New check on Latin leaders

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

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

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.

"We have a stronger [Supreme Judicial] Court with a greater presence, and this is important for ... the transformations we are experiencing," said Mexican Congressman Mart Batres Guadarrama, after a meeting with the court's president last week. The leader of the congressional delegation of the Party of the Democratic Revolution added, "Without a doubt this change is positive for the country [and is being accomplished] even without changing the Constitution."

For Mexican analysts, the ruling is one consequence of the PRI's 1997 loss for the first time in seven decades of its congressional majority. That majority had allowed a dominant presidency, also held by the PRI, to operate without fears of any demands for judicial support for investigations from a submissive Congress, analysts say.

"Certainly an opposition Congress has limited the authoritarian tradition of the executive," says Antonio Caballero, analyst at the Judicial Research Institute of Mexico's National Autonomous University in Mexico City. "The new atmosphere has encouraged courts to take action that they already had the right to pursue but did not."

But Mexico's and other Latin countries' recent shows of judicial autonomy are also part of a broad judicial reform in the region over the past decade, Mr. Caballero says.

"International legal groups, governments including the US, and organizations like the World Bank have promoted this," with the objective of an independent judiciary more broadly perceived as working in the general interest, he adds. "What we're seeing are the first results of that reform."

Caballero says it was President Zedillo who spearheaded Mexico's judicial reform, beginning in 1995 with new laws more clearly defining federal judges' field of action. Referring to the current ruling ordering Zedillo to turn over documents, Caballero says with a smile, "That may not have been Zedillo's intention, but it was his doing."

In Guatemala, the judicial investigation derives from a surprise change in a new tax rate to be levied on alcoholic beverages. Congress last month set the levy at 20 percent, but when the rate was officially published, it came out as 10 percent. Opposition leaders suspect Mr. Rios Montt of engineering the change with other legislators under pressure from private interests.

The case has also become entangled with grievances over past human rights abuses. Rios Montt ruled from 1982 to 1983, at the height of Guatemala's civil conflict in which thousands of mostly poor indigenous Guatemalans died. The tax scandal has provided an excuse for human rights activists to renew their efforts against Rios Montt and demand his resignation.

But Rios Montt and his supporters are not taking the attacks lying down. In an effort to stall the court's decision on lifting immunity, the suspected congressmen have accused the investigating judge of acting on behalf of an opposition congressman they say is the judge's relative.

Similar charges are clouding the bribery investigation in Argentina, where senators charged with taking payments in exchange for their votes are accusing the investigating judge of having amassed unexplained wealth. Argentina's vice president, Carlos Alvarez, last week called the crisis "an opportunity to change the way we practice politics" and advised the senators not to resort to "distractions."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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