Fourteen years and thousands of miles separate Daniel Gerdts’ law office in downtown Minneapolis from his 1990 Human Rights Fellowship in Juarez, Mexico. However, his work investigating the Mexican legal system and Mexican police brutality has had a significant impact on his career and the experience remains with him as he practices law to this day.
“Even here in the United States people are really naïve. The average white middle-class person is really naïve about what actually happens. I see that when they express surprise and amazement and anger about how they are treated when they are arrested for a white middle-class crime like drunk driving. A lot of people expect to be treated more civilly. People could be a lot better educated about what’s going on next door, or down the street, let alone in Mexico,” said Gerdts from his office at Brink & Gerdts, P.A, a law firm specializing in white collar and general criminal defense.
Gerdts went on to talk about the importance of a good education in securing a job and living as a knowledgeable member of one’s community. A native of Minnesota, Gerdts was a Spanish major at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota and spent time during his undergraduate years traveling to Greece, Italy, Spain, and repeatedly to Mexico where a friend from school lived.
It was during these trips to Mexico that Gerdts personally experienced the corruption of the Mexican criminal system: “I had a couple run-ins with the police on my earlier travels to Mexico. I had been robbed by the police, had been a victim of the system.” He recalled one specific instance in which the police accused him of running a red light and demanded that he accompany them to the police station. Gerdts offered to pay the ticket on the spot, knowing that such an offer would be taken as a bribe. The police accepted.
“The native Mexicans understand how you’re expected to behave toward the cops. Americans don’t always understand. As an American, they expect me to have some money, while they wouldn’t expect every native Mexican peasant to have money. A Mexican would fear being hurt, physically hurt, by the police while I wasn’t too concerned about that. I was concerned about losing my liberty even if it were for only a few hours. As an American, that seems like a major violation,” he said of the incident.
After graduating from St. John’s University, Gerdts entered law school at the University of Minnesota. Studying under Professor David Weissbrodt and interning with Minnesota Lawyers International Human Rights Committee, now Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, introduced Gerdts to the arena of human rights issues. As graduation approached, Gerdts looked for a way to combine his law education with an interest in human rights advocacy. Recalling his experiences in Mexico, he worked with Minnesota Advocates to design a project to study police activities and the Mexican legal system in Juarez, Mexico.
Gerdts received a Fellowship from the Human Rights Center to fund the project and spent the fall of 1990 conducting research from a law office in Juarez, “I didn’t know what I was looking for when I went down there. I studied criminal procedure, read the newspapers, talked to human rights workers, and visited a couple jails to get a handle on what might be some of the issues in the criminal justice system.”
Gerdts’ research uncovered a stark difference between official Mexican
legal procedure and the habits of the region’s law enforcement officials,
“ I concluded that Mexican legal procedure was really very good. The laws
on the books, the treaties… were a good system if they were enforced. The
problem was that the criminal justice system largely ignored the laws because
they didn’t have the money to pay their cops, and the cops ignored the system
With this distinction in mind Gerdts took a closer look at the abuses committed daily by the local police, “I found a lot of allegations of torture and improper procedural issues. People were being detained without probable cause, detained for long periods of time without seeing lawyers or family.” Gerdts also documented instances of torture involving electric-shock, sensory deprivation, and severe beatings.
Gerdts recorded his findings in a paper published by Minnesota Advocates and released in both the United States and Mexico, where it received some attention and opened the doors of communication between Minnesota Advocates for Human Rigths and Mexican human rights groups.
Several years later, Gerdts returned to Mexico with Skip Humphrey and Tom Fable of the Minnesota Attorney General’s office. “Our goal was to express concern about the human rights situation and to forge a relationship with politicians and human rights workers who could effect a change if they wanted to,” said Gerdts. They met with the Federal Attorney General, a Mexican Supreme Court Justice, and other prominent officials.
Gerdts has been working locally as a lawyer specializing in criminal defense since 1993, but his work in Mexico is never far from his mind, “I suspect that conditions between the police and population haven’t changed much. If you don’t pay your police they’re going to get that money some other way. That kind of corruption encourages the cops to be lazy. I think that’s one of the reasons they use torture. It always gets a result. It may not be the correct result, but you can always get someone to confess.”
Gerdts went on to talk about the recent relevance that this discussion holds in current global issues, “Of course, now I realize that we use torture ourselves. And it doesn’t seem to be a crime to President Bush. People say that the torture of prisoners in Iraq is justified, and that’s easy to assume. I think that the cops in Mexico assumed their methods were justified because it made their work easier and was an accepted practice. When it becomes an accepted practice, torture is hard to rule out.”
When Gerdts was asked what one can do to incorporate the principles of human rights advocacy into their lives, he had simple advice to offer, “Just get a job and stay educated. Read a decent newspaper and be open to the truth. People don’t really want to believe that the abuses that go on really go on.”