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Originally published Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 4:42 PM

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Mexico moves to shore up its justice system

Faith in Mexico’s justice system hit a low point last week, and President Enrique Peña Nieto is racing to distance himself from practices under the previous government, which left power in December.

McClatchy Newspapers

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MEXICO CITY — Mexican authorities have pledged major changes in the way criminal suspects are treated, citing an urgent need to improve a judiciary that’s suffering from rock-bottom conviction rates and wounded by public anger at the lack of a rule of law.

Starting immediately, Mexico’s Federal Police and military personnel will read a series of legal rights to suspects — including rights to know the charges against them, obtain free legal counsel and remain silent — from printed cards they carry with them.

The announcement Friday by Undersecretary Eduardo Sánchez of the Interior Secretariat was another sign that President Enrique Peña Nieto is racing to distance himself from practices under the previous government, which left power Dec. 1.

Last week, Sánchez also told the quasi-official Notimex news agency that police no longer would put suspected gangsters on display in “perp walks” before banks of television cameras.

Nor would authorities post “most-wanted” lists, allow news media to air raids in action or refer to gangsters by aliases, acts that critics said glorified the underworld.

“It is not acceptable, nor will it ever be under this government, that authorities conduct themselves in arbitrary ways that hurt society (or) lead to impunity and injustice,” Sánchez said at a news conference. He added that law-enforcement officials no longer would treat criminals in a way “for young people in our country to feel that it is attractive, or that criminal activities are a good way to develop socially.”

Faith in Mexico’s justice system hit a low point last week. The Supreme Court ruled in a 3-2 vote Wednesday to release a Frenchwoman accused of belonging to a kidnapping gang from her 60-year jail term.

As relatives of kidnapping victims wept along the roadside outside the prison, the woman, Florence Cassez, was whisked to the international airport to board a flight to France, where she was greeted as a returning survivor of a corrupt justice system.

French President François Hollande welcomed Cassez and her family Friday evening at the Élysée Palace in Paris.

Her release sparked anger and indignation in Mexico, where leftist lawmakers demanded that Genaro García Luna, who was the head of public security under former President Felipe Calderón, be brought to a hearing on his conduct in the case.

Cassez was freed partly because Garcia Luna had staged her “capture” in 2005 for television reporters a day after her arrest, pretending it was a real commando raid.

Prosecutors said Cassez, 38, took part in at least three kidnappings, including one of a minor, with the gang Los Zodiacos. She claimed she knew nothing of the activities of her onetime boyfriend, allegedly a member of Los Zodiacos.

Before Calderón left office, he boasted that his government had killed or captured 25 of the 37 most wanted drug lords in Mexico.

But his Attorney General’s Office acknowledged in a report five months ago that only 31 percent of the thousands of Mexicans who were arrested on drug charges from 2006 to 2011 were convicted.

Eight of 10 homicides in Mexico go unpunished, according to a study last year by Guillermo Zepeda, a rule-of-law expert at the Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education, a Jesuit-run university in Guadalajara.

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