Venezuela's path to justice: Hundreds of judges ousted
BY TIM JOHNSON
CARACAS -- The judiciary is so notoriously corrupt in Venezuela
that polls show
a majority of citizens would prefer simply to scrap the court system and build a
new one from scratch.
President Hugo Chavez, a fiery populist, has chosen a less drastic
route -- but
one that is sending a dramatic message.
In a seven-month campaign to excise the ``cancer of corruption''
judiciary, the Chavez government has suspended or fired 400 of the nation's 1,394
judges. Scores -- and perhaps hundreds -- more judges may yet get the ax.
The judicial housecleaning has brought a positive response from
making it one of the most popular measures taken by Chavez, a former army
coup leader who pledges a ``peaceful revolution'' for his oil-producing nation.
But experts say authorities still have a long way to go. While
removing judges in
large numbers, the government has not yet shown a willingness to entrust the
judicial branch with enough money and autonomy to make it truly independent.
Even the respected veteran law professor helping to lead the purge
admits that his efforts may not ultimately pay off.
``What we are doing can disappear like grains of sand falling
through my hand,''
said Rene Molina Galicia, the inspector general of tribunals.
Molina said Venezuela desperately needs to expand its number of
offer equal access to justice for the poor, create an effective system of public
defenders, double the pay of judges to about $6,000 a month, and close
fly-by-night law schools that have created a glut of lawyers.
A crisis of law and order is becoming ever more apparent. Angry
taken to lynching alleged murderers, rapists and car thieves on nearly a weekly
basis somewhere in the country. Police tally an average of 21 murders a day,
comparable to casualties in a nation at war. A vehicle is stolen in Venezuela
every 10 minutes. Human rights groups say Venezuelan prisons are perhaps the
most hellish in the hemisphere, a problem that long predates the Chavez
The Venezuelan courts deteriorated rapidly with the transition
dictatorship to democratic rule in the late 1950s.
``Neither the government nor Congress was interested in being
controlled by the
courts,'' said Pedro Nikken, a respected former U.N. legal consultant. ``It got to
the point where the central government spent more on [promotional] advertising
than it did on the judiciary. . . . It was absolutely scandalous.''
Party bosses nominated judges based on political loyalties and
ignoring rampant charges of corruption and nepotism.
``The political parties handed out all the appointments. . . .
Each judge owes his
job to political interests,'' said Gerardo Blyde, a prominent lawyer. ``If a son of a
politician commits a crime, it is very difficult to punish him.''
By the 1990s, the courts had become a calamitous study in corruption.
best-selling 1995 book was titled How Much to Buy a Judge? Big law firms set up
informal networks, known as ``tribes,'' of lawyers, judges and court employees to
ensure that their clients could purchase favorable rulings.
For the 80 percent of Venezuela's 24 million people living in
poverty, justice was
``This is the reason there is so much social rage right now,''
said Molina, the
inspector general. ``It is because the courts were at the service of those who
turned `justice' into a profitable business.''
Chavez applauded last August when an all-powerful assembly writing
national charter created a special emergency commission with powers to
suspend and fire judges. The commission began its overhaul by defying a public
clamor for a quick, relentless purge.
It agreed to suspend only judges with seven or more formal complaints
corruption or incompetence against them. Some judges had far more complaints.
One had 65, and no disciplinary action had been taken.
REASON FOR LIMIT
Molina said a practical reason impeded reducing the number of
required for suspension: ``We would have had to boot out nearly 100 percent of
Of the first 119 judges purged in October, 20 had criminal investigations
against them, Molina said. An additional 280 or so judges have been suspended
since then, accused of issuing rulings too slowly, living far beyond their means or
maintaining links to crime figures.
Many of those affected by suspensions have complained bitterly,
procedures deny them an immediate hearing.
``I learned about my suspension the day it was published in the
Judge Saul Ron, an appellate magistrate in the coastal state of Vargas that is
home to the country's major port. ``This goes against all elements of due
Newspapers reported that Ron and four other judges in Vargas were
for alleged links to narcotics traffickers.
The ongoing purge -- about 259 judges are still under review --
has raised natural
suspicions that members of the Chavez government may simply be seeking to
install judges favorable to them.
``The impression that one has from afar is that they are removing
some judges to
put in others and create new `tribes' under the control of new political bosses,''
said Saul Cabrera of the Consultores 21 polling firm.
However, the Judicial Restructuring Commission has already picked
board of legal experts to begin selecting replacement judges based on legal
training, moral rectitude and past civic behavior.
``We will examine their knowledge of the law, their personal assets
private lives,'' Molina said. ``We want judges to work their shifts and not write
``I think things will improve,'' said Blyde, who was picked to
serve on the
The first newly selected judges will begin work in late June or early July.
More resources may also be in store for the judiciary. The new
approved in December requires that 2 percent of the national budget go to the
judicial branch, up from the average 0.86 percent spent on the court system in the