Mexican President Submits Plan to Overhaul Justice System
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MEXICO CITY, March 29 -- President Vicente Fox sent Congress legislation on Monday calling for a comprehensive overhaul of Mexico's criminal justice system, which has been widely criticized as corrupt and inefficient.
The plan would eliminate fundamental obstacles to justice in Mexico, where roughly 80 percent of all crime goes unreported largely because people have so little faith in the system. It would give police new authority to investigate crime, rein in the excessive power of federal prosecutors and reduce the system's notorious reliance on confessions obtained by torture or coercion.
"It is the moment to prove that together we can do away with corruption, with impunity, with inequality and with injustice," Fox said, announcing the proposal at a ceremony at which he was flanked by the president of the Supreme Court, the attorney general and other top officials.
Congressional approval of the plan would mark perhaps the most important reform of government by Fox, who took office in 2000 promising to eliminate the official corruption and inefficiency that thrived during the previous 71 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
The PRI-dominated Congress has repeatedly rejected Fox's proposed reforms in such key areas as energy and labor law. But officials in Fox's government said they were optimistic about passage of judicial reform because they believe there is consensus in Congress and the public that it is necessary.
"I think everybody knows that we need to modernize the judicial system," said Agustin Gutierrez Canet, a spokesman for Fox. "There might be some disagreements on the technicalities, but there is a consensus on the objectives."
Despite many reform efforts over the years, most Mexican police officers receive little training and investigate only the simplest crimes. Prosecutors investigate crime as well as prosecute, giving them what critics call excessive power; more than 90 percent of criminal cases end in convictions.
The Fox plan calls for creation of a single national police force, which would investigate crime and pass cases to a new federal prosecutor's office that would be strictly a prosecutorial agency. The plan would also establish trials in which a judge hears oral arguments in a public courtroom. In the current system, judges accept written arguments in their offices and issue written judgments; in nearly 90 percent of cases, the judge never meets the defendant, Fox officials said.
The new plan would also create the presumption of innocence, which technically exists in Mexico but is routinely ignored by judges who almost always accept the prosecutor's version of the facts, according to lawyers groups and human rights officials who have studied the system.
Under the plan, only confessions made before a judge would be admissible, which officials in Fox's government said would remove the incentive for police to extract confessions by torture. The proposal would also create a new system of juvenile justice and give judges more flexibility to order restitution or community service for minor offenders, who currently make up the vast majority of Mexico's prison population.