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Reforms to Bolivia's Legal System Bring Some Justice to Poor Prisoners

Rights: Recent changes break system that kept many in jail even after they received verdicts of not guilty.

September 02, 1997|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA PAZ, Bolivia — This is how the justice system used to work in this country: Debtors were routinely locked up. Peasants could spend decades in prison for stealing and eating a cow. Suspects languished eight years behind bars awaiting a verdict, were found innocent, then had to remain in prison while prosecutors appealed--sometimes all the way to the Supreme Court.

Small wonder that when Rene Blattmann took the newly established post of justice minister in 1994, Bolivia had Latin America's highest proportion of prison inmates awaiting judgment: 91%. Blattmann went to work dismantling judicial machinery that was centuries out of date and assembling a modern system.

Soon the prison population declined sharply, leaving Bolivia with Latin America's second-lowest percentage of untried inmates. The state created protections that are common in other nations but were exotic here, such as public defenders.

Blattmann became a hero at home and a model of reform abroad.

"The reforms, whose promoter has been Justice Minister Blattmann, have produced very important results," concluded the Andean Commission of Jurists, an organization of legal scholars in the six-nation Andean region, in a report this year.

Bolivia offers an incomplete but hopeful success story in the struggle against a profound Latin American crisis: the injustices of the justice system.

"The worst thing that can happen is that the law is not respected, but only feared," said Blattmann, who stepped down last month when a new president took office. "We tried to do reasonable things that any person with common sense would understand. . . . There were absurd laws, crazy laws. They say that if [Franz] Kafka had been born here, he would have been considered a realist."

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Kafka, the Prague-born surrealist writer, was a principal inspiration of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian author and architect of the "magical realist" style of telling incredible stories in a matter-of-fact tone. And the justice systems south of the U.S.-Mexican border generate everyday horror stories that rival the fantastic visions of both authors.

The crisis emanates from the region's authoritarian politics and unequal economics, affecting big nations and small, modernizing and backward.

The cash and firepower of drug mafias overwhelm police and prosecutors in Mexico and Colombia. Penitentiaries are squalid, teeming caldrons in Brazil and Venezuela, where 41 people died in a prison riot last week. In Argentina, one of the safest, wealthiest and best-educated Latin societies, public disgust with the police and courts dominates politics.

As Blattmann, a spry and diminutive former law professor with a goatee, describes the absurdities he encountered, his expression combines disbelief and a workmanlike relish. He opens a law book to recite the old definition of terrorism, which encompassed "throwing bombs" and "shouting to cause an uproar in public." The offense was punishable by death.

"The laws gave a blank check to the state,' he said. "And all the apparatus of the state was selectively concentrated, inversely focused on the weak and the poor. It punished poverty more than crime."

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In this ponderous and labyrinthine apparatus, pretrial detention lasted years. Bolivians used the legal system to collect debts as minor as those of handymen accused of failing to complete a job. Jail cells burst with debtors and their families. This was one of the few nations that imprisoned debtors and allowed children to live in prison with their parents.

Economic despair played an aggravating role in a country whose predominantly indigenous population of nearly 8 million is among the hemisphere's poorest. Many inmates could not afford to pay civil damages that accompanied guilty verdicts for crimes such as theft--damages that had to be paid before release. Some could not pay the paperwork fees required for the formal issuance of a not guilty verdict.

Another factor was U.S. anti-drug policy. In 1988, the Bolivian Congress enacted Law 1008, a sweeping anti-drug statute. Encouraged by U.S. diplomats as a response to years of pervasive drug corruption, the legislation imposed tough restrictions on courts to prevent judicial protection of drug lords.

Under the original law, once a prosecutor filed drug charges, the judge had to proceed to trial regardless of the merits. After an acquittal, the suspect remained incarcerated until the appeal reached the Supreme Court. There was no bail.

"All you had to do was present a piece of paper, you could enter your son's report card as evidence, and the case had to go trial," Blattmann said. "People began to be very afraid, because the legal mechanism was used for extortion.'

In practice, the pawns and the innocent suffered most, while big-time traffickers merely bribed police and prosecutors. The justice minister will never forget the day he entered a crowded prison yard and asked how many inmates had already been found not guilty.

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