Eye to Eye in Search of Justice

Times Staff Writer

Dana Conour, a 33-year-old homemaker from Iowa, stood in a Mexican courtroom and faced the police officer accused of raping her.

When their eyes met, the events of that awful night came rushing back. She recalled how he had assaulted her on his desk, how he offered her a cigarette afterward, how he laughed about it with a fellow officer. She remembered the long wait for her husband to return from a cash machine and pay a bribe for her release.

Conour had gone back to Tijuana, nearly two months after the attack, expecting to identify her assailant in a lineup and be done with it. Instead, she found herself in a careo, or face-off, a central ritual of Mexican justice.

Conour stood an arm’s length from the accused, Hector Arias, 35, a police supervisor, with only a metal screen between them. As a judge and several lawyers watched, Arias locked his gaze onto hers and proclaimed his innocence.


“I had to look him in the eyes,” recalled Conour, now back home in Milo, Iowa, awaiting a verdict in the case. “He said, ‘Why are you doing this to me? You’re ruining my life.’ And I said, ‘You did this to me. I didn’t ask to be here.’ ”

The careo -- from the Spanish word cara, meaning face -- is a Mexican legal tradition that dates to the Spanish Inquisition. Accused and accuser confront each other and offer their versions of the truth, with limited participation from lawyers.

The encounter can last minutes or hours. Judges listen for inconsistencies and study body language. Is the defendant sweating excessively? Is the accuser fidgeting? Is either hesitant?

What do the eyes show? Can the alleged perpetrator face the victim without flinching, and vice versa?


Whether a careo is an effective tool for eliciting the truth is a matter of debate, but many legal scholars, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys say the practice has proved its worth.

Some crime victims relish the confrontation, saying it provides an emotional release. But victims of sex crimes and their advocates consider the careo primitive, a method of re-victimization in a justice system that, despite reforms, still bears vestiges of machismo.

“If she is not prepared, the rapist will eat her alive,” said Maria Santos Ramirez, a psychologist who treats sex-crime victims in Tijuana, where women’s groups are lobbying legislators to ban the careo in sexual-assault cases.

“The man will do anything to make her feel bad.”


The careo has parallels in other Western legal systems, which grant defendants the right to confront and cross-examine their accusers. But in an American courtroom, a criminal defendant and the alleged victim typically do battle through surrogates -- the prosecutor and defense lawyer -- and rarely come in close proximity to one another.

Critics say the careo’s intimate setting deepens a victim’s psychological trauma.

Forced to confront their attackers, sometimes only days after being assaulted, some women suffer emotional breakdowns, say sex-crime prosecutors and victims’ rights groups. Many victims can’t speak. Some faint. Others can’t meet their attacker’s gaze.

Child victims of sexual abuse face off against suspects who intimidate them with penetrating stares or furtive, threatening gestures, experts say. One Tijuana girl, 17 at the time, said she struggled to meet the glare of her former teacher, who she said had raped her repeatedly over a two-year period.


The girl decided to drop the charges. Now 18, she said she would rather see her assailant walk freely in her neighborhood than endure a careo. “When I see him on the street, at least I can flee,” she said.

Yet even critics concede that the careo is often the only way to sort out the facts. Mexican investigators often lack technology to make cases using DNA, blood or other physical evidence, so the performance of the defendant and the accuser during a careo can offer valuable clues.

“Police don’t have other evidence to support rape cases, so it comes down to this ‘He said, she said,’ in this primitive, medieval kind of confrontation,” said David Shirk, director of the Transborder Institute at the University of San Diego.

Under the Mexican constitution, all criminal defendants have the right to a careo. It is one of the few protections for defendants in Mexico’s Napoleonic justice system, which presumes people guilty -- not innocent -- when charged.


The face-off occurs during a session roughly equivalent to the U.S. justice system’s preliminary hearing, when judges determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed further with a criminal case.

The practice emerged in response to the tribunals of the Middle Ages, when people could be denounced as heretics by unknown accusers, say Mexican legal scholars.

The careo is also an investigative tool. This year, federal authorities considered arranging a face-off between former Mexican presidents Ernesto Zedillo and Carlos Salinas de Gortari to resolve questions surrounding the unsolved killing of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994.

Colosio’s father requested the careo to clear up alleged inconsistencies in the former presidents’ statements to investigators. Many Mexicans believe the killing resulted from a high-level, ruling-party conspiracy. The careo has not taken place.


Because many Mexicans’ perceptions of criminal justice are shaped by watching U.S. courtroom dramas, victims are often surprised when they learn that they will have to confront their alleged attackers up close, said Layda Negrete, a law professor at the Center for Teaching and Economic Research in Mexico City.

Face-offs are held in the offices of judges, which are Mexican courtrooms; there are no juries in criminal proceedings. The careos often break up the monotony of the Mexican legal process, which relies almost entirely on written testimony.

“You know there is a careo happening because of all the screaming going on,” said Negrete.

Conour said she was fearful last November when a court official told her to stand across from Arias, who was in a cell adjoining the judge’s office along with three other officers accused as accomplices.


She had last seen Arias in Tijuana in October 2003. Conour, her husband, Steve, and their 9-year-old son, Xavier, had been visiting relatives in California. They were unable to fill a prescription for a medication to treat her narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder.

So they made a side trip to Mexico, where a pharmacist agreed to provide the medication. Arias and the other officers stopped the family on a shop-lined promenade a short walk from the border crossing. The officers shined flashlights in their faces and accused the Conours of buying drugs illegally.

They were taken to a police substation, where Arias allegedly demanded a bribe. An officer led her husband and son away to get cash from an ATM, Conour said. She said Arias then locked his office door and closed the blinds.

They struggled, Conour said, and Arias raped her.


When Steve returned, Conour was on the couch, nervously smoking a cigarette, the husband said. Arias was sitting calmly behind his desk, he said.

“I just knew something was wrong,” said Steve Conour, an engineer and former U.S. Navy submariner. “But what could I do?”

Steve said he emptied his pockets and gave Arias $120. Arias escorted them to the door. “This is between us,” he allegedly told them.

Seeing Arias again in the courtroom stirred feelings of confusion and anger, Dana Conour said. He looked less imposing without his uniform and gun, she said. He still had a shock of black, spiky hair, but he had shaved his mustache.


“You raped me. You’re the one who raped me,” Conour recalled telling him.

Arias was so close that she could have reached through a 6-inch slot in the metal screen that separated them and touched him. An interpreter translated their exchange.

Conour described Arias’ groping strip search and his demands for money. She said her family was so traumatized that they wanted never to return to Mexico.

Arias’ eyes never left hers, she said, and when it was his turn to speak, he denied everything. Arias acted “meek as a lamb like a victim,” she said.


“It’s supposed to be a civilized conversation .... But that’s tough to do. I’m getting told by this guy who raped me that he’s never seen me before. He’s telling me, in tears, that I’m ruining his life,” Conour said.

After 20 minutes of arguing in circles, Conour said, she exploded and called him “cochino” -- filthy pig.

Juan Jose Juarez, a defense attorney for the officers who witnessed the careo, said he believes Conour was raped, but not by Arias or any of the other defendants.

The prosecutor, Narciso Ramirez Moreno, said Conour handled the face-off well. A verdict is expected early next year.


Steve Conour, who also faced off with the four defendants, said the confrontation was “cathartic,” a chance to stare down Arias. “I didn’t blink for two hours.”

Arias couldn’t look him in the eye, which Steve said gave him some satisfaction. “He kept looking down.... I attribute that to some sort of conscience, which helps me feel that he’s got guilt, and that’s something he has to live with.”

Although experts disagree on whether careos bring out the truth, Victor Fernandez Cordova, a prosecutor in Tijuana, believes they do. He said he has seen victims catch their attackers in lies. Once, he said, an accused assailant was released after his “victim” admitted making up the allegation.

But Negrete, the law professor, said many judges consider the careo a waste of time because most sessions degenerate into shouting matches.


In Mexico City, victims of sex crimes and kidnappings can now opt to participate in careos via videoconference.

In Baja California, support agencies have been established to prepare women for the careo. They are coached to maintain eye contact and disregard personal attacks.

Authorities say they have stopped forcing children to take part in careos, but attorneys and women’s groups say the practice continues.

“It’s horrible, the face of a rapist,” said Gabriela Navarro Peraza, a former sex crimes prosecutor who heads Baja California’s Institute of the Woman. “Here, it appears the defendant is more protected than the victim.”



Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.