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Baja California To Celebrate Judicial Anniversary

It's been five years since the courts in the capital of Baja California started hearing oral arguments. So the state government is hosting forums to celebrate a "Week of Justice."

Tuesday marks five years since Baja California's capital, Mexicali, began hearing oral arguments in its courts, part of a nationwide effort to reform Mexico’s justice system.

To celebrate the anniversary, the state government is hosting a “Week of Justice” including public forums Aug. 11-14 in Mexicali, Tijuana, Tecate and Ensenada.

The forums will provide the public with information about the new oral trial system, which must be introduced across Mexico by June 2016 due to judicial reforms. Proceedings under the new system will be open to the public and video-recorded, with oral arguments and a three-judge panel in charge of sentencing.

Most of Mexico still uses a closed-door trial system based on written arguments, in which suspects rarely get to see their judges. Baja California is among one-third of the states that have introduced the new system in some courts.

Lizbeth Mata Lozano, deputy minister of justice affairs for Baja California, called the traditional system “archaic” and “opaque,” saying it fuels corruption.

“What we want is for there not to be impunity,” Mata said. “And for crimes to be resolved in a fair and relatively quick way.”

Mata said it takes between two to 10 years to issue a sentence under the traditional system. In Mexicali, sentencing now takes between two months and a year, she said.

The forums next week will feature experts discussing how justice in the state capital has changed since the open-door adversarial system was introduced on Aug. 11, 2010.

Mata said the biggest hurdle in adopting the new system has been training police officers to cooperate with the new system. She said they must now consider themselves “investigative” rather than “reactionary” police.

Historically, Mexican police have not been versed in proper preservation or recording of crime scene evidence, Mata said. The new system requires changing the attitudes and habits of law enforcement.

“There will be real investigations now,” Mata said.

U.S. criminal justice organizations are helping train Mexico’s public safety officers, prosecutors, judicial authorities and more. Among those offering services is the San Diego-based Justice in Mexico.

Between 2009 and 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sponsored training in cross-examination and other aspects of the new system for hundreds of Baja California lawyers, led by Justice in Mexico.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” director David Shirk said of the new trial system. “It’s going to be in many ways like the U.S. system, which is extremely flawed, but it’s going to be a significant improvement.”

Judicial reforms were passed in 2008, the same year a Mexican documentary called Presunto Culpable (Presumed Guilty) brought widspread attention to the problems of the country’s criminal justice system.

Shirk said the film highlighted the “Kafka-esque nature” of the system.

“It personalized the plight of many suspects and people who have been charged with a crime, who experience extraordinary delays and sometimes tampering with evidence,” he said.

More than 40 percent of Mexico's inmates are individuals who have been charged with a crime but have not been found guilty, Shirk said. Only one in every four crimes are reported to authorities because of lack of confidence in the system, he said.

“Only about 20 percent of those (reported crimes) wind up getting investigated,” Shirk said. Of those, he added, only about half lead to a prosecution, and of those, only 1.2 percent lead to a sentencing. In other words, Shirk said, “the traditional system in Mexico is 99 percent prone to impunity.”

The new system, Shirk said, “will be more transparent. There will be more public access and scrutiny to the decision-making process, at least in the trial phase.”

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