Mexico undergoes legal revolution
Mexico outraged over corrupt police, kidnappings
By Julie Watson
The Associated Press
U.S. trained attorney Cristal Gonzalez speaks to lawyers, police investigators and forensic experts during a class on the new rules of justice in Mexico City, (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)
MEXICO CITY — Mexico is in the midst of a legal revolution, and Cristal Gonzalez is on the front lines.
The U.S.-trained lawyer is one of a growing number of Mexican attorneys putting judges, lawyers, investigators and clerks through crash courses in justice, now that Mexico has amended its constitution to throw out its inept and corrupt legal system.
Some of her lessons may seem blindingly obvious. Yet they drive home just how dysfunctional are Mexico's courts and police.
On a recent evening, the 30-year-old lawyer explained Mexico's new rules of justice to a class of 200 professionals with the clarity of a preschool teacher: "The accused is IN-NO-CENT until proven guilty! Confessions cannot be coerced. Which means the person cannot be submitted to ...?" She paused for a response.
"Torture," several students answered in unison.
Under the constitutional amendment passed by the legislature, approved by all 32 states and signed by President Felipe Calderon, Mexico has eight years to replace its closed proceedings with public trials in which defendants are presumed innocent, legal authorities can be held more accountable and justice is equal.
Calderon says Mexico's democratic and economic development depends on this judicial reform - along with fiscal and electoral changes he has pushed through Congress.
The country has tried to overhaul its major government institutions since 2000 when voters ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI - notorious for using the electoral and legal systems to maintain its hold on power.
Supporters of the change say Mexico has been missing out on millions in foreign investment because of its reputation as a lawless country where people are arrested randomly and criminals pay off judges - problems Calderon says also hamper the fight against organized crime.
Demands for reform of Mexico's police and courts have become much more vocal since Aug. 1, when a 14-year-old kidnap victim was found dead even after his businessman father paid a large ransom. The boy was abducted at a fake police checkpoint allegedly with help from detectives.
At a national meeting in Mexico City, the boy's father, Alejandro Marti, demanded that police and judges improve the judicial system. "If you can't do that, then quit," Marti said. "But don't just keep holding a government job. Don't keep receiving a salary for doing nothing."
Last weekend, more than 100,000 Mexicans took to the streets in cities nationwide to protest rampant crime and corruption.
Since the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, Mexico has had an inquisitorial system adopted from Europe in which the accused is not presumed to be innocent and proceedings are largely carried out in writing and in secret.
Inquisitorial systems are still used in many countries. But Mexico's version had become so corrupt, Gonzalez said, that "if police put someone's head in excrement and the person confessed, the confession was admitted if the paperwork followed procedures as far as fingerprints, the signature of the public minister, etc."
Without the threat of exposure in public trials, mistaken arrests, bungled investigations and confessions extracted under threats and torture have become common in Mexico.
The new system aims to prevent the errors and abuses that led to the ouster of the capital's police chief and top prosecutor in July after 12 people died in a police raid on a nightclub. A government probe found police caused a stampede by trying to detain hundreds of youths, rather than arresting only those found with drugs or alcohol. Male officers also forced 10 young women to strip naked even though they were not accused of any crime.
Under the old rules, suspects are routinely paraded in front of cameras before they have been charged, sometimes holding weapons allegedly used in crimes. Lawyers often pay witnesses to write favorable testimony, Gonzalez said, and there are no cross-examinations of witnesses, emotional courtroom exchanges or clever closing arguments.
Judges often get their shoes shined while presiding over trials. Gonzalez said the judges sometimes send court secretaries to oversee the closed proceedings, where the few questions asked of defendants often don't relate to the charges, such as "Are you Catholic?"
"It's an amazing change that judges will be listening to someone's voice," Gonzalez told her class at Mexico's Federal Judicial Institute. "The judge will look into the eyes of those testifying. He will see if they stutter, if they are nervous. Does all that count? Of course!"
Judges - not juries of peers - will still determine guilt or innocence. "This is not a copy of the gringo system," Gonzalez told the class.
Instead, Mexico chose a criminal code similar to the one adopted in 2005 by Chile, where cases are examined by three judges who consider the legality of the evidence and whether the defendant's rights were respected. Then, the judges send cases to trial or recommend other means of adjudication, such as a plea bargain or probation.
The new penal code is no miracle cure, but supporters say it has more safeguards, such as limits on detention without charges, the right to a lawyer and a speedy trial.
Still, many are skeptical.
"This favors the guilty," said court clerk Maria del Carmen Rojas. "It gives them too many rights, and because of the speedy trials, judges are not going to have time. Judges are going to be under a lot of pressure."
Other officials suggested that many police, prosecutors and judges would simply ignore the changes.
Some worry a new provision allowing organized crime suspects to be held for up to 80 days without charges could lead to abuses. New York-based Human Rights Watch says that's one of the longest pre-charge detention times of any Western democracy. Terrorism suspects can legally be held for no more than two days on U.S. soil without being charged.
No one knows exactly when the first federal oral trial will take place. Cases in progress before the constitutional change will continue under the old code. Gonzalez admits it won't be easy to change mentalities within Mexico's male-dominated judicial system.
At one session of her class, she asked three state prosecutors how they would resolve a rape case. All said they would order the attacker and victim to marry - a common practice in Latin America.
To help her in training professionals, Gonzalez studied law at Southwestern University in Los Angles. She was motivated to demand reforms after armed men seized her in a taxi and drove her around Mexico City forcing her to withdraw money from ATMs. One of the gunmen, hearing she was a lawyer, said: "Good luck with your career."
She didn't call police, she said, because she thought nothing would be done and feared her family could be harmed if the assailants found out.
"I didn't have the tools to do anything, and I am part of the system," she said. "I felt like a fool."
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