Assassination of federal judge sends shudders through Mexico’s justice system

An armed man approaches federal judge from behind shortly before the assasination. (PHOTO: via Carlos Loret de Mola)

MEXICO CITY— Vicente Antonio Zacarías apparently went for a jog Monday morning and never made it back home. The federal judge, who has been involved in several high-profile drug cases, including that of incarcerated narco kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was shot in the head on the street in Metepec, a municipality of the central State of Mexico.

The hit Monday Oct. 17 was caught by nearby street cameras, and the video was published this week by several Mexican media outlets. Zacarías can be seen jogging in exercise clothing when an armed man approaches him from behind:

An armed man approaches federal judge from behind shortly before the assasination. (PHOTO: via Carlos Loret de Mola)
An armed man approaches federal judge from behind shortly before the assassination. (PHOTO: via Carlos Loret de Mola)

As reported by and many other news outlets, Zacarías had presided over several cases of organized crime. He issued arrest and search warrants against drug traffickers and his appeals court in the State of Mexico was responsible in March for temporarily suspending Chapo’s extradition to the United States.

A member of Chapo’s legal counsel told Mexican outlet Radio Formula that the jailed drug lord had nothing to do with the killing, and that Judge Zacarías only analyzed the extradition appeal but did not approve it.

The judge’s killing has rattled Mexico’s justice system. President Enrique Peña Nieto this week instructed the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (PGR) to take over the homicide investigation.

The murder has also sparked a renewed national debate on whether Mexico should consider implementing so-called “faceless judges and courts” to protect officials from narco-retaliations.

The country’s human rights commision (CNDH) is urging the government and civil society to evaluate the juez sin rostrosystem that has been implemented in other Latin American nations like Peru, Colombia and El Salvador to protect litigators against terrorists, gangs and drug lords.

But the idea of masked judges doesn’t sit well with some people, given Mexico’s recent efforts to improve judicial transparency through a new Criminal Justice Reform.

The murder of Judge Zacarías follows the recent killing of five soldiers during an ambush in the northern state of Sinaloa on Sept. 30. A Mexican general blamed that attack on the sons of Chapo Guzmán, who are rumored to have taken over the Sinaloa Cartel.

The recent attack combined with headlines of human rights scandals involving the Mexican army seems to be taking a toll on the morale of those charged with protecting the Aztec nation. Mexico’s top General Salvador Cienfuegos acknowledged this week there is “fatigue” inside the armed forces, and said there is a need for better funding and resources to fight organized crime.

There are still no solid leads as to who ordered the hit on Judge Zacarías, but the shocking video of his murder could instill an even greater fear among those leading the fight against the drug cartels at a time when Mexico is in desperate need of courageous officials.