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A chain of plagiarism at Mexico’s biggest university

A plagiarism scandal at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) had an impact on the appointment of the Mexican Supreme Court’s new president in early 2023. Judge Yasmín Esquivel Mossa, 59, who had received public backing from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, saw her campaign for the position abruptly ended by the discovery that her law thesis, defended at UNAM in 1987, was copied from the thesis presented a year earlier by Edgar Ulises Báez Gutiérrez. The introduction and conclusion were identical. Even the titles of the two studies were the same: “Inoperancia de los sindicatos en los trabajadores de confianza del Artículo 123 Apartado A,” meaning “The ineffectiveness of unions in the trusted workers of Article 123, Section A” in English. The main difference between the two texts is that the judge’s work does not include a field study carried out by Gutierrez. “It is such blatant plagiarism that it is offensive. The only thing left to plagiarize is the acknowledgments,” Juan Jesús Garza Onofre of UNAM’s Institute of Legal Research told the Mexican edition of the Spanish newspaper El País.

What might have been a case of individual misconduct involving a public figure eventually unfolded into a widespread academic scandal when it was discovered that Esquivel and Gutierrez had the same supervisor, Martha Rodriguez Ortiz, and that she supervised other plagiarized theses between 1986 and 2010. A 25-page chapter of the same thesis reappeared in the works of two students supervised by the professor in 2008 and 2010. In 1993, UNAM student Juan Carlos Blanco Silva, who now works as a prosecutor, presented the content for the third time as an original work, albeit with a different title. He was not, however, supervised by Ortiz. A grammatical error—a comma separating subject and predicate—is present in all copies.

UNAM, which is Mexico’s largest public university with more than 170,000 undergraduate and 24,000 graduate students, has begun an investigation into the chain of plagiarism cases and Esquivel’s degree could be rescinded. She claims she is the victim of persecution and that her thesis is the original version and Gutierrez is the plagiarist, even though he presented his first. The lawyer denies this accusation. President Obrador supported the judge, who he appointed in 2019, saying that the allegations were invented to make him look bad.

In the end, the judge was not elected, but that did not stop Mexico from naming its first woman as head of its Supreme Court. Norma Lucía Piña, 63, a specialist in constitutional law who has been a member of the court since 2015, beat four other candidates to the position. She received six of 11 votes from the judges on the Court and will hold office for the next four years.