emphasize the issue of security. The crusade led by the government against crime has brought about a huge boom in arms sales and the security market. Companies such as Safran or Eurocopter invested a lot of money in Mexico. These growing markets had a positive effect on the economy, especially during the economic crisis. Calderón’s government might want to justify more spending in this sector in order to stimulate the economy and thus gain more support among the Mexican public. Cassez could be viewed as ”proof” that the government is spending money efficiently and that much greater funds should be injected in the security and surveillance markets.25

”Presumed Guilty”

Florence Cassez has never stopped claiming her innocence. After her sentence was reduced from 96 to 60 years on March 4, 2009, she decided to appeal her judgment again. However, in February 2011, her amparo –the last appeal possible in Mexican courts–was rejected by Mexican judges. Her lawyer, Agustín Acosta, nevertheless asked for the revision of Cassez’s amparo in early March. On the 16th, the Mexican Supreme Court announced that it would be in charge of the appeal for the review of the amparo. According to her lawyer, Berton, this is a good sign but the outcome is not certain. Nevertheless, it seems that the situation is beginning to turn favorably for the French woman. The Mexican public and media are slowly changing their minds. On April 4, 2011, the tabloid Gente published an 8-page article titled ”Presumed innocent” that was largely in favor of Cassez. The article insisted on the façade created by the Mexican police through the staged arrest. This testifies to a progressive turnaround in the country’s public opinion, especially considering that at the beginning of the affair Gente had been very hostile to Cassez.26

There are numerous reasons for this turnaround. First, the increasing criticisms against the government and the judiciary, and the negative elements revealed by the media, fueled a growing uncertainty among Mexicans toward the case. Another element that carried a lot of weight has been the release of a documentary titled ”Presunto Culpable” (Presumed Guilty). This film introduced a team of movie-makers following a convict all along the legal proceedings of the Mexican justice system. What emerged was that the Mexican judiciary is very corrupt and ”creates” convicts when need be. The movie summed up its message as, ”In Mexico, being innocent is not enough to be free.” This movie was censored by the government, however, it triggered a tidal wave in Mexican public opinion that proved to be very detrimental to the reputations of the Mexican judiciary and government. Moreover, because of the controversy it caused, this movie has become quite popular. Journalists also have started to link this movie to the Cassez affair. In an article published in El Universal, Alejandra Cullen compared the French woman to the convict of the movie, Toño.27 Moreover, in their book ”Fabrica de Culpables y Otros Casos de la Injusticia Mexicana” published in 2010, journalists Alain Devalpo and Anne Vigna also denounced the corruption of the Mexican judiciary and focused especially on the Cassez affair. As a result, the French woman has been gathering more and more support. In late 2010, the Catholic Church professed their support for her, creating a momentum for Cassez in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Similarly, in late 2010 and early 2011, former Minister of Justice Ignacio Morales Lechuga denounced the numerous irregularities found in Cassez’s trial and fought publicly for her legal rights.28 More proof that prospects are improving for the French woman is that on March 28, 2011, the first protocolic meeting between representatives of France and Mexico took place since the beginning of the Cassez affair. This shows that Mexico is progressively drawing closer to reconsidering Cassez’s sentence, and that the relationship between the two countries is beginning to turn around.

Mexico – France: a love-hate relationship

Several French and Mexican companies feared that the dispute would have bad implications for trade and other links between the two countries. However, according to Carlos Quenan, it is unlikely that this incident will have long-term consequences for their commercial and cultural ties. They are partners in the G20 and have numerous projects involving cooperation and public contracts. In 2010, France sold more than USD 2.5 billion in goods and services to Mexico, and Mexico exported USD 535 million to France.29 As far as France is concerned, Mexico is its second most important partner in Latin America after Brazil, and is an attractive emerging market. The government badly managed the Cassez affair by overestimating the influence of Paris on Latin America,30 but France definitely wants and needs to keep a good relationship with Mexico. As far as Mexico is concerned, Calderón used the Cassez affair to show that his country is independent, but France remains a developed and prosperous country that could be very helpful for Mexico’s development.

It is in the interests of both countries to preserve their relationship. Moreover, the links between France and Mexico have been of a love-hate nature for a long time.31 Their relationship survived the 1838 Guerra de los pasteles and the 1861 to 1867 intervention of Napoléon III to Mexico; one can be sure that their bonds will survive the Cassez affair. However, the future of the woman herself remains uncertain, even though it has gripped the imagination of millions of French and Mexicans worldwide.

References for this article can be found here