Mexico’s new justice

The Mexican Congress has approved an overhaul of the country’s judicial system, which is so rife with corruption, caprice and ineptitude that many doubted such a day would ever come. The reforms require a constitutional amendment to take effect, meaning they must be ratified by 17 of Mexico’s 31 states. If the overwhelming support of legislators is an indicator, they should pass with ease.

Under the current system, based on Roman and Napoleonic codes, lawyers submit their cases in writing, and judges come to their decisions in secret. Under the new system, defendants would be granted the presumption of innocence, trials would be open to the public and lawyers would present oral arguments, among other welcome changes. Another provision, however, would permit organized crime suspects to be held for up to 80 days without being charged. This is particularly worrisome because Mexico’s definition of organized crime is an illegal undertaking by three or more people. And trials for such suspects would still be conducted in secret. The potential for abuses and for a two-tiered justice system to emerge is enormous.

Still, the improvements align Mexico’s judicial system more closely with ours, and that is good news for the United States. Many Mexican immigrants to this country bring with them a well-founded fear and distrust of law enforcement that hampers crime-fighting efforts. Mexican government statistics show that nine out of 10 crimes go unreported. And when they are reported, the ineptitude of the system often creates new victims. More than 40% of all people in prison have not been convicted, and some have been held for years in pretrial detentions, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Judicial reform was one of President Felipe Calderon’s top priorities when he took office in December 2006, and the speed with which he has guided it through Congress is dazzling. In the last 15 months, he has also negotiated fiscal, pension and electoral reforms. Yet Calderon knows that judicial reform is essential to the larger tasks ahead, which include increasing international investment and turning the economy into one that creates jobs. He has often noted that countries with a strong rule of law have higher gross domestic products.

On his visit to the United States last month, Calderon asked for patience, saying, “If you see dust in the air, don’t worry, because we are cleaning the house right now.” Yes, it might be messy, but Calderon’s housecleaning offers Mexico a foundation for prosperity, and the United States an equal partner with which to confront issues of concern to both nations.