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New check on Latin leaders

Mexico's president has until Sept. 25 to comply with a first-ever high- court investigation.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 19, 2000


President Ernesto Zedillo came into office six years ago saying he wanted to see Mexico with a more independent and efficient judiciary.

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He's leaving his post this year with the country's Supreme Judicial Court trumpeting, "You asked for it!" The court last month issued a first-ever order to a Mexican president to turn over documents he preferred to keep secret.

Across Latin America, courts are catching the democratization wave and making a splash with high-profile shows of independence, finally playing the balancing role that Constitutions outline for them. From Guatemala to Chile, judges are investigating improprieties and human rights abuses in other branches of government - even in the once-untouchable executive powers of formerly authoritarian regimes.

"It's a long tradition in Latin America that the judiciary was subjugated to other powers and especially to the executive arm," says Dinora Azpuru, a political analyst at ASIES, a Guatemala City think tank. "But now we're seeing once-timid-and-inefficient courts standing up and asserting their independence."

In Guatemala, a justice of the 13-member Supreme Court is investigating whether a group of congressmen, including former military leader and current congressional president Efran Rios Montt, should lose their congressional immunity and be tried over a suspicious change in an alcoholic-beverage tax.

In Argentina, a federal judge is investigating cases of bribery related to a Senate vote in April approving a controversial labor-law reform. The bribery investigation has exploded into one of Argentina's biggest corruption scandals - and has a swamped President Fernando de la Rua, promising to weed corruption out of all branches of government.

In Chile, often considered an "incomplete democracy" for the broad powers the former military rulers have preserved, the Supreme Court last month lifted the immunity of former dictator and Senator-for-life Augusto Pinochet. While many Chilean observers believe a trial for human rights abuses of the aging ex-dictator is still unlikely, they say the ruling nevertheless signals that a long era of impunity for officials guilty of abuses is over.

In Honduras, a judge last week ordered the arrest of former military leader Gen. Amilcar Zelaya and seven other military officials for the torture of six students in 1982. Skirting amnesty laws designed to protect the former military rulers from prosecution, Honduran courts have recently determined that those laws leave the door open to trials for individual crimes.

And then in Mexico, the Supreme Judicial Court gave President Zedillo until Sept. 25 to turn documents over to a congressional investigation that could prove whether the 1994 election campaigns of Zedillo and other politicians of the former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, were financed illegally. Until the Aug. 24 ruling - the first time the high court resolved a conflict between the executive and legislative branches - Zedillo had claimed that turning over the documents would violate banking secrecy laws.