Scott Marks 2:48 p.m., May 23
Florence Cassez, a 35 year-old Frenchwoman, was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to 60 years in prison in Mexico. She has released a book about her case in an effort to pressure Mexican courts to accept her appeal.
The Frenchwoman has acknowledged she had lived at a ranch near Mexico City where three kidnap victims were held. But she says she was simply dating a Mexican arrested in the case and did not know the people at the ranch had been kidnapped. Her boyfriend, Israel Vallarta Cisnero, admitted to being involved in kidnappings, but has maintained the innocence of Cassez, who says she was made a scapegoat by Mexican law enforcement to highlight their actions on the kidnappings that plague Mexico.
The arrest of Florence Cassez took place on Thursday, December 8, 2005 on the Mexico City-Cuernavaca Highway, as she was riding with her former boyfriend, Israel Vallarta. Cassez says she was detained the day before the raid, kept overnight in a police vehicle and planted inside the farmhouse, where her ex-boyfriend lived, shortly before the television crews arrived to film her capture. The Mexican Federal Police, which had tipped several journalists, staged a fake arrest on which TV crews of Mexican networks Televisa and TV Azteca reported live. Three kidnapped victims were freed and four persons, including Florence Cassez, were arrested. Florence Cassez was then presented as a member of the kidnap gang “Los Zodiacos”, a fact that she has always denied
Mexican police were forced to admit weeks after her arrest that her arrest had been staged for television cameras. Then court documents emerged revealing that a key witness against Cassez had actually retracted his testimony, which he said was obtained under duress. David Orozco, who was arrested in May 2009 for his alleged role in the kidnapping ring that Cassez and her ex-boyfriend Israel Vallarta were accused of leading, had named the pair as leaders of the criminal operation.
Orozco subsequently told a judge that his statement against Cassez had been obtained “by means of torture”. “They told me what they wanted me to say.” In a document signed by Judge Eduardo Javier Saenz Hernandez, Orozco denied belonging to the gang of kidnappers or ever meeting Cassez or Vallarta, contrary to his previous, widely broadcast, public statements. “I didn’t do it, I don’t know these people”, read the record of his statement to the judge.
Orozco claimed he was kidnapped by masked gunmen who turned out to be policemen. He said they beat him, administered electric shocks, and threatened to kidnap his wife and son before forcing him to issue a televised statement against Cassez. “They started to tell me what they wanted me to say, and gave me the names of Israel Vallarta and the French woman,” Orozco reportedly said in his later testimony.
Cristina Rios Valladares, and her 11 year old son Cristian Hilario were two hostages freed during the staged arrest. In an initial statement to the police, neither Cristina Rios Valladares nor her son could identify Florence Cassez when she was showed to them. Two months later, in February 2006, Cristina Rios Valladares changed her testimony and began to claim she could now identify Florence Cassez as one of her kidnappers. It was deemed suspicious that Cristina Rios Valladares, who days earlier had spent the entire day at the Mexican Federal Police building, suddenly remembered — two months after the fact — that she had been raped by Israel Vallarta while Florence Cassez insulted her, a fact she did not mention in her first statement to the police.
In March 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy lobbied for Cassez to return to France to serve out her sentence near her family. However, Mexican President Felipe Calderon rejected the possibility of her repatriation, which would have been very unpopular with Mexican public opinion.
In February, 2011, a Mexican court struck down an appeal by Cassez, ruling that the procedural irregularities that formed the backbone of Ms. Cassez’s appeal didn’t justify overturning the previous conviction.
On Wednesday March 20, 2012, a five-judge panel rejected another bid to release Cassez, but it opened a door to a retrial on the grounds her rights were violated before her conviction. A poll published in a Mexican newspaper this week showed the vast majority of Mexicans wanted her to stay in prison. Those opposing her release argue it would be an affront to the victims of kidnapping in Mexico, where many of the guilty go unpunished.