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Drug war: Mexico's weak rule of law

Newly appointed Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales has a window of opportunity to help reform a system that helps perpetuate the nation's drug war.

April 18, 2011
  • Mexico's Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales talks with Interior Minister Jose Francisco Blake Mora during a news conference in Mexico City.
Mexico's Atty. Gen. Marisela Morales talks with Interior Minister… (Henry Romero / Reuters )

Over the last two weeks, Mexican authorities in the northern state of Tamaulipas have unearthed more than 140 bodies. Many are believed to be the remains of passengers kidnapped from long-distance buses. The gruesome discoveries are just the latest reminder of the bloodshed that has overtaken some parts of Mexico.

President Felipe Calderon has responded by dispatching troops to the area to patrol the highways where migrants are often targeted by criminal gangs that operate with impunity. And last week, authorities arrested 16 local police officers believed to have shielded drug cartel members tied to the killings. But that's not enough in a country where 34,000 people have been killed since 2006 — 15,000 in the last year alone, according to Amnesty International.

There is no simple fix to Mexico's bloody drug war. Poverty, corruption and weak rule of law are all part of the problem. But judicial reforms are a good place to start.

The president recently appointed Marisela Morales, the former head of the federal organized crime unit, as the third attorney general in four years. Although her tenure will be short — because Calderon's term ends in a little over a year — she can make real and lasting changes in the attorney general's office.

Constitutional reforms of the judicial system adopted in 2008 have yet to be acted on. Morales should push to implement some of the changes, such as moving from an inquisitorial system — in which prosecutors build paper files that are presented to judges — to a system that relies on oral arguments in open court. This would help eliminate corruption by allowing victims and defendants to challenge evidence, while also promoting transparency.

And her office can move to strengthen programs that protect victims' family members and witnesses, who fear stepping forward. Currently, only 20% of crimes are reported to authorities, and just 5% of those are ever brought before a judge, according to a report by ICESI, a Mexican University research group. Morales must also investigate judges and prosecutors who turn a blind eye or rely on tainted evidence.

Morales alone can't fix Mexico's judicial system, but she can help restore confidence in it so that crimes are reported and prosecuted.

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