March 29, 2004

Fox proposes sweeping justice reform

MEXICO CITY, Mexico (AP) -- President Vicente Fox delivered to Congress on Monday a sweeping justice reform proposal aimed at restoring confidence in a system known for corruption, secrecy and little public accountability.

The proposal would substitute written trials with oral hearings, insert the presumption of innocence into the constitution, and open up much of the system to public scrutiny.

The reform contains several elements that would require constitutional amendments that could meet lawmaker resistance. But because it deals with one of the Mexican public's chief concerns -- crime and safety -- the initiative appeared to have greater chances of passing than Fox's failed electric, labor and tax reforms.

"It is time to work together to get rid of corruption, impunity, inequality and injustice," Fox said.

If the measure is passed, Mexico would be the 18th Latin American country to take on major justice reforms.

Human rights groups for years have been asking for profound justice reforms in a country where corruption, confessions extracted under torture, botched investigations, and an excess of bureaucracy feed a deep mistrust of the system.

An estimated 75 percent of crimes go unreported, and only about 10 percent of the few that are make it to a judge. Under the current system, if criminals aren't captured in the first three days after the crime has been committed, they won't be caught.

"If we want Mexico's transition to democracy to continue advancing, there has to be justice," said Jose Antonio Ortega, a member of a Mexico-based organization that gathers crime statistics and advocates criminal justice reforms. The group was among several Fox consulted when drafting the reform.

The linchpin of Fox's proposed reform, according to administration officials who discussed details of the plan with The Associated Press, would strip the federal Attorney General's office of all police investigative powers. The change is aimed at speeding up interminably long court proceedings, discouraging corruption and eliminating conflicts of interest.

The reform would make the Attorney General's office autonomous from the executive branch, require that all prosecutorial appointments be subject to Senate ratification, and have prosecutors serve staggered terms not dependent on the president's six-year administration.

Under the current system, prosecutors investigate cases, interview witnesses, gather -- and weigh -- evidence, and essentially reach a verdict, passing on the findings in bulky files that judges have to review all over again, resulting in what amounts to a second trial. Often, the proceedings are closed to the public and results can be kept secret.

Testimonial evidence and confessions -- sometimes extracted under torture -- are given automatic status as "proof" or "evidence." The accused -- if they are not wealthy or well-connected -- often find themselves being represented by an "advocate" under no obligation to provide proper credentials or an adequate legal defense.

Judges handle at least 500 cases a year. They seldom have time to fully review the files, and instead simply sign off on them or pass them on to law clerks and secretaries. Currently, about 60 percent of defendants sitting in jail cells have not been convicted.

"The workload is no longer manageable," Enrique Ramirez Martinez, a judge in central Queretaro state, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

With oral public trials, judges "would be involved in everything and automatically resolve the case," Ramirez said. "It would be faster, more immediate and much better."

The reform would require prosecutors and defense attorneys to argue their cases publicly before a judge who also would hear testimony and review evidence firsthand. The American-style jury system is not contemplated in the reform.

It also would introduce plea bargains and mediations, which -- as in the United States and the European Union -- could resolve the majority of cases before they even reach a judge, officials said. Special hearings and alternate punishments to jail time would be established for juvenile offenders.

Police, meanwhile, would be given the power to investigate crimes, and could do so without having to wait for a formal complaint -- as is the case now. All federal police agencies would be fused into one national force.

Although most Mexicans want justice reform, the proposal is likely headed for a tough debate.

Sen. Orlando Paredes, a member of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, took exception with one of the key elements: substituting written trials with oral, public trials.

Paredes, who sits on the Senate's Justice Commission, said experiments with oral trials have failed in the past, and "we shouldn't adopt systems from other countries because Mexico has its own characteristics."

Others are concerned that the reform may not go far enough. It does not follow the widespread recommendation to take police powers away from the military, for example, and it lacks a provision that would allow victims to demand investigations.

Mireya del Pino, a representative of the Mexico-based Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center, said any reform must "resolve the problems of a Mexican penal system in which human rights are not currently guaranteed."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press.