Mexico's runaway crime

April 04, 2004

THE LAWLESSNESS infecting Mexico's criminal justice system can be summed up in two words: Ciudad Juarez.

That's the city on the U.S.-Mexico border infamous for the unsolved murders of nearly 400 women, a third of whom had been sexually assaulted.

But the deeper crime in these and other cases is the alleged complicity of law enforcement in the city's violence.

Suspects have been tortured to confess. Police have been implicated in the drug trade. A lawyer was gunned down after accusing police of framing his client in the rape-murders.

The nexus of crime and corruption may be extreme in Ciudad Juarez, but the problem exists throughout Mexico in varying forms and degrees. And that's why President Vicente Fox's criminal justice reform proposal calls for a complete overhaul of the system.

Mr. Fox's plan, announced last week, sets out a top to bottom change that attacks the practical problems of the system as well as its philosophical underpinnings. It would establish a new national police force, revamp the system of criminal trials and fortify the presumption of innocence.

From the mothers of missing daughters in Juarez to the Mexico City victims of "express kidnappings," crime, though rampant, is woefully underreported. Why? Because Mexicans have little faith in police, prosecutors or judges.

And yet polls of Mexico City residents show that a majority view crime control as the city's No. 1 problem. The mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, made headlines in 2003 when he hired as his crime consultant former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. It may have read like a publicity stunt, but the same mayor fired 2000 police officers suspected of corruption that same year.

Human rights and legal activists have called for reforms for years, but the decades of one-party rule and traditions rooted in the colonial past have worked against change. A growing democracy movement and the liberalization of the media helped break the hold of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), elect the reform-minded Mr. Fox and offer a possibility for change. But the PRI, which controls Congress, has fought President Fox's attempt to reform other aspects of Mexican law.

Overhauling the criminal justice system will be a monumental task. But Mexico - and its standing in the international community - will continue to decline if the reforms are delayed by partisan politics. Mr. Fox, halfway through his term, is barred from running in 2006, and it's unlikely that the reforms would be completed before he left office. But Mexicans, who showed their desire for a change in the status quo when they elected Mr. Fox in 2000, deserve a fair and efficient system of jurisprudence.

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