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Fox Tries to Balance Scales of Mexican Justice

The president's proposal would overhaul a system that is often slow and biased. But he may lack the necessary support from legislators.

March 30, 2004|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Arturo Bermejo Hernandez knows all too well that Mexico's judicial system needs fixing. His two sons are doing six-year sentences in Mexico City's maximum-security prison after a trial that no one in his family knew about, much less understood.

Their guilt or innocence notwithstanding, the sons' secret trial on robbery charges and the judge's presumption that they were guilty merely because they were arrested illustrate the problems pervading the country's antiquated, overloaded and unfair legal system.

"There was no investigation of the robbery charges, which are false. They just sentenced my sons to this place, and they don't care," Bermejo, a 46-year-old taxi driver, said as he waited last weekend with hundreds of others to visit inmates in the sprawling Eastern Prison. "The government has to change the way it does things."

Change could be on the way. On Monday, President Vicente Fox unveiled a sweeping judicial reform bill that would open trials to the public, reduce the power of judges and give police new independence and investigative authority.

The plan fulfills one of Fox's central campaign pledges and closely follows the recommendations of a United Nations study made at his behest in December. The goal is to give the accused the same rights to due process of law provided in the United States and Europe, rights that in Mexico are weak or absent, said Miguel Sarre, a Mexico City law professor who contributed to the U.N. study.

At a ceremony Monday at the presidential residence, Los Pinos, attended by several Cabinet members and civic leaders, Fox said the proposed reforms were a response to "social demand for justice.... The proliferation of wrong practices is a shame and must stop."

Fox's proposal comes amid a hemispheric movement toward judicial reform. Several other Latin American nations, including Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica and Chile, are trying to overhaul their judicial systems.

Although he swept to power in 2000 as a reformer, Fox's previous efforts to modernize Mexico's labor, tax and energy laws have fallen flat in large part because his National Action Party lacks a majority of seats in the legislature.

Critics say Fox's political missteps have made it difficult to forge alliances to push his agenda. And the perception that he is a lame duck may further hurt his chances of passing the package.

Even if Fox finds the requisite legislative support, the reform package would need eight constitutional amendments and overhauls of police and court infrastructure before it could be implemented.

Fox's former foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, who recently announced his candidacy for president, faulted Fox for proposing the bill at the same time as an electoral reform package and just before the legislature shuts down for Easter.

"What are the priorities? What's more important? It's the problem with the Fox administration since the beginning," Castaneda said Monday in an interview.

Though praising Fox for putting police and court reform "on the table," Robert Varenik, consultant to the Mexico City-based justice reform advocacy group Institute for Security and Democracy, said Fox had prepared his proposal without enough input from human rights groups and academics.

But legislators including Sen. Antonio Garcia Torres of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party expressed their support in principle for the reform package, saying Mexico was ready for change.

"The reform will be well received in the Senate. The things that I have heard it includes, such as accelerating the trial process and using oral testimony, will ensure that justice is expeditious, which is what the Mexican Constitution requires," Garcia Torres said.

Anders Kompass, the Mexico representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights who helped direct the United Nations study of the Mexican judicial system, called Fox's proposal "a very good response to the U.N. report and a good starting point."

Specifics of Fox's proposal include:

* Conducting trials on the basis of oral evidence presented by prosecutors and defense attorneys, instead of written briefs. Proceedings would be public, instead of the current "inquisitorial" mode in which judges rule in relative isolation behind closed doors. Nine of 10 defendants in Mexican courts never see the judge who decides their case.

* Introducing plea bargaining, which would result in speedier trials and sentences that better fit the crimes. Excessive sentences are common in Mexico because judges often lack flexibility; recently a defendant was sentenced to eight years for stealing a cellular phone.

* Combining the five federal police forces into one national entity. The police would become independent of prosecutors and have more power to investigate.

That added power, experts say, would result in fewer false arrests and wrongful imprisonments. Police often make arrests on the slightest suspicion.

* Stripping the Mexican attorney general's office of its judicial powers and making it a strictly investigative agency, along the lines of the U.S. attorney general. Mexico's attorney general decides whether to bring charges against a suspect; under the reforms, that power would be left to independent judges.

Speeding up trials is a primary goal of the reforms. Detainees can sit in jail for months with no formal charges against them.

That goal is backed by Mexicans such as the relatives of Jonathan, a 21-year-old office messenger with no prior record who was arrested six weeks ago for having picked up a lost wallet at a bus stop. He has been in Eastern Prison ever since, without being formally charged.

"He made a mistake in picking up something that didn't belong to him," said his wife, Naeli, who refused to give her last name for fear her husband would suffer reprisals. "But that's not a crime in Mexico."

*

Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux contributed to this report.

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