Freeing Mexico's Justice System

Of all the reforms attempted by Mexican President Vicente Fox, his current effort to overhaul the judicial system is the most ambitious, and most important - not just for Mexico, but for the US.

So far, Mr. Fox's greatest success at change has simply been his election in 2000, when he pried the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, from its 71-year rule. But with the PRI still dominating Mexico's Congress, Fox has suffered a legislative losing streak, failing to pass tax, electricity, and labor reforms.

Too much is at stake this time for him to fail again. Mexico, pushed by NAFTA, has come a long way in developing free markets, human rights, and democracy. But rule of law is a foundation of democracy. Without it, citizens can never enjoy the full benefit of their freedoms.

And certainly, a transparent, efficient legal system, free of corruption and impunity, would vastly improve business conditions in Mexico, which is America's second-largest trading partner and where US companies have invested more than $20 billion.

Fox's plan would turn Mexican justice right-side up (see story). He calls for public trials, oral argument, the presumption of innocence, the separation of prosecution and police functions, and plea bargaining. These, and more reforms, would be completely new to Mexicans.

The proposals, based on UN recommendations, could easily sink from their own weight. It also doesn't help that Fox is a lame duck who's not been able to forge alliances in Congress.

But as in 2000, his greatest advocate might be the people themselves - people too afraid to report the vast majority of crimes and often too poor to bribe legal officials. Fox should try his utmost to rouse the population, and once again move mountains.

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