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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkNews Around the Republic of Mexico | February 2008 

Drug Cartels Target Judges in Mexico
email this pageprint this pageemail usJeremy Schwartz - Austin American-Statesman
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In Colombia, 278 judges were killed between 1978 and 1991, spurring adoption of a system in which judges signed their orders with numbers, conducted hearings behind one-way mirrors and used voice-distortion equipment.
Mexico City — Judges have become the latest target of Mexico's drug violence, a sign that warring cartels are escalating their attacks on the Mexican government, analysts warn.

The northern city of Monterrey is reeling from the Jan. 21 assassination of a state judge who had handled cases against several drug traffickers and from death threats against at least three of his fellow judges. Three days earlier, a municipal judge in the state of Sinaloa was found tortured and executed.

The violence has sparked worry that Mexico's already weak judicial system could be coming under a Colombia-like onslaught.

"Narco traffickers are working to destroy the rule of law, and it's obvious that judges, like police before them, are targets," said Michael Nuñez Torres, a legal expert at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León.

In response, Mexican lawmakers have proposed hiding the identity of judges, similar to what Colombia did during the height of its drug violence in the 1980s and '90s, when scores of judges were assassinated.

Many experts say that before it takes that drastic step, which has been criticized by the United Nations and human rights organizations, Mexico needs to beef up security for its woefully underprotected judges.

Some analysts have proposed including protection of judges in wide-ranging judicial reform legislation expected to be debated by Congress this spring.

"The protection for (judges) is very haphazard instead of being systematic," said Mexico City security analyst Ana Maria Salazar. "They all need bulletproof cars, workplaces that are safe from bombs and other attacks ... and ways to get out of the country quickly and easily if they do come under threats."

In the aftermath of the execution and threats, judges in the state of Nuevo León, home to Monterrey, the country's third-largest city, have been granted around-the-clock protection. Officials would not say what the protection consists of or which judges would receive it.

Judges in Mexico have been relatively immune to violence, especially compared with their Colombian counterparts, which some attribute to the cartels' traditional preference to bribe rather than assassinate magistrates.

The attacks against Mexican judges follow progressing violence against government officials that began with the executions of police, prosecutors and politicians. Scores have been killed in recent years, and hit men have begun targeting specific officers and agents involved in large drug busts.

The government of President Felipe Calderón has begun an unprecedented offensive against the dueling Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, sending tens of thousands of soldiers and federal agents to challenge traffickers, mostly along the U.S. border.

Jorge Chabat, a national security expert, said the spiraling violence against officials signals a new phase in the Mexican drug war.

The government's offensive "is evidently generating a violent response on part of the narcos," Chabat wrote last week in the Mexico City daily El Universal. "What we're witnessing is not a confrontation of narco vs. narco, as in earlier years. It's a confrontation of narco vs. the state that's occurring with an intensity that we haven't seen before."

Judge Ernesto Palacios was gunned down Jan. 21 as he drove on a busy Monterrey road. Local media have linked his death to the August 2005 arrest of several top suspected Sinaloa cartel capos at a Monterrey restaurant.

Five officials who dealt with the suspects, including the head of the police force responsible for the arrests, have been killed since then, according to media reports.

In response to Palacio's execution, lawmakers in Nuevo León have proposed a system of so-called faceless judges.

In Colombia, 278 judges were killed between 1978 and 1991, spurring adoption of a system in which judges signed their orders with numbers, conducted hearings behind one-way mirrors and used voice-distortion equipment.

Though no judges were killed, use of the method ended in 1999 after the United Nations found that it infringed on the right of due process.

Most Mexican analysts have dismissed the idea as unworkable in Mexico, saying the cartels would still find ways to uncover the judges' identities. Mexico's constitution, which mandates that defendants know their judge, would need to be modified, analysts say.

Should Mexico decide to hide the identity of its judges, it would be following a growing pattern of anonymity since drug violence exploded here in 2005.

Soldiers and law enforcement officials regularly don masks when dealing with high-level suspects. Several journalists have been killed in the past few years, and most Mexican newspapers now leave their reporters' bylines off stories related to drug trafficking.


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