On a recent morning, Mexican criminal-court judge Reynaldo Madruga Picazzo sat in the back of a downtown Los Angeles courtroom and watched as a police officer testified in the case of an accused gang member and a gun.
Over the years, the 72-year-old had presided over many murder and kidnapping trials in his country. Always, he was judge and jury. No one ever took the stand in his courtroom. Picazzo pored over reams of paper trails, outlining accusations and defenses, and dispensed justice.
The L.A. case wasn’t exactly the stuff of a “Law & Order” episode, but its mundane proceedings were extraordinary to Picazzo in what they augured for Mexico’s judicial future.
“I am really surprised with what I’ve seen this morning, in the first place because of the transparency,” said Picazzo, chief justice for the state of Veracruz. “The access the public has makes them truly public proceedings. That is a factor that can reduce corruption. It is harder to bribe someone of the court, even a judge, if everything is public.”
By 2016, all 31 Mexican states are expected to convert to a U.S.-style court system, with defendants for the first time facing their accusers in public court and witnesses taking the stand at trial. Picazzo called it “the most profound reform done in our justice system in 100 years,” as he and six other Mexican judges toured Los Angeles courtrooms recently.
The conversion comes at a time of upheaval in Mexico. Many states have been rocked by a brutal war between drug cartels and the government, and the conflict has claimed more than 22,000 lives.
On the weekend the judges arrived, 24 people were killed in 24 hours during a spasm of drug-related mayhem in Chihuahua. During a visit to the Los Angeles Police Department Police Academy, one of the Chihuahua judges reacted with dark humor to the near-constant barrage of gunfire from the firing range.
“Ay, I feel like I’m back in Juarez,” Catalina Ruiz Pacheco, 49, blurted, as she used a fan to cool down.
The fact that they were learning about American justice in a city shaped substantially by a Mexican history and by waves of immigrants from Mexico was not lost on the judges. Nor was the fact that many of the children of those Mexican immigrants now occupy higher rungs of L.A.'s government.
The trip was organized and led by Teresa Sanchez-Gordon, a Mexican American Superior Court judge who grew up in East L.A. and has led American judges on trips to Mexico.
“The Mexican American and immigrant community is significant both in the county and the courts,” Sanchez-Gordon said. “The court is less than 150 miles from the Mexican border. I believe this court is the ideal venue in all aspects to learn about American justice.”
Over three days, the judges sat in on court proceedings, stepped into jails and visited a state-of-the-art crime lab at Cal State L.A. Nearly everywhere they went, they asked one question in particular.
“I have a question that is very important to us in Mexico,” Picazzo told LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara at the Police Academy. “Are Los Angeles police officers paid well? The police in Mexico are paid very poorly.”
The Mexican judges explained that the low pay for police officers in their country was like oxygen for corruption. American officials frequently explained to the visitors that the financial crisis was affecting their budgets and resources.
Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan told the visitors how his “drug court” tries to encourage drug and alcohol addicts to get and stay clean. Next to a nameplate on his bench with his real name was a fake one with the name “Harry Stone,” an allusion to the zany judge from the 1980s sitcom “Night Court.”
The Mexican judges marveled at his rapport with those who came before him. Tynan explained that the “drug court” had a 75% success rate and that politicians and influential people often tell him he’s doing great.
“I say, ‘Thanks,’ ” Tynan told the Mexicans, “I want to do a great job, but. . . .”
". . . Pero no le dan lana,” Picazzo finished the sentence, drawing laughs. The phrase means “but they don’t show you the money.”
After walking out of a shooting simulator at the LAPD academy, where Pacheco blew away a computerized knife-wielding wife beater with aplomb, the Chihuahua judge remarked, “They have everything here.”
Pacheco talked with pride about the crime lab in Ciudad Juarez, which she said was one of the best in Latin America. But it wasn’t like the one run by the LAPD and L.A. Sheriff’s Department at Cal State L.A., she said.
State courts in Chihuahua have gotten a head start in Mexico’s court conversion and now accept oral testimony in proceedings, albeit with a technological twist. Taking recent violence and threats of retaliation into account, witnesses and victims in certain cases can testify over a video monitor while they sit in another protected room.
For the many Mexican American officials who welcomed the Mexican judges, a challenge was communicating the importance of their visit while confronting their own Spanish skills.
At least one explained that his Spanish was too pocho, invoking slang used to describe an assimilated person of Mexican descent. Mexican Spanish, especially among the educated classes, can be flowery, circumspect, rigidly formal and achingly polite. Sanchez-Gordon acknowledged that she didn’t get everything the Mexican judges said.
“We begin to do this pocho Spanglish when we talk,” she said. “Sometimes I have to focus very much on what they tell me. It’s not everyday Spanish.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa gamely spoke to the Mexican judges in Spanish, although he acknowledged his limitations.
“I’m going to try to speak Spanish, even though my Spanish is not perfect,” he told them during a visit to City Hall.
He wished them well as they embarked on the mission of reforming Mexico’s justice system, noted the two countries’ shared interests and spoke with pride about the opportunities children of immigrants have in L.A. and the U.S.
“I never even dreamed of walking into this building, let alone being mayor,” he said. “And it speaks about the greatness of this country. With all its problems, this is a great country, with a generosity of opportunity that is incredible.”
The Mexican judges nodded approval.