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Fox Pushes for Overhaul of Justice System

Thwarted in other initiatives, Mexico's president promises 'profound reform.'

March 16, 2004|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Stymied in his efforts to raise taxes and open energy markets to private capital, President Vicente Fox is sending Congress a proposed overhaul of Mexico's justice system, including opening trials to the public.

The initiative, to be introduced next week, is Fox's top priority for the legislative session that opened Monday. The bill would abandon a judicial system rooted in 19th century Napoleonic law, in which judges decide cases based on reading documentary evidence, and create an adversarial system centered on oral arguments by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Fox's proposal includes many of the recommendations made last year by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to strengthen the separation of powers and the rule of law in Mexico.

They include making the attorney general's office independent of the presidency and the police independent of the attorney general. Criminal defendants would be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

"This would be a profound, profound reform," Fox said in an interview last week. He added that Mexico was moving away from a tradition of "isolating ourselves from the world" and now had "a different position on everything related to human rights."

Fox's election in 2000 ended 71 years of authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Just more than midway through a six-year term, he has little to show for his promises to create jobs, restructure the economy and secure a freer flow of migrants from Mexico to the United States.

The Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, both dominated by the PRI and smaller opposition parties, have blocked his energy, labor and tax reforms on ideological grounds. His tax bill was defeated as the previous legislative session ended in December.

Enrique Jackson, a veteran PRI lawmaker who presides over the Senate, said last week that Fox's economic reforms stood little chance of passing. He applauded the shift of focus to judicial reform, calling the concept "something all parties can agree on." But he withheld judgment on the bill itself and chided Fox for having announced it without consulting congressional leaders.

In his interview, conducted by Times executives and reporters, Fox said he would "keep on hammering" for labor and energy reform. And he voiced hope that a months-long fiscal reform convention -- launched in February by local, state and federal officials -- would help break the deadlock in Congress over proposals to boost tax revenue.

"We will try three, four, five, however many times we need until we convince them that over and above partisan philosophy and group interest should be the interest of Mexico," he said.

Fox is ineligible for reelection in 2006. His setbacks have helped focus Mexican pundits and pollsters on the many politicians -- including his wife, Marta Sahagun -- who are jockeying as declared or undeclared candidates to succeed him.

Dismissing criticism that he is a lame duck, Fox attributed the election fever to his own successful strategy of launching his campaign three years in advance.

"Now everybody wants to start early," he said. "Many say that will affect politics and will affect the moving of the country. I think the contrary. For those who want to be president, they should do their best job right now in order to be able to get there. So competition will favor good results for Mexico."

Fox says his wife "has never said that she will be a candidate," though he added that "the polls say she will make an excellent candidate."

"My wife and I, we are going back to the farm" after his presidency, Fox said. "We are going to go horseback riding. We will enjoy life. We will travel around. And we will keep our commitment with Mexico, no doubt."

While downplaying any political ambition on the part of his wife, Fox often goes out of his way to promote her activities. As the interview ended, he mentioned that Sahagun would speak Monday to a meeting of the Inter-American Press Assn. in Los Cabos, Mexico. "Are you coming to Los Cabos?" he asked.

Sahagun's speech extolled the flourishing of a freer press in the post-PRI era and urged the media to focus more on women's rights and the plight of the poor. Under questioning afterward, she said she had not decided whether to run for president.

Fox spoke of his disappointment that President Bush's war on terrorism had turned U.S. attention away from Mexico and an immigration accord that had appeared within reach before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The two leaders have begun meeting more frequently, and Fox has applauded Bush's recent proposal to give temporary guest-worker visas to millions of illegal immigrants.

But Fox said he had no illusions that anything would change before the U.S. elections in November, and he sounded uncertain of the American leader's commitment.

"President Bush has told me that he would be trying to submit that [guest-worker] initiative to Congress around the second quarter of this year," Fox said. "I don't know if he will do it or not."

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