Malaysia's noose makes news in Mexico

In Mexico, where the death penalty does not exist despite the bitter war against drug cartels, Malaysia made waves recently after sending three of its citizens to the gallows for drug trafficking.

When the Federal Court in Putrajaya upheld the Court of Appeal's guilty decision against three brothers in April, the Mexican ambassador to Malaysia Carlos Felix Corona found himself inundated with interview requests from 32 media agencies from his country.

Luis Alfonso, 47, Simon, 40, and Jose Regino Gonzalez Villareal, 37, came to Johor in February 2008 to work at a factory in Senai Industrial Park but were caught by police two weeks later.

They were charged with manufacturing about 30kg of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, under Section 39B of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952.

Time stopped for the siblings from the day of their arrest.

Between that time and 2011, the men lost contact with home.

That year, Mexican journalist Victor Hugo Michel broke the news in the country.

He went on to write a book, To Die in Malaysia, based on the brothers' accounts, which were published in August 2013.

The book, according to Michel, is now used in journalism schools in Mexico.

Michel said it was while chatting with a Mexican diplomat in the United States one day that he heard about three Mexicans who were close to being on death row halfway around the world.

"This is the first time in history Mexicans could be hanged to death. It's not like we never had Mexicans sentenced to death overseas, but to die by hanging, that's unheard of. On top of that, it's three brothers!" he said.

Malaysia, though one of 32 countries in the world to impose the death penalty for drug trafficking, is among only six countries to routinely execute drug offenders, according to an April 2015 report in The Economist.

The story instantly made headlines in Mexico, and became the focus of a heated debate about whether the brothers deserved their punishment or not.

Up until then, the Gonzalez Villareal family had had no idea Luis, Simon and Regino were in such deep trouble.

"The family had failed to contact the brothers. All they knew was that they had gone to work in a country called Malaysia," said Michel, who visited the family after returning from Asia.

"I was the first Mexican the brothers had seen since they left home. They had heard nothing from home.

"They didn't even know how Mexico performed in the 2010 World Cup and asked me if we had had a good run," said Michel of his first visit to the Johor Baru prison.

When the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court decision in August 2013, the story made the headlines again back home.

By then, the brothers' lives did change for the better when Corona was appointed ambassador to Malaysia.

Visiting the brothers frequently, he helped to get them transferred from the Kajang prison in Selangor to the Bentong facility in Pahang, which, according to Michel, was

more comfortable.

Corona even wrote to Pope Francis about the brothers. Last year, the pontiff sent the brothers a rosary and medallion on Holy Thursday to lift their spirits.

Corona, a diplomat for more than 23 years, came to Malaysia for a reason: he has had vast experience in dealing with the death penalty and is one of Mexico's leading experts on the subject.

Not only did he head a consular affairs team in Arizona, where he cut his teeth as a diplomat confronting racist ranchers, he also formulated a programme for Mexicans on death row in the United States when he was the Political Affairs Minister in the Mexican Embassy in Washington DC.

For the Federal Court appeal, Corona helped engage counsel Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, noted for representing drug offenders, for the brothers.

Corona also arranged for their sister and Luis' wife to fly to Malaysia to attend the hearing.

After the Federal Court judgment, Corona told The Star: "We respect the Malaysian judiciary and we will file a judicial review before resorting to the clemency of the Sultan of Johor."

The Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry has said it will appeal to local and international bodies that are against the death penalty.

Corona, meanwhile, attended the Asian Regional Congress on the Death Penalty recently and consulted prominent Malaysian criminal lawyers.

Asked whether he would publicly appeal to the Malaysian Government on the brothers' behalf, Corona replied with a smile: "The Malaysian landscape is different."