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Rough border town leads reform of Mexico's legal system

In Ciudad Juárez courts, the presumption is now innocence. It's a radical change that could lead to an overhaul of Mexico's criminal-justice system.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2008

Rich Clabaugh

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Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

On a recent day in a brand-new courtroom in this scruffy border town, a front line in Mexico's drug war, the prosecution and defense pepper a witness with questions about the cause of death in a homicide case.

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It's a scene that would be nothing extraordinary in any American courthouse, but here it is revolutionary. The judge and lawyers participating in this case are pioneering a new system that could become a model for the nation, as Mexico moves to overhaul its criminal-justice system.

Since Jan. 1, judges in Ciudad Juárez, in Chihuahua State, no longer decide cases by exchanging written briefs. Gone, too, is the presumption of guilt. And some of the changes in place here and elsewhere in the state are reflected in a series of nationwide legal reforms approved last month by Mexico's Senate.

"The new model's goal is to respect human rights and impart more efficient justice.

But in the future, especially with a focus on restorative justice, it will generate a culture of peace," says Patricia Gonzalez, Chihuahua's attorney general, who is considered one of the champions of the state reform and supports a complete national revamp, particularly as the federal system sees the bulk of organized crime cases.

The goal of Ciudad Juárez's new judicial system is not crime reduction, but many believe that will be an important side effect – one that is a missing component in President Felipe Calderón's aggressive war on drug cartels, say observers.

"With cases solved faster, and the system more agile, I believe it will be a model for reducing impunity," says criminal magistrate Roberto Siqueiros, during in interview in his office at the new court building, where workers were still installing water coolers and phone lines.

Mr. Calderón has sent tens of thousands of military personnel and federal authorities across Mexico to quell violence that took an estimated 2,500 lives last year. But that, observers say, will be in vain if the country's laborious legal system is not replaced by a more effective judiciary.

For Ciudad Juárez, a city caught in the middle of a war between drug traffickers, the new legal initiatives offer some hope that the violence may diminish.

A handful of states have voted in various legal reforms in the past few years, says Alejandra de las Casas, a lawyer and Chihuahua coordinator for Proderecho, a group that has trained lawyers and judges throughout the country to prepare for new reforms. But she says Chihuahua State is the pioneer for its wide-sweeping changes. Reforms were first implemented in the state capital, Chihuahua City, last year, before moving to expanding to Ciudad Juárez. They will be in place statewide by July 1.

Among the chief changes to the new system is oral trials – instead of the largely closed way that the system operated traditionally. Before, cases were heard in offices and basically amounted to stacks of paperwork read privately by a judge. Now the trials, recorded on DVDs from a sleek new technology room, take place in courtrooms with seating for the public.

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