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Bungled Cases Show Weakness in Mexican Judiciary
email this pageprint this pageemail usCaroline Stauffer - Reuters
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July 17, 2010

Most trials are carried out behind closed doors in an antiquated system that relies on written testimony between judges and lawyers, while 40 percent of prisoners in the country's overcrowded jails are still awaiting their day in court, some of them for years, according to rights groups.
Mexico City - An investigation into a child's disappearance is bungled, a senior politician's kidnap is unsolved and the prime U.S. suspect in a murder is allowed to slip back to California in murky circumstances.

A rash of mishandled criminal cases in recent months has exposed gaping deficiencies in Mexico's judicial system at a time when President Felipe Calderon faces his strongest challenge yet from brutal drug cartels.

Calderon, who has pinned his presidency on a war against drug gangs in which more than 26,000 people have died since late 2006, announced far-reaching reforms to the justice system more than two years ago to weed out corruption and speed up delays.

But recent gaffes by police and prosecutors in high-profile criminal cases have highlighted the festering justice system in a major emerging economy with modern financial, manufacturing, mining and telecoms industries.

Last month, the man who oversaw a botched investigation into the disappearance of 4-year-old Paulette Gebara was named attorney general of the populous State of Mexico. Police were ridiculed when they said they found the girl dead in her own bed in Mexico City a week after they had searched the entire house and launched a nationwide campaign to find her in March.

Former Senator Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, a former presidential candidate and prominent leader in the ruling National Action Party, has been missing since May 15 when his abandoned car was found near his ranch with bloodstains by it.

Despite pressure by Calderon to solve the case, authorities abandoned their investigation at the request of the family, who are believed to be using private ransom negotiators, in a further mark of broken confidence in the justice system.

Concerns at the way investigations are conducted peaked last month after Bruce Beresford-Redman, a former producer of the hit U.S. television show "Survivor," sneaked home to California under unclear circumstances despite the fact Mexican authorities had named him prime suspect in his wife's murder.

"Lack of accountability has left an injured society without answers," said Jose Ortega, president of the Citizens' Council for Public Security and Penal Justice, which helps individuals file complaints about the justice system. "People have stopped raising their voices to demand more of their government."


The stakes for getting the justice system to work have never been higher for Calderon, a lawyer by profession.

Last month, a gubernatorial candidate for the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was gunned down by suspected drug cartel hitmen in the northern state of Tamaulipas, in Mexico's highest profile political killing in 16 years. No arrests have been made in Rodolfo Torre's murder.

Cause in Common, a group that lobbies for justice reforms, estimates that someone is convicted for only 5 of every 100 crimes committed in Mexico. Ortega said that based on government statistics, 91.5 percent of reported crimes go unpunished.

Stories abound in Mexico of people jailed without being charged and being tortured into confessions.

Guillermo Velez was 33 and worked in a Mexico City gym when he was arrested in 2002 on suspicion of running a kidnap ring. He died the next day in jail, with authorities saying his death was due to natural causes.

Nine years on, the prosecutor involved has admitted the charges were false but Velez's father is still campaigning to defend his son. "I will keep fighting until authorities admit the agents tortured and killed my son," he told Reuters.

Intimidation, corruption, torture and plain incompetence in investigating crimes are only some of the problems in Mexico's struggling justice system.

In 2008, Calderon's administration pushed a constitutional overhaul to reform the country's archaic court system.

Most trials are carried out behind closed doors in an antiquated system that relies on written testimony between judges and lawyers, while 40 percent of prisoners in the country's overcrowded jails are still awaiting their day in court, some of them for years, according to rights groups.

The constitutional changes seek to make oral trials widespread. They also introduce the presumption of innocence, and allow authorities to detain organized crime suspects for 80 days rather than the previous 72 hours.

Implementing the changes is left to the country's states, said Martin Barron, a policing and crime prevention specialist at a government research agency, meaning there could be 32 different interpretations of oral trials in the country.

"Corruption means the system hasn't been implemented like it should be," said Maria Elena Morera of Cause in Common.

In May, Calderon called on the states to speed up implementation of the reform so that Mexicans can have "access to a transparent and expedited justice system as soon as possible." He said seven states had completed the reforms, while half of the remaining states were still implementing them.

Some skeptics say that test-bed oral trials in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most murderous city, have actually led to more intimidation in some cases, as victims and their families are put face to face with perpetrators in court. They say the reforms will only work once institutions, such as law enforcement and courts, are strengthened.

"What we want is truth, justice, peace and the right to live a normal life as Mexicans," said Ortega. "Today we don't have that."

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Kieran Murray)

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