August 24, 2008 in Nation/World

States head effort to rebuild Mexico’s justice system

An estimated 99 percent of crimes go unpunished
By Laurence Iliff and Alfredo Corchado Dallas Morning News

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – This border city, with record levels of drug violence and a long history of impunity, is at the center of a U.S.-supported effort to rebuild Mexico’s crumbling justice system, where it’s been estimated that 99 percent of all crimes go unpunished.

“This is a system that has to function like it does in other countries,” Judge Lorenzo Villar said.

Villar is one of a cadre of new judges throughout Chihuahua state who now do the once unthinkable: hold public trials in which the state must prove its case. Before, the accused bore the burden of proof, and trials were secret – a system that continues today in most of Mexico.

Chihuahua and Nuevo Leon states, both near Texas, are pioneering open trials to try to bring transparency and accountability to the legal process and to end a tradition of corruption, shoddy investigations, coerced testimony – and an extremely low conviction rate.

It’s no coincidence that Chihuahua is at the center of spiraling drug violence and the scene of hundreds of grisly slayings of women dating to the early 1990s, almost all of which remain unsolved. Making the justice system more effective is seen as a key to restoring the rule of law.

State Attorney General Patricia Gonzalez said the new trials are designed to do that.

“With this system of criminal justice, any citizen, regardless of socioeconomic or political position, can be punished if they commit any type of crime,” she said in an interview.

But huge challenges remain in radically changing how justice is imparted. “Training still has not been sufficient, especially in terms of criminal investigation and forensics,” she said.

The U.S. government put up $3 million over three years to help Chihuahua craft the new system, which required modifying the state constitution. The state spent $48 million on the project, which went into effect Jan. 1.

It’s too early to see how it’s working, but Mexican and U.S. officials say they are encouraged.

“It isn’t a U.S. model, or a Colombian model, or a Chilean model; it’s a unique creation,” said a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak for attribution. “We’re a small part, but we hope we’re a useful part.”

More U.S. help is coming through the Merida Initiative, a U.S. aid program that will increase by 10 times the amount of money Mexico gets for a variety of programs but mostly to fight drug trafficking.

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