Mexico quietly eliminates death penalty

Mexico quietly moved to eliminate the death penalty from its military justice codes, hours before the International Court of Justice ruled on Wednesday that the United States violated the rights of 51 Mexicans on death row.

Mexico, a heavily Roman Catholic country, has long opposed the death penalty. The world court case was Mexican President Vicente Fox’s way of formally protesting US death sentences, which have created friction between the two governments.

Little known and not implemented for decades, the continued existence of Mexico’s death penalty as a punishment for Mexican military personnel represented a potential embarrassment for Mexico in its legal challenge against the US.

While Fox launched a broad criminal justice reform package on Monday, Tuesday’s proposal to substitute the military death penalty with 30- to 60-year prison sentences was not even announced by the president’s office.

The proposal was listed in a one-sentence entry in the “received Bills” section of the Mexican Senate’s daily gazette as “an executive branch proposal ... to reform and repeal several clauses of the military justice code”.

An unofficial version of the Bill noted the purpose was to eliminate the last vestige of the death penalty in Mexico.
The Senate agreed to turn the measure over to its defense committee for study and debate.

The death penalty has not been applied in Mexico’s army since 1961 and is theoretically reserved for the worst offenses: treason or serious dereliction of duty by military personnel.

The proposal came hours before the world court, the United Nations’s highest judiciary, ordered the US to review the cases of 52 Mexicans on death row in US prisons.

The case centers on the 1963 Vienna Convention, which guarantees people accused of a serious crime while in a foreign country the right to contact their own government for help and to be informed of that right by arresting authorities.

Mexico says US police did not notify Mexican citizens of their right to consular assistance, and it wants their convictions overturned.

Even those who support Mexico’s challenge—or oppose the death penalty—acknowledge that the world court case increases the pressure on Mexico to clean up its own torture- and corruption-plagued justice system.

“How can President Fox insist on justice for Mexican citizens in US prisons when he is ignoring a case in Mexico that he could easily fix?” said Laurie Freeman, Mexico representative for the Washington Office on Latin America, a US think-tank.

Freeman was referring to Alfonso Martin del Campo, an American native who holds dual US and Mexican citizenship and who was sentenced in Mexico to 50 years in prison for the murder of his sister and brother-in-law, though no physical evidence was presented against him.

“His case is a textbook example of the flaws in Mexico’s justice system,” Freeman said. Del Campo said he signed a confession to the murders after being stripped, beaten and tortured by police.

In December, several members of the US Congress sent Fox a letter urging him to “set an example for the US by freeing Alfonso Martin del Campo Dodd, and in doing so demonstrate your commitment to rectifying the legal injustices suffered by US and Mexican citizens imprisoned on both sides of our shared border”.

Such tales are not uncommon in Mexico, where 646 Americans sit in jail on federal charges. Fox acknowledged on Monday that the Mexican system suffers from “profound structural faults”, and proposed substituting oral, public trials for written judgements, clearly establishing the presumption of innocence in the Constitution, and reorganising national police forces.—Sapa-AP

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