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.

Rich Clabaugh

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.

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.

"To feel it and see it, to see [a witness's] facial expression, is transcendent," says Mr. Siqueiros, who worked in the traditional system for 12 years with little exposure to cross-examinations. This might be the status quo for an American judge, but Siqueiros says it is revolutionary here. "It's marvelous to be able to do justice in a new way."

Oral trials will consist of a panel of three judges. But first cases are sent to mediation or pretrial hearings. In Chihuahua City last year, the far majority were solved at this stage before reaching the oral proceeding. Juries are not part of the process.

On a recent day, a man faced robbery charges for stealing money, alcohol, and cigarettes from a convenience store. Four days after the theft, the prosecution and defense resolved the case with plea bargain. Siqueiros says the same case would have taken four months in the old system – and the man charged would have sat in jail the entire time.

From Jan. 1 to mid-March, of 208 cases, 139 cases have been resolved. With four times the number of cases that Chihuahua City saw in the same period last year, Ciudad Juárez is fertile ground for testing national legal reform.

"They say that if it can work in Ciudad Juárez, it can work anywhere in the country," says Jorge Gonzalez Nicolas, a lawyer and coordinator for the criminal defense attorneys in the new system here.

The national reform, which will be reflected in the Constitution and still requires that a majority of state legislatures pass it, will also be based on oral trials and the presumption of innocence. And the real test for whether a new criminal system quells violence would come with a federal overhaul, says Ms. Gonzalez, since most crimes related to drug trafficking and organized crime head directly to the federal system, even though state courts also deal with the lawlessness it generates.

"At the end of day, sending the troops, while it has been effective and necessary, is the equivalent of applying a Band-Aid," says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, an expert on Mexico and head of the Washington-based consulting firm Peschard-Sverdrup & Associates. "Ultimately the judicial reform gets to the root of many dysfunctionalities that have [allowed] loopholes for criminal activity to prevail."

The system in the state of Chihuahua has not come without its controversies. Among the most radical changes is the presumption of innocence.

In Chihuahua City, many residents say the new system, which jails fewer suspects before their trial, makes many feel insecure.

"If a guy stabs someone with a knife, or robs a store, why should he be let out? He's just going to do it again," says Octavio Pinon, a taxi driver in the city.

It's a concern that abounds in Ciudad Juárez, too, says Mr. Gonzalez Nicolas. Of the first 100 people detained since the new system went into place, he says, 14 were sent to preventive jail, compared with an average of 92 for every 100 people under the old system.

But many expect that residents will accept the new system. "Cases will be solved much faster, and society will perceive this, that criminals can't get away with crimes," says Maria Catalina Ruiz Pacheco, one of Ciudad Juárez's new oral judges. "It will restore people's faith in the justice system."

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