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Why Hillary Clinton flagged judicial reform as 'essential' to Mexico's drug war

During her high-profile trip to Mexico Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton applauded an ongoing effort in Mexico to reform an outdated criminal justice system.

By Nacha CattanCorrespondent / January 25, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to reporters at a press conference in Guanajuato, Mexico, Monday. Ms. Clinton, who is on a one-day official visit, urged Mexico to stay the course in a "messy" war against drug cartels. She also flagged judicial reform as key.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP

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Mexico City

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed in a visit to Mexico Monday the importance of reforming Mexico’s judicial system, a policy matter that has been overshadowed by talk of how to coordinate security strategies.

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During her high-profile trip to Mexico, Clinton applauded, on more than one occasion, an ongoing effort in Mexico to reform an outdated criminal justice system, saying it is key to success in the drug war.

“A well-equipped, well-trained judicial system is essential,” Clinton told reporters after meeting with Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa in the central state of Guanajuato. “We stand ready to assist in that work.”

The statements were welcomed by policy experts who have been fighting for years to overhaul inadequate investigation, trial, and detention systems known to encourage torture and allow hardened criminals to walk free. Some said the speech may signal a shift in focus for the Obama administration, which has allocated scant funds to promote structural reforms in Mexico compared with military aid through the $1.6 billion Merida Initiative.

“The message seems to be more about structural [changes] and not only material resources,” says Carlos Rios, professor of criminal procedures at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching.

Slow switch to oral trials

Mr. Rios had campaigned heavily for the 2008 judicial reform, which gives Mexico until 2016 to switch from a secretive paper-based system to oral trials, where the accused is considered innocent until proven guilty.

But the process has been painstakingly slow and some critics say the federal government is not moving as quickly as it can to pass the necessary criminal procedure code. Human Rights Watch said in its World Report Monday that the slow progress on judicial reform is “leaving in place a system rife with abuse.”

Oral trials came under attack in the border state of Chihuahua after judges released the alleged killer of a 16-year-old girl. The suspect had reportedly confessed the murder of several people and an appeals court overturned the verdict, but he’d already walked free. The girl’s mother, Marisela Escobedo, protested the ruling for months until she was shot dead in December while standing vigil outside the governor’s palace.

Judicial reform proponents say the killing proved that investigators need to build better cases, but the public placed blame on the judges and the newly minted oral trials in Chihuahua.

Clinton pledges $500 million this year

During her trip to Mexico, Clinton pledged $500 million this year in funds toward capacity building and equipment to fight traffickers. It was not clear if a larger portion would go toward ongoing programs to train investigators and judges in judicial reform, and when the funds might flow.

Clinton also applauded advances in human rights, saying that Mexico is making progress in having military attacks against civilians tried in civilian courts. She said, however, that more needs to be done.

The secretary of state committed to clamping down on weapons smuggling, pledging $60 million for nonintrusive inspection equipment for customs agents this year. She promised new measures to track multiple purchases of high-powered rifles at the border after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives requested authority to require gun dealers to report such purchases.

Strong support for Calderon

Clinton saved her strongest words to back President Felipe Calderon and his military offensive against drug cartels, which has been losing public support as killings increase. More than 34,000 people have died in the past four years in drug-related murders.

“The drug traffickers are not going to give up without a terrible fight,” Clinton said. “And when they do things that are just barbaric, like beheading people, it is meant to intimidate. It is meant to have the public say, ‘Oh, just leave them alone and they won’t bother me.’ But a president cannot do that.”

Clinton’s visit came as the death toll from a shooting in the devastated border city of Juarez rose to 7. Gunmen had opened fire during a soccer match Sunday in a field that had been built months earlier to curb gang violence.

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