Fox bids to reform Mexican justice

A proposal sent to Congress would make trials public and presume a defendant's innocence.

The closest that most Mexicans get to the concept of public trials, Miranda rights, and presumption of innocence is watching dubbed reruns of "La ley y el orden" ("Law & Order"). But if President Vicente Fox gets his way, fiction will become reality.

Mr. Fox has unveiled a sweeping reform of the country's notoriously foul criminal-justice system, from the police and prosecutors to trial procedures. The plan aims to wrest the system free of endemic corruption by injecting it with more transparent practices, bringing it in line with other Latin American countries including Argentina, Chile, and Costa Rica, which have adopted similar legal reforms.

While Fox came to office in 2000 promising to clean up a country governed by one party for more than 70 years, he has little to show for it. Opposition in Congress has blocked his labor, tax, and energy initiatives. But with the public increasingly fed up with crime and government graft, observers say the time is ripe for passing these radical legal changes, which could prove to be Fox's legacy.

"This initiative is a milestone in Mexican history," says José Antonio Ortega, a crime expert with Coparmex, a leading Mexican business association. "People feel abandoned by the justice system, and this reform will professionalize investigations and increase transparency. There are no losers with this."

The reforms, announced last week, would consolidate the five national police forces into one, and give more officers the power not just to prevent crime but investigate it. Police would be independent of federal prosecutors.

The plan would also enforce the presumption that defendants are innocent until proven guilty.

"Mexico's constitution incorporates this concept, but it is rarely put into practice," says Adriana Carmona, a lawyer with the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. "Here, the prosecutor's findings heavily influence a judge's ruling."

Torture prevalent

Basic legal principles in the United States, such as Miranda rights and public trials, have yet to penetrate Mexico. Defendants rarely have face time with a judge, and about one-third of cases are solved through torture-induced confessions, according to a recent study by CIDE, a Mexican research institute. Juvenile offenders are often treated as adults, with the idea of community service as an alternative to jail still rare.

The dysfunctional system results in a string of tragic stories. In March 2003 Guillermo Vélez Mendoza, a presumed kidnapper, died within hours of being detained by federal agents. One autopsy showed that he died from torture, while a second concluded that he had fallen while attempting to escape from police custody.

Excessive and arbitrary prison sentences are common. Lawyers groups say that Mexican jails are filled with offenders, many young and poor, serving long sentences for petty crimes, while serious criminals, especially those able to pay bribes and call on political contacts, evade lockup.

These flaws fuel public mistrust in the system. Most Mexicans view police officers and judges as more focused on negotiating bribes and protecting local bosses than fighting crime - an attitude that, according to studies by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, leaves more than 75 percent of crimes unreported (what local officials call the "black statistic").

"Our justice system grew out of a totalitarian state that depended on corruptive practices to function," says Laura Salinas, a law professor at Mexico City's Autonomous Metropolitan University. "Even the best reform will do nothing if administrators and those in power continue to lack ethics. Having said that, it's good to see Fox trying to create a legal base that we can build on."

Most Mexicans back Fox's reform, and so may Congress. A public increasingly weary of crime may convince legislators to back the bill, particularly as the 2006 presidential election nears. In the past two months, a wave of political corruption scandals have dominated Mexican headlines and left many wondering when cleaner political days will come.

The plan's most daring proposal is to implement public trials. In the current system, judges accept written statements in their offices and issue written judgments.

"Right now, the process is closed-door," says Mr. Ortega. "It is nearly impossible to monitor the system or know how cases are decided."

The new plan would bring the public into the courtroom, with witness stands and defense lawyers and prosecutors arguing before a judge's bench. Only confessions made in front of a judge would count, a change designed to prevent torture.

Logistical challenges

Quite apart from the logistical challenge of implementing a new trial system, Mexico's government must also consider the broad cultural shift that the reform package implies.

"It would need to be accompanied by a massive public- education program," says Ms. Salinas. "Lawyers and judges would also need training.... Many judges are old-fashioned here, a bit stuck in time. They'd have to come around to a more modern way of working."

Legal experts and human rights groups are now poring over the government's 500-plus page proposal to see if it has legs. Most observers are encouraged that the reform includes the recommendations of a United Nations study of Mexico's justice system.

However, they maintain a degree of skepticism until they see the bill in its final form, as well as the amount of money the government will budget for the implementation of the far-reaching changes. The proposal must go through Congress and could take the better part of a decade to implement.

"The government has publicized the best parts of its reform," says Carmona. "The strength of the bill will be in the details."

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