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Calls Increasing To Overhaul Mexico’s Justice System

An American woman arrested in Mexico on what appeared to be trumped-up charges of drug trafficking filed against her was finally set free last week.

But the Washington Office on Latin America has taken a close look at the number of Mexican nationals who have been in custody without legal representation or a trial and finds that prisoner rights in Mexico continue to be problematic.

The Mexican Army arrested Yanira Maldonado outside Hermosillo as she and her husband were returning to Arizona from a trip to Sinaloa. Soldiers claimed she had a stash of marijuana under her bus seat. Her family and lawyer in Mexico said surveillance video showed she boarded the bus with few belongings; certainly not the bulk that 13 pounds of marijuana would have revealed.

The question of whether Maldonado was framed or whether the marijuana packages even existed was never resolved.

Speaking in Phoenix last week, Sonora Gov. Guillermo Padrés said the Army was just trying to do its job.

"They are trying to make sure that drug trafficking doesn't continue and to fight it,” he said.

But Mexican citizens arrested on drug charges are often not as fortunate as Maldonado, whose case had widespread media attention and involvement from U.S. lawmakers. The system is rife with bloated crime data and questionable judicial practices.

Of 226,000 drug cases during the presidency of Felipe Calderón, only 33,500 people were sentenced.

The Mexican think-tank, Center for Research and Economic Teachings, found in 2012 that about one third of Mexico’s federal prison population had either no attorney to defend them in court or inept attorneys who didn’t bother explaining what was happening in their cases or give them any advice.

A Congressional Research Service report submitted to Congress last month shows that a long-awaited judicial reform in Mexico may not be ready by the 2016 deadline. It was first introduced in 2008.

The reform is supposed to include radical changes such as requiring evidence of a person’s culpability and not merely a confession, victims’ rights and open trials like those in the U.S.

The CRS report warns that while the U.S. has invested $2 billion under the Merida Initiative security package, judicial reform will require a nearly complete overhaul of Mexico’s justice system.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.