Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Change begins in Mexico

Mexico undergoes legal revolution

"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!...'

"Under the constitutional amendment passed by the legislature, approved by all 32 states and signed by President Felipe Calderón, 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...

"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...

"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 – 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..."

Of course, there are skeptics. One of them added this comment to the online news story: "Good luck and if you believe the fairy tale of the new system in mexico, it will only create a more efficiente bribe system for more money"

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