France released a nation-wide sigh of relief Thursday as French citizen Florence Cassez arrived in Paris less than 24 hours after Mexico’s Supreme Court voted to free her from a prison where she’d been serving a 60-year sentence for kidnapping. Cassez—who has been in jail since her 2005 arrest and 2007 conviction—has consistently maintained her innocence and denounced significant irregularities in her case that previous court rulings had dismissed. In its 3-2 vote Jan. 24, Mexico’s Supreme Court declared Cassez’ rights had indeed been violated while under arrest and on trial; the tribunal invalidated her conviction and ordered her immediately freed. Cassez left the country within hours, touching down in Paris Thursday after seven years behind bars. “The plane has landed, but I think I’m still in the clouds,” said an ecstatic Cassez after her arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport—arguing her freedom was synonymous with acquittal. “I believe I was ruled innocent. The Supreme Court ordered my immediate and absolute liberation.”
While many of Cassez’s supporters in France and Mexico alike hailed the decision as a blow to an opaque and at times unaccountable Mexican justice system, some defenders of Mexico’s countless kidnap victims were outraged that the ruling was made on technical grounds rather than innocence or guilt. French media broadcast interviews with families whose loved ones had vanished amid Mexico’s abduction epidemic—some of whom blamed the Cassez reversal on diplomatic pressure from Paris. Others massed outside the prison as the 38-year old Cassez left for home shouting “killer!” as she sped by.
The decision ends a prolonged period of tension that had taken Franco-Mexican relations to the breaking point, as French public pressure to free Cassez met Mexico’s refusal to submit its national justice system to foreign diktat. Passions—and questions—were heavy on both sides. Cassez supporters noted she and boyfriend Israel Vallarta were held for 24 hours after their Dec. 8, 2005 arrest, as police prepared what was later broadcast on Mexican TV and described as a live bust of a gang of kidnappers who were holding hostages. (Authorities later admitted to staging the dramatic event.) Meantime, abductees who initially couldn’t identify Cassez as a captor later, as witnesses for the prosecution, delivered vivid—and at times contradictory—accusations of her involvement.
By contrast, Cassez’s contention that she had no idea Vallarta was a member of the notorious Zodiac drug and crime gang struck some observers as implausible. That incredulity grew after Vallarta confessed to kidnappings as Cassez continued denying knowledge of his activities. And while some witnesses undermined their credibility with belated or clashing testimony, other former hostages never wavered in charging that Cassez was an active participant in their detention.
Evidence or testimony against her notwithstanding, Cassez and her backers stood fast to her claims of innocence, and pointed to the bogus TV bust and other irregularities as evidence she’d been railroaded. Their reasoning: Cassez’s arrest and conviction was a career-maker for Genaro Garcia Luna–head of Mexico’s Federal Investigation at the time of Cassez’s arrest, who was later appointed Secretary of Public Security by then President Felipe Caldéron. Cassez’s conviction, critics contend, provided both men a dramatic retort to accusations they’d failed to turn back the spiraling violence and crime of drug cartels, or give sufficient attention to Mexico’s near pandemic of kidnappings.
For those reasons, opponents assert, neither man could afford a revision—much less reversal—of Cassez’s conviction, and instead relied on the Mexican justice system’s spotty record on due process to uphold the guilty verdict. And that it repeatedly did—amid growing pressure and protest from Paris that produced personal animosity between Caldéron and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Finally last March, Mexico’s Supreme Court acknowledged irregularities in Cassez’s case, but refused quash it or free her on what was supposedly her final appeal.
What changed the situation? For starters, the December 2012 election of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has vowed to clean up the nation’s politics, crack down on deadly criminal activity, and create more transparency and accountability in the justice system. In contrast to Caldéron—who was rigid in his refusal that Cassez’s guilt be questioned– Peña Nieto pledged he’d respect Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling freeing the Frenchwoman.
Indeed, some observers suspect that this case and other recent high-profile legal stands on controversial legal matters reflect Peña Nieto’s desire to shame Mexico’s judiciary into reforming itself by directing full light onto some of its most dubious decisions. Shortly after Peña Nieto assumed office last month, for example, former U.S. Marine Jon Hammar was released from a border prison five months after his questionable arrest for bringing a hunting rifle into Mexico despite having U.S. customs documentation for it. To some, such moves may reflect Peña Nieto inducing judicial reform by pushing conspicuous legal wrongs to be righted. The French officially recognized the improvement. “In the decision it delivered, Mexico proved itself to be a great democracy,” said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the airport reception for Cassez. The freed prisoner, of course, concurred. “This is a great victory for Mexicans too, since justice prevailed,” she said.
However, others questioned whether in facilitating the latest Supreme Court review of such a controversial case, Peña Nieto may not have exercised similar political influence –albeit in the opposite way than he predecessor–to a justice system he and other Mexicans want based exclusively on law. “The people deserve to be told by the judges why they use different criteria in similar cases,” wrote anti-crime activist María Elena Morera in an oped piece for El Universal. “People need judicial assurances and to re-establish their faith in the rule of law.” They wonder if justice, though propelled forward, is actually complete. “We can reasonably say that the procedural violations of Florence Cassez’s rights were sufficient to free her without demanding whether she was guilty or not,” writes Jorge Fernandez Menéndez in the daily Excelsior. “Evidence that wasn’t determinant in establishing her guilt should be eliminated, and from there a new trial should be held to decide if Florence should remain in prison or not.” That is unlikely to happen now that Cassez is in France.
–With reporting by Dolly Mascareñas/Mexico City and Tim Padgett/Miami