Mexico is in the midst of a legal revolution, and Cristal Gonzalez is on the front line.
The US-trained lawyer is one of a growing number of Mexican attorneys putting judges, lawyers, investigators and clerks through crash courses in justice, now that Mexico has amended its Constitution to throw out its inept and corrupt legal system.
Some of her lessons may seem blindingly obvious, yet they drive home just how dysfunctional Mexico’s courts and police are.
Recently, the 30-year-old lawyer explained the new rules of justice to a class of 200 professionals with the clarity of a preschool teacher: “The accused is IN-NO-CENT until proven guilty! Confessions cannot be coerced. Which means the person cannot be submitted to ...?”
She paused for a response.
“Torture,” several students answered in unison.
Under the constitutional amendment passed by the legislature, approved by all 32 states and signed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Mexico has eight years to replace its closed proceedings with public trials in which defendants are presumed innocent, legal authorities can be held more accountable and justice is equal.
The country has tried to overhaul its government institutions since 2000 when voters ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party — notorious for abusing power.
Supporters say Mexico has missed out on foreign investment because of its reputation as a lawless country where people are arrested randomly and criminals pay off judges — problems Calderon says also hamper the fight against organized crime.
Demands for reform became much more vocal after Aug. 1, when a 14-year-old kidnap victim was found dead even after his businessman father paid a large ransom. The boy was abducted at a fake police checkpoint allegedly with help from detectives.
Without the threat of exposure in public trials, mistaken arrests, bungled investigations and confessions extracted under threats and torture have become common.
Suspects are routinely paraded in front of cameras before they have been charged. Lawyers often pay witnesses to write favorable testimony, and there are no cross-examinations of witnesses.
The new penal code is no miracle cure, but supporters say it has more safeguards, such as limits on detention without charges, the right to a lawyer and a speedy trial.
Still, many are skeptical.
“This favors the guilty,” said court clerk Maria del Carmen Rojas. “It gives them too many rights, and because of the speedy trials, judges are not going to have time. Judges are going to be under a lot of pressure.”
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