It’s common for folks here in the States to shudder in horror at the miscarriages of justice we so often associate with the developing world. Images of corrupt police departments, overpopulated prisons, trumped-up charges, and kangaroo courts are the norm for American news media, with nightmarish films like 1978’s Midnight Express forever instilling a fear of foreign prisons into the American collective consciousness. But little do we know that the experience of foreign nationals incarcerated in the United States can be just as nightmarish.
Mexican director Santiago Esteinou’s documentary Los años de Fierro (The Years of Fierro), takes a sympathetic look at the story of César Fierro: an adolescent punk caught up in a web of corruption and shady police work on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and ultimately sentenced to death in an El Paso court for a murder it appears he didn’t commit.
Fierro is one of 52 Mexican citizens involved in the infamous Mexico vs. The United States case in the International Court of Justice, in which Mexico accused the U.S. of violating the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by not allowing Mexican officials to meet with their citizens before sentencing. In 2004, the Court ultimately decided in favor of Mexico, to which the U.S. responded with the equivalent of a big-ole middle finger and a “come and get ‘em, suckers!”.
To add insult to injury, an ongoing investigation into Fierro’s case has cast a shadow of doubt upon the guilty verdict that condemned the man to death nearly 40 years ago, yet the State of Texas has expressed no interest in reopening the case.
In Los años de Fierro, interviews with police officials, lawyers involved with the case and family members of the deceased are interwoven with testimony from Fierro himself and his homeless brother. While Esteinou effectively paints a portrait of a man who has suffered deeply from injustice — often deprived of food, clothing and human contact — the film is ultimately the story of two brothers tragically separated and confined to prisons both real and metaphorical.
Años de Fierro earned a Special Mention last week at Mexico City’s DocsDF International Documentary Film Festival.