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As Mexico Reels from Violence, Views on Crime and Punishment Harden

New America Media, News Analysis, Louis Nevaer Posted: Dec 10, 2008

Editors Note: In Mexico, as drug-related violence escalates at an alarming rate, the traditionally Catholic belief in redemption that has shaped the countrys legal system is giving way to a harsher view. More and more people are now calling for a vengeful criminal justice system, writes NAM contributor Louis Nevaer.

MERIDA, Mexico - More than twice as many people have been killed in organized crime slayings in Mexico this year than in 2007, making 2008 the bloodiest year in Mexican history since the Mexican Revolution in 1917.

Mexican Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora told reporters this week that drug cartel-related killings rose by 117 percent to 5,376 as compared to the first 11 months of 2007, when there were 2,477 such slayings.

These criminal organizations dont have limits, Mr. Medina-Mora, who previously served as Mexicos public safety director, said at a news conference. They certainly have an enormous power of intimidation.

More Mexicans have been killed in drug-related violence in 2008 than the United States has lost soldiers in five years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. This alarming escalation of violence has shaken Mexico to the core.

Mexican civil society has begun to question the generosity of their countrys legal system. Mexico has no death penalty, and the maximum prison term -- seldom imposed -- is 60 years. Additionally, it has refused to extradite individuals facing cruel and unusual punishment.

But the wave of violence that has washed over Mexico this year is fast transforming the landscape of Mexican society as Mexicans views on punishment are hardening. This shift is not so much because of the violence itself approximately 92 percent of the 5,400 people killed in Mexico this year were involved in the drug trade but because innocent civilians are getting caught in the crossfire between the Mexican police and the cartels.

To understand the subtle shifts in attitude, consider how Mexicos views of crime and punishment evolved. Based on the Napoleonic Code introduced in the 19th century when Napoleon invaded Mexico and installed Maximilian as Emperor Mexico, like most European countries, does not have jury trials and, although there is no presumption of innocence, only probable doubt has to be established.

Mexicos legal system reflects Catholic sensibilities: the idea that no one is beyond redemption, that everyone is entitled to forgiveness, and that only God can end a persons life. As a consequence, Mexico has reluctantly extradited people accused of crimes in other countries. Sentences of more than 25 years in prison are seldom imposed, and there is no capital punishment.

American officials have long complained of Mexicos navet, arguing that under Mexican law, terrorists can walk free a quarter century after their crimes. Mexican officials, meanwhile, have argued that with time, people grow and change, and can redeem themselves.

But now that violence gruesome slayings where mutilated or decapitated bodies are dumped in public view is affecting ordinary society, Mexico is seeing a public backlash.

As a result, three pillars of the Mexican criminal justice system are under contention:

Extradition: Since taking office in December 2006, President Felipe Caldern has handed over almost 160 criminal suspects to U.S. authorities.

Mexico had long resisted extradition requests on the principle that crimes committed in Mexico should be tried and punished in Mexico. Mexican law, furthermore, made it almost impossible to extradite a person who faced a life sentence or the death penalty. This reluctance began to change during the administration of Vicente Fox, who sought closer ties to the United States. These efforts were bolstered in 2005 when the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that life sentences did not constitute cruel or unusual punishment, since the United States routinely imposed such sentences. As a consequence, Caldern has moved forcefully to extradite drug suspects indicted in the United States, even if they face life in prison without the possibility of parole; Mexico still refuses to extradite individuals facing the death penalty.

Life Sentences: Mexicos penal code reflects the Catholic belief that no one is beyond redemption. As such, life imprisonment is inconsistent with the belief in rehabilitation, and as a result, life sentences in Mexico are considered cruel and unusual punishment. The maximum sentence that a court can impose is 60 years, and this is rarely done; the longest sentence Mexican judges contemplate is 25 years, which they consider long enough for a person to redeem himself or herself.

But as violence engulfs ordinary citizens, this belief is changing. The rash of kidnappings, particularly of children, has enraged the Mexican public. This, coming after the sensational kidnapping and slaying of Fernando Mart, the 14-year-old son of a sporting goods magnate, has hardened Mexicans views on life imprisonment.

Felipe Caldern attended the funeral of Fernando Mart, and legislators have been inundated with calls for concurrent sentences that would result in prison terms that extend for a persons natural life without the possibility of parole. Reflecting these attitudes, in 2005, Mexicos Supreme Court ruled that life imprisonment should no longer be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

Death Penalty: Perhaps no other aspect of Mexicos penal code reflects a commitment to human rights and religious sensibilities than Mexicos refusal to impose capital punishment. The last person executed in Mexico was in 1961. Mexico is a signatory nation to the U.N.s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which forbids executions. In 1981, Mexico signed a human rights treaty as part of the Organization of American States (OAS) that states that capital punishment, once banned, cannot be reintroduced. Mexico continues to refuse to extradite anyone who faces the possibility of the death penalty.

But now, as much out of anger as frustration, Mexicans are debating the merits of capital punishment. Mexican officials have agreed to hold hearings on whether the Constitution should be amended to allow for the death penalty. Humberto Moreira, governor of the Mexican northern border state of Coahuila, a region engulfed in drug-related violence, sponsored an initiative that would allow capital punishment for convicted kidnappers who kill their victims.

Opponents to the death penalty accuse Moreira of exploiting the publics growing fear with impossible initiatives. Behind this call [for the reintroduction of capital punishment] is societys desperation over the climate of insecurity we are living in, Alberto Herrera, director of the Mexico chapter of Amnesty International, told reporters. But the risk is it leads to calls for revenge. Although few believe it is possible to change the Mexican Constitution, the simple fact that the question of capital punishment has entered the public debate reflects the heightened sense of outrage and powerlessness that ordinary Mexicans feel.

An increasing number of them are beginning to feel that it would be criminal for society to do nothing in the face of crime.

Related Articles:

Violence in Mexico Forces Families to Emigrate

Editorial: Violence Pushes Mexico Toward Militarization

Violence, Rights Violations Soar in Tijuana

Juarez Reporter Murdered, Attacks on Journalists Intensify

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