By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
MEXICO CITY, June 17 -- President Felipe Calderón on Tuesday signed legislation designed to fundamentally change Mexico's much-criticized justice system by allowing U.S.-style oral trials and establishing a presumption of innocence for criminal defendants.
The sweeping measures also require local and state police departments to "purify" their ranks of corrupt officers, and they grant those agencies power to investigate organized crime, an authority that had previously been the exclusive domain of federal authorities. Calderón has said the changes are crucial to his battle against the drug cartels blamed for thousands of deaths each year.
"What is at stake is not the liberty, security or integrity of the government, but above all the security and integrity of the governed," Calderón said in a ceremony at the presidential palace, Los Pinos, in Mexico City.
The reforms were approved by Mexico's Congress and a majority of its state legislatures, marking a huge victory for Calderón, whose two predecessors had tried and failed to push through similar legislation.
Many of the changes may take years to go into practice. Courtrooms will have to be remodeled to accommodate the public. And thousands of prosecutors and judges must be trained in a completely new style of administering justice. Under the law, the changes do not need to be fully implemented until 2016.
Currently, criminal cases in Mexico are conducted almost exclusively in written briefs. The public almost never observes criminal proceedings, and defendants are frequently held in prison for years before their cases are resolved. While the changes have been applauded by international advocacy groups, some judges have quietly lobbied against them, arguing that oral trials would be influenced more by the emotions of courtroom audiences than the letter of the law.
Calderón did not get everything he wanted in the legislation. His original proposal would have allowed police to conduct searches without warrants. But that provision was removed by Mexico's Congress after complaints from the Mexico City Human Rights Commission, among other rights organizations. After that defeat, Calderón's supporters compromised by including a special class of judges who would have the power to speedily grant warrants.
The changes also seek to close loopholes that allowed criminal suspects to evade justice on technicalities. Authorities will now be able to hold suspects for 80 days without charges. Previously, defense lawyers could easily delay the charging process, then argue that their clients had been held for too long without charge and must, by law, be released.
Miguel Sarre, a law professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico who applauds most aspects of the legislation, called the 80-day period "a very dangerous tool." Under the measure, Sarre said, defendants could be held without probable cause.
"This is an invitation to torture," Sarre said. "If the police have me in jail for 80 days, what are they going to do, invite me to coffee? No, they're going to pressure me."
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, called the legislation "historic," but also sent a letter to Calderón raising concerns about the 80-day period, saying it would be "by far, the longest of its kind in any Western democracy."
Authorities will also be able to seize property, such as ranches used by drug dealers, whereas before, defense lawyers were frequently able to get properties returned even if they were used in crimes.
The measures also require improvements to the mostly ineffective public defender system.
"With this, we can end the stories of so many people going to jail because they cannot afford to pay a lawyer," Calderón said.