Mexico's death-penalty juncture

One state votes on reinstating executions, while World Court orders US not to kill 3 Mexicans.

Death-penalty opponents here have scored at least a symbolic victory after a World Court decision this week ordered the US not to execute three Mexicans.

But even as Mexico battles to save its citizens jailed north of the border, there is fresh debate at home about the possibility of reinstating capital punishment.

Two political parties in one of the country's most crime-ridden states are holding a public referendum this month on whether to make kidnap, murder, and other violent crimes punishable by death. Recent phone and Internet surveys indicate that 70 percent of respondents in the State of Mexico support the plan, according to organizers.

Though the death penalty is still technically on the books in Mexico, this country has not executed a prisoner since 1937, and there is no provision for it in the penal code.

Mexico's soaring rates of violent crime have at times sparked talk of legalizing capital punishment. But it has been far more common to see top Mexican officials pressuring the US - generally without success - to stay executions of their nationals convicted of capital crimes north of the border.

Last August, President Vicente Fox canceled a visit to George Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex., in protest after Texas executed Mexican Javier Suárez Medina.

President Fox argued that Mr. Medina, who was convicted of gunning down a police officer, was never given access to the Mexican Consulate, something guaranteed by the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Rights, which the US signed.

The US position - both in Medina's case and in the latest case before the World Court - was that Mexico was trying to interfere in America's sovereign right to administer its criminal-justice system.

On Wednesday, the World Court at The Hague ordered Washington to stay the execution of three Mexicans on death row, saying they had been denied their right to legal help from the Mexican government. When it brought the case to the international court last month, saying it had exhausted its diplomatic options, Mexico had been seeking reprieves for all 51 of its nationals facing execution in the US. The 15-judge panel in the Netherlands said it needed more time to investigate the charges, but issued stay-of-execution orders only in the three cases whose execution dates were to be set shortly.

The World Court has no way of enforcing its decisions and the US has flouted them in the past. But death-penalty opponents and lawyers at home and abroad say the US justice system is largely failing foreign nationals - as well as many poor Americans - charged with capital crimes.

Of the 51 Mexicans currently on death row in the US, the critics say, most received substandard legal representation, usually by state-appointed lawyers who spoke no Spanish, failed to conduct investigations into their cases, and generally paid scant attention to their clients. Most of the Mexicans were poor and uneducated in their legal rights. In some cases, they were illegal immigrants.

"The irony is that cases like these should attract the best lawyers," says Sandra Babcock, who heads the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program. "But you don't see the top lawyers flocking to represent poor Mexicans."

The situation has sparked widespread public furor in Mexico, which Ms. Babcock compares to the outrage in the US over the 1994 flogging in Singapore of American teenager Michael Peter Fay. Mexicans don't see it as an issue of sovereignty, she says, but of mistreatment and brutality.

Recent events in the United States may be bolstering Mexico's position. Last month, outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan emptied his death row, commuting the sentences of 156 inmates, including three Mexicans, and declaring the US justice system "broken."

Opponents to reinstating the death penalty in Mexico voice similar concerns about this country's notoriously corrupt and inefficient justice system.

"It's normal in a country with such high levels of crime that people would want stronger penalties," says Alfonso Dominguez, who works on capital-punishment issues for the human rights group Amnesty International. "But if there are faults in the US courts, imagine what it would be like here."

Rich defendants who can hire hotshot lawyers and bribe corrupt judges tend to escape punishment in Mexico, he says, while scores of poor men and women languish in jails for crimes they did not commit.

"Surveys indicating that Mexicans support the death penalty cannot really be trusted either," he adds. "If you ask people whether kidnappers and murders should be executed, they usually say yes. But if you show statistics that it's mostly poor people who end up in jail, then they say they don't support it."

SENIOR officials with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which is cohosting the referendum in the State of Mexico, and supporting similar efforts in the state of San Luis Potosí, say the proposal guarantees that no one in Mexico would be wrongly executed. "Each time there would be a candidate for the death penalty," explains Isidro Pastor Medrano, a party leader in the State of Mexico, "the public would be asked to vote on whether the sentence was justified."

Mr. Medrano says too many residents of the state of Mexico, which borders Mexico City, live in a "constant state of panic" over the high violent-crime rate. "We want to let the people here decide on the best way to fight crime."

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