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Mexico shouldn't resurrect the death penalty

A stream of kidnappings and murders is prompting calls to reinstate executions. But doing so would cost the country the moral leadership it has shown on the issue.

February 05, 2009

In Mexico, the unchecked violence of the drug cartels brings daily tidings of kidnappings, murders and corruption throughout the legal system. It is in this context that Mexicans, fearful and frustrated with the government's inability to prevail, are considering whether to reinstate the death penalty.

The Mexican Congress is to debate the issue this month, and news outlets report broad public support. That's understandable but wrongheaded, as the United States' experience with capital punishment has made tragically clear. This page has long opposed the death penalty on moral and political grounds -- we cannot sanction the exercise of such profound government power, especially given the penalty's uneven and manifestly unfair application.

It is worth remembering too that the penalty's effectiveness as a deterrent is highly suspect. Buffeted by rising crime and violence, a majority of states rushed to legalize executions once capital punishment was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976. It was no solution. According to the FBI, states with the death penalty consistently have a higher murder rate than those without. In 1990, the difference was an average of only 4%; as of 2007, it was 42%.

Capital punishment was abolished in Mexico in 2005 in a move that seemed mostly symbolic -- there had not been an execution since the 1960s. But the political repercussions were genuine. Mexico became a leader on the issue and an example for less enlightened countries, including the United States. Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, so the U.S. found itself bracketed between forward-thinking allies. Today, it belongs to a sorry club, along with such beacons of humanity as Iran, Pakistan, China and Sudan. Together, these nations perform more than 90% of executions worldwide, according to Amnesty International.

Rule of law will come to Mexico. President Felipe Calderon has successfully pushed through measures to modernize the judicial system; once implemented, these reforms may begin to eliminate judicial and police corruption, which remains frighteningly commonplace. In the recent case of a teenager's kidnapping and murder, for example, the chief suspects are police officers. And late last year, prosecutors arrested or fired 35 members of an elite organized-crime unit believed to have aided drug traffickers.

Allies of Calderon's National Action Party say the push to reinstitute the death penalty is simply political maneuvering on the part of opponents who are pandering to popular outrage, and we hope that's true. Mexico has claimed the moral leadership in this difficult debate, and it should not relinquish that position even in the face of its current crisis.

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