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Mexico Aims To Reduce Corruption With A New Legal System


Mexico is working to completely overhaul its justice system to make it look more like the one we have in the U.S. To that end, a group of Mexican law professors visited San Francisco recently to see a criminal trial in action. Tyche Hendricks from member station KQED was there.


TYCHE HENDRICKS, BYLINE: Miriam Hernandez rides the elevator to the second floor of San Francisco's Hall of Justice.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Second floor. Going up.

HENDRICKS: She makes her way to a courtroom, where a prosecutor is walking the jury through a series of photos and PowerPoint slides, building her closing argument in a burglary case. It's an essential part of the American justice system. But for Hernandez, it's totally new. For 23 years, she was a prosecutor in Mexico, and she never stood up in a courtroom like this and argued a case. That's because, until just recently, Mexico didn't have courtrooms, and it didn't have oral trials as we do.

MIRIAM HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: She says, "everything used to be done in writing, but filing a legal brief is not the same as arguing on your feet in front of a judge." Mexico's justice reform aims to reduce rampant corruption and strengthen the rule of law. It was supposed to take effect in 2016, but it still hasn't been fully adopted. Still, Hernandez says, it's already ensuring more rights for victims and the accused.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: She says, "in the past, everyone knew there were human rights violations. A suspect's confession was the highest form of proof, and sometimes those confessions were obtained through torture."

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: She says, "these days, there's much less room for abuses now that hearings in Mexico are open to the public and lawyers can cross-examine evidence presented by the other side."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: During a break in the San Francisco robbery trial, Hernandez and the other Mexican professors crowd into the chambers of Judge Gerardo Sandoval and pepper him with questions about the American legal system.


HENDRICKS: The Mexicans came to California for two weeks of training funded by the U.S. State Department. Judge Sandoval says meeting with them is a way of giving back to the country where his parents were born, to help Mexico build a justice system that can withstand the corrupting influence of cartels.

GERARDO SANDOVAL: It can only help things there with the terrible violence they have and the drug trafficking they have to have greater transparency and bring greater confidence in the judicial system.

HENDRICKS: And, Sandoval says, if Mexico can become more just and secure, in the long run it could even reduce the pressure to migrate.

SANDOVAL: Nobody leaves home because they want to. People leave because either there's no work or they feel in danger. So having a more stable Mexico is not only going to make people feel safer, but also, I think, encourage economic development. And that will be good, ultimately.

HENDRICKS: But right now, organized crime and drug violence are widespread in Mexico. Many in the public want the government to be tough on crime. Surprisingly, that means they're wary, even hostile to the new system. That's because stricter standards for evidence and the idea that defendants are innocent until proven guilty means that sometimes the bad guys are acquitted. Hernandez, the former prosecutor, tells her students the task of building a whole new legal system and winning over public opinion is so big it will take generations.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

HENDRICKS: She says she won't live to see it completed, but her grandchildren will, or maybe her great-grandchildren. For NPR News, I'm Tyche Hendricks in San Francisco.


KING: That story was reported with support from the International Women's Media Foundation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tyche Hendricks