Mexico revamps court system

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MARCO WERMAN: Mexico's criminal justice system is undergoing a major change. Under the previous model court proceedings were secret and submitted in writing to a judge. Now there are new rules. Proceedings are open to the public and for the first time defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. But implementing the new rules is proving a challenge for a system overwhelmed by countless drug-related cases already in the courts. Monica Ortiz Uribe reports from Ciudad Juarez.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE: The northern border state of Chihuahua is the first in the country to fully implement the new judicial system. The reforms are taking place just as the state deals with unprecedented levels of violence stemming from Mexico's brutal drug war. Nowhere is the death toll higher than in Ciudad Juarez. Juggling both the new system and an overflowing criminal case load is tough and the public is taking notice.

TRANSLATOR: I feel the judicial reform is wrong. Instead of helping it's making the situation worse.

URIBE: Alfonso Cobarubias, a retired teacher, sits in one of Juarez's many burrito restaurants as a trailer-sized truck filled with federal police zooms past the busy street outside.

TRANSLATOR: Thieves who steal people's cars, others who rob businesses, they're only in jail one or two days and for lack of evidence they're set free.

URIBE: Insufficient evidence to hold a suspected criminal is a significant system where the burden of proof now falls on police. In the past it was up to the accused to prove he or she wasn't guilty. Police were regularly accused of torturing suspects in order to get a confession. Jorge Enrique Gonzalez is the public defense coordinator in Juarez.

TRANSLATOR: Here in Mexico the simplest way to put someone in jail used to be to torture him and make him confess. Now you can't do that. The accused has the right to remain silent like in the United States. He's read his rights � it's a constitutional guarantee.

URIBE: Police now have a responsibility to collect strong evidence. Mexican law enforcement is frequently criticized by citizens and human rights organizations for failing on this task. But Gonzalez says there are other factors to consider.

TRANSLATOR: It's difficult for the police. For example, in Juarez half the cars don't have license plates. Houses lack addresses. Many people move here from other parts of the country. All this must change because it hampers the investigator's job.


URIBE: But Juarez must contend with contend with far graver threats to the success of the new judicial system. According to Hector Gonzalez Mocken, president of Juarez Bar Association, the city is suffering the worst drug-related crime wave in its history. Some 3000 murders have occurred since last year. Most of those cases remain unsolved.

TRANSLATOR: Our lines of investigation are saturated. We have few investigators for the number of cases coming in. A single police officer has to work 20 to 30 cases. How can he possibly do it? This is a serious problem we have in Chihuahua.

URIBE: Gonzalez Mocken points to yet another complication. In February the Mexican army took over the control of the city from the police.

TRANSLATOR: Arrests are being made by the military. These are arrests that don't follow legal order. The army is not trained to do police work.

URIBE: Despite all the elements threatening the new system Gonzalez Mocken is confident that the judicial overhaul is a positive and necessary change for the country. Chihuahua judicial officials, including judges and attorneys, have received year-long training from colleagues in Chile and the United States in preparation for the new system. The United States Agency of International Development granted the state a $10 million grant to help with the implementation.


Some citizens who are just beginning to experience the new system firsthand find it a refreshing experience. Marisela Escobedo Ortiz whose 16-year-old daughter was murdered last year recently attended a court hearing where a judge formerly charged her daughter's ex-boyfriend with the crime. Escobedo spoke with reporters outside the courtroom as she wiped away tears.

TRANSLATOR: We are not asking for any favors. We're asking that there be justice. The system is working in that direction. We want the law to be followed.
URIBE: Mexico is one in a series of Latin American countries including Chile, Columbia, and Argentina to switch to an oral system. President Felipe Calderon set a goal of 2016 for the full implementation of the new system nationwide. For The World I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.