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Questions Raised About Mexican Judicial Process

Fox is critical of the judiciary, which says the prosecutors' legal work is inadequate. With an opaque legal system, the public is kept in dark.

June 10, 2005|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Was the dismissal of charges against alleged "narco-spy" Nahum Acosta justice served or justice derailed?

There is little independent means of accessing and analyzing evidence in the recent case, underscoring both the murkiness of Mexican justice and the resulting distrust of the country's legal system, experts say.

In an interview this week, Acosta said the organized crime charges that led to his arrest Feb. 3 were politically motivated.

Acosta vowed to sue the government for $10 million for defamation and damages, and to bring criminal charges against prosecutors for the four days of torture he alleges he endured.

"My case was a national disgrace. If this can happen to someone in the seat of power, imagine what can happen to an everyday citizen," said Acosta.

Legal experts say the lack of judicial transparency and prosecutorial accountability mean the public can't judge the merits of the case for itself.

Acosta, who was President Vicente Fox's travel coordinator, was accused by prosecutors of leaking information about Fox's whereabouts to drug traffickers. He was released in April by a judge who said there was insufficient evidence.

A spokesman for the attorney general said Thursday that he had no comment on Acosta's accusations of torture.

As with most cases here, access to information about the proceedings against Acosta is limited mostly to officers of the court.

"The question is, whom do you trust?" said Ernesto Lopez Portillo, head of the Mexico City think tank Institute for Security and Democracy. "We don't know the quality of criminal investigations and we don't have access to the judge's analysis and argument. Neither the prosecutors nor the judges have created that kind of professional mechanism."

The opacity of Mexico's court system has become an issue after another case involving the judge who freed Acosta.

Federal Judge Jose Luis Gomez Martinez last week dismissed a charge against the son of fugitive drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, making him eligible for bail. Archibaldo Ivan Guzman had been arrested on arms possession and drug trafficking charges. He left prison early Thursday after posting a $55,000 bond -- though he was immediately rearrested by federal police on other charges.

The government fired back.

"If the executive branch does its duty, and another branch frees the criminals, we are never going to confront and eliminate organized crime," Fox spokesman Ruben Aguilar said Tuesday. On June 3, Deputy Atty. Gen. Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos alleged that the judge had acted in "clear contradiction to judicial criteria."

In an interview Saturday with El Universal newspaper, Judge Gomez Martinez challenged officials to prove that his decisions were unsound. Fox's criticism was aimed at "damaging my judicial independence and intimidating me," he said, adding that the government simply put together a bad case against the younger Guzman.

Bad legal work from the federal attorney general is not uncommon, say legal scholars. They cite a judge's refusal in April to approve an arrest warrant for Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador after the nation's Congress had stripped him of immunity.

"The judge essentially threw out the case because it was poorly put together and incorrect in its legal basis," said Lorenzo Cordova, a law professor at National Autonomous University in Mexico City.

Looking on is the public, insufficiently informed to judge which side is right, said Jorge Chabat, a researcher at the Center for Economic Teaching and Research here. He maintains that Fox's criticism of the judiciary has deepened the "credibility crisis" that surrounds the judicial system.

"We, the Mexican citizenry, are like children in a divorce where one parent blames another," Chabat said. "We don't know whom to believe."

The government uses the lack of transparency in the judicial process as a "blunt instrument" to selectively leak or present evidence, creating public pressure on judges to see cases their way, said researcher Lopez Portillo.

"If you control information, you control people. If you close access to evidence, you can use it any way you want. It's not fair play," he said.

Fox has proposed sweeping changes in the court system. But his plan, like several other proposals to reshape Mexico's legal, economic and government framework, has languished in a divided Congress.

Fox's proposal would open courtrooms to oral arguments, improve public access to evidence and testimony and create an independent prosecutorial branch to make the process less susceptible to political pressure.

In the interview this week, Acosta alleged that the case against him was aimed at hurting Manuel Espino, his patron in Fox's National Action Party. Espino was running for party president and some of his opponents hoped to "batter Espino with my case," Acosta said.

Espino won the party election in March. The judge discredited much of the evidence against him, Acosta said. A $4,000 payment to him allegedly made by drug traffickers was proved to be from a car sale, he said, and a purported taped conversation Acosta had with a drug trafficker was ruled unintelligible.

Two witnesses who say they saw Acosta enter a house owned by a drug trafficker told the judge that prosecutors had misrepresented their account, Acosta said.

"These controversies," noted Cordova, the law professor, "show the need for profound reform in the administration of justice, not just of the judiciary but also of federal prosecutors, how they investigate crimes and bring charges."

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