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Rivals stall justice bill in Mexico

December 14, 2007|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — A plan to dramatically overhaul Mexico's criminal justice system and give broad new powers to police ran into significant opposition Thursday, with the country's top human rights official speaking out against it.

The changes are a cornerstone of President Felipe Calderon's initiative against organized crime. Many analysts and lawmakers say they would bring needed reform to Mexico's inefficient system for gathering evidence in criminal prosecutions.

But Jose Luis Soberanes, the country's human rights ombudsman, expressed concerns that provisions allowing warrantless searches and house arrest for uncharged suspects would erode basic constitutional rights.

Backers hoped to win final approval in the Senate this week, after the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, approved the plan Wednesday. But a Senate commission, reacting to the criticisms, made significant changes to the proposals Thursday.

Both houses of Congress begin their holiday recesses today and the amended proposals will not be considered until February.

The series of constitutional amendments would transform the manner in which criminal defendants face justice. Defendants would receive U.S.-style public trials for the first time, and win the right to face their accusers in court.

"This is the most important change to our justice system in a century," said Cesar Camacho Quiroz, a congressman for the Institutional Revolutionary Party who backed the bill. "It's vital for the fight against crime . . . and to create a modern and agile system of justice."

Mexico is suffering from a crime wave tied to drug trafficking that has left about 5,000 people dead over the last two years.

But human rights groups complained this week about provisions that would give police the right to enter homes without search warrants and allow authorities to detain suspects under house arrest for up to 80 days without being charged.

Some aspects of the proposal "are a step back" from the "tradition of guaranteeing the fundamental rights of Mexicans," Soberanes said.

Law professor Miguel Carbonell of the National Autonomous University of Mexico called the proposed overhaul "the Guantanamo Initiative" because he said it would grant authorities Kafkaesque powers.

"These proposals would give the police the right to hold people without charges, and enshrine that right in the constitution," Carbonell said. Investigators would also have the right to inspect bank, telephone and other records without a warrant.

Most members of Mexico's legal community backed the provisions of the overhaul aimed at changing how criminal trials are conducted.

Criminal justice in Mexico is a highly bureaucratic affair. Prosecutors and defense attorneys question witnesses before a stenographer and judges render their decisions after reading reams of transcripts.

Almost three-quarters of defendants go to trial without defense attorneys. And 71% of convicted defendants in one survey said they never saw a judge before being sentenced, said Ana Laura Magaloni, a law professor at the Center for Investigation and Economic Research here.

Corruption often makes judges pawns of prosecutors, Magaloni said. At the same time, kidnappers, drug traffickers and other professional criminals can evade justice because high-priced lawyers often find gaping holes in the prosecution case because the system of gathering and processing evidence is so weak. "The system is only good at capturing and trying common criminals," Magaloni said. About 47% of people in Mexico City's prisons are serving sentences for robbery involving sums of less than $20.

Legal analysts said the proposed changes would mirror recent reforms in other Latin American countries, including Chile, that have shortened the time defendants must spend in custody as their cases slowly proceed.

The Chamber of Deputies approved the proposals late Wednesday despite strong opposition from many legislators of the Democratic Revolution Party.

But a move to quickly approve the measures in the Senate faltered Thursday.

Instead, a Senate commission amended the provisions that granted new search powers to the police, restricting warrantless searches to cases in which a person's life is in danger, and requiring a judge's approval for access to financial and other records.


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