Beneath a crown of black curls, Benjamin Salinas offers his clients encouraging words about past courtroom victories and the chance to make history.
Salinas, 21, and six equally earnest colleagues seated with him in a sterile conference room have yet to graduate from law school. But their clients, half a dozen homemakers and retirees with hearing aids and support hose, seem unbothered. They are desperate to recover their life savings, lost in an alleged investment scam, and this may be their best chance of getting justice.
“It’s my little star of hope,” says Alicia Gutierrez, 58, a retired office worker who lost more than $80,000.
Gutierrez’s “little star” is a legal aid clinic where clients arrive with worn case files and dimming hope, but often end up long-shot winners. In some cases, clients have been freed from prison.
The clinic is part of a Mexico City university called the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, or CIDE. The center’s legal studies program combines law school training with hands-on public interest advocacy, a novel field in a nation where many attorneys are poorly trained and their best weapon is often a bribe.
Javier Angulo, a slight, guitar-strumming professor with a history of Supreme Court triumphs, teaches law, oversees student work and is the attorney responsible for the clinic’s cases.
Students, guided by Angulo and another staff lawyer, work on the cases for free. Many of them probe uncharted terrain and have yielded legal precedents or led to new laws, such as one easing the penalty for abortions.
As Mexico works to cultivate a fully functioning democracy, the 6-year-old clinic is an effort to modernize a system long viewed as a factory of injustice.
“It has succeeded in exploring a new way of teaching law and, at the same time, is making an impact on legal culture in Mexico,” said Pedro Salazar, a legal scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Classes at CIDE have a freewheeling tone. On a recent day, Angulo, a criminal law expert, spewed legalese and salty Mexican slang in equal doses as he grilled students on the finer points of a free speech case. He squeezed his eyes shut when explaining legal concepts, as if recalling lyrics of an old song.
Angulo is plotting a novel tack to recover money for the thousands of mom-and-pop investors left penniless when a firm called Grupo Sitma closed without warning. His plan: Sue Mexico’s financial regulators under an untested law that allows class-action lawsuits, which are familiar in the United States but are just taking hold in Mexico.
“We want to be the first,” said Angulo, 34, puffing one of a steady stream of Marlboros in his office amid stacks of files.
Class-action litigation is so new that secondary laws governing such cases have not yet been written. So Angulo is designing the outline of a suit while students research how class actions work in other countries.
“We don’t have anything to go on,” said Julio Salazar, 21, a second-year student. “It’s cool.”
Salazar, who hopes to become a government lawyer, sat at his laptop, studying an academic paper on class-action suits. Around him, workstations were heaped with legal papers, computer equipment and the remnants of Angulo’s birthday cake, devoured that morning after the students pulled out a guitar and sang “Las Mananitas,” the birthday song. (Later, the professor would grab his own guitar and join the group in a jam session that included music by the Chilean rock group La Ley, or “The Law.”)
Since its inception, the clinic has fought on behalf of an array of underdogs: indigenous residents of Chiapas jailed for murder, women in Guanajuato arrested for violating a state ban on abortion, soldiers punished for speaking their mind, nonsmokers, gay couples.
The cases regularly make it to Mexico’s Supreme Court — students have met and chatted with justices — and often end in victory.
Battles are carefully chosen. Angulo seeks suits that might change social policies, rather than trying to right the legal system’s wrongs one inmate at a time.
Still, the clinic was barraged this spring after the success of “Presumed Guilty,” a documentary film about a Mexico City man who was convicted twice by the same judge for a murder he didn’t commit. The defendant was eventually exonerated thanks to new lawyers. (He was not represented by the clinic.)
People buoyed by the film began showing up at the clinic with loved ones’ files as thick as bricks. Phones chirped endlessly.
“It got to the point that one afternoon we disconnected the telephones,” Angulo said.
But the professor and his students have been examining the visitors’ files, some reaching 5,000 pages, to offer an independent assessment of their cases. The reviews have revealed grievous breakdowns: shoddy work by lawyers, questionable rulings by judges.
But by and large, Angulo shepherds his young charges on cases that offer the best chance to set broader legal precedent. Last year, the team joined the defense of eight women jailed in the central state of Guanajuato for violating the state law prohibiting abortion.
One of the women was freed for lack of evidence, a ruling that generated wide publicity about the arrests. Angulo’s team was working with a Guanajuato women’s rights group to sue on behalf of the seven other women when Gov. Juan Manuel Oliva submitted a bill to the state legislature reducing the penalty for the charged offense, infanticide. It passed, and the seven women were released.
Angulo has high hopes for a new case on behalf of a Nahuatl-speaking indigenous woman in the southern state of Guerrero, also jailed on charges of illegal abortion. The woman, Virginia Flores Cruz, understands little Spanish and is baffled by the proceedings that have kept her behind bars for two years, Angulo said. The absence of Nahuatl-speaking interpreters or defense lawyers has in effect denied her representation in court, he said.
The professor says the Flores case could affect cases involving indigenous suspects across Mexico. He sees it as a Mexican equivalent of the American landmark Gideon vs. Wainwright, in which the U.S. Supreme Court guaranteed the right of penniless defendants to a court-appointed lawyer.
It’s not easy striving for legal history when much of the work — reviewing documents, researching case law and even interacting with clients — is handled by students still wrestling with the concept of punitive damages.
But in Mexico, the fresh faces at Angulo’s clinic can evoke unexpected confidence.
Esther Figueroa, a 36-year-old homemaker who lost nearly $40,000 in the investment collapse, said she felt better after meeting the student team.
For two years, she and the others have sought to recover their deposits, begging for help from prosecutors, members of Congress, even writing to President Felipe Calderon. Although the investment company’s owner has been jailed, the whereabouts of the money remains a mystery.
Figueroa said she was optimistic.
“With young people we have a different strength,” she said. “That they’re young gives me faith that they will fight, that they haven’t been corrupted.”