Mexico's Senate gave final approval Thursday to landmark judicial legislation that includes a sweeping overhaul of criminal trials and new wiretap powers for police.
Defendants would face their accusers in court in U.S.-style public trials for the first time under the legislation. Much of the package has been widely hailed by legal observers here, who say the old court system encouraged corruption and led to many wrongful convictions.
Judges currently base their verdicts entirely on written reports and transcripts of testimony that witnesses give to prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The existing trial system would be phased out over eight years, as Mexican law schools retool their curricula and lawyers and judges adapt to a radically different legal culture.
"We believe that this is a national necessity that cannot be postponed any longer," said Sen. Ulises Ramirez of the National Action Party during the final debate Thursday.
"Society is crying out for change in our system of justice and security."
President Felipe Calderon has backed the law, calling it a cornerstone of his government's war against organized crime.
It would amend 10 articles of the Mexican Constitution. Ratification of the amendments by the country's 31 state legislatures is considered a formality.
The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 71 to 25. Mexico's lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, approved the package last month after removing a controversial measure that would have granted police the right to enter homes without a court order when pursuing suspects.
Almost three-quarters of defendants go to trial without defense attorneys, said Ana Laura Magaloni, a law professor at the Center for Investigation and Economic Research here who has studied the criminal justice system.
In one survey, 71% of convicted defendants said they never saw a judge before receiving their sentences. And about 47% of inmates in Mexico City's prisons are serving sentences for robbery involving sums of less than $20, Magaloni said. Those who fall into the system are often subject to arbitrary treatment, she said.
At the same time, authorities are so lackadaisical when it comes to gathering and processing evidence that a professional criminal with a good lawyer can easily evade justice, analysts say.
The judicial overhaul would place judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and police investigators under greater public scrutiny than before, said Miguel Carbonell, a law professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
"This will reduce corruption in the criminal justice system by requiring more professionalism of everyone involved," Carbonell said.
But Carbonell and other legal scholars opposed a key provision of the package that allows authorities to use "restriction orders" to detain witnesses and suspects without filing charges.
Mexican prosecutors routinely issue such orders, known as arraigos in Spanish. Their use has been challenged in courts. But the bill approved Thursday would give prosecutors the constitutional authority to hold anyone for up to 80 days in cases involving organized crime.
"We think putting arraigos into the constitution is a restriction of liberty that violates the presumption of innocence," Carbonell said.
The restriction orders were passionately opposed by several senators during the final debate. One senator called it a form of legalized kidnapping.
"Senators, be careful, because any of you, or any of your children, could fall into this terrible space called arraigo," Sen. Rosario Ibarra said.
But supporters of the law said restriction orders were an essential tool in the fight against the powerful drug traffickers who have ravaged many Mexican cities and towns.
The law also would grant police the power to wiretap telephone conversations as long as a judge issues a warrant. It also would allow private individuals to record private conversations and allow such recordings to be entered as evidence at trial.
Legislators of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party successfully opposed a provision that would have given police the power to enter homes without a judge's warrant when police are in hot pursuit of suspects or when a victim's life is in danger.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.