In an effort to combat police torture, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari Tuesday proposed important reforms to the Mexican legal system that would limit the use of confessions from suspected criminals in court. Mexican and international human rights groups, as well as U.S. officials, have denounced the use of torture by federal police to extract confessions from detainees, particularly in cases related to narcotics trafficking. The National Human Rights Commission, appointed by Salinas last June, had proposed the changes.
"This is a step toward answering what has been one of the most pressing demands of the population: the just and equal application of the law for all," Salinas said.
He added, "We will not only maintain our energetic actions in the fight against drug trafficking, we will reinforce them. But we will do so without violating human rights and individual guarantees."
Under the new law that Salinas said he will submit to the Mexican Congress, interrogations would be carried out by lawyers from the attorney general's office rather than by federal police, and they must be conducted in the presence of a defense attorney.
These confessions no longer would be sufficient as sole proof on which to convict a suspected criminal. Only those confessions made in the presence of a defense attorney would be legal evidence.
Salinas also said that arrest warrants must be issued before a suspect can be detained. A person illegally arrested would have to be freed.
The president vowed to revamp the federal attorney general's office and to professionalize its police force, the Federal Judicial Police, which is responsible for fighting drug trafficking. His proposal includes drug testing for federal police, but does not mention higher salaries. Several police and human rights officials say that the problems of torture, extortion and corruption are due in part to the fact that police are underpaid.
Last week Salinas removed the deputy attorney general in charge of anti-narcotics police, Javier Coello Trejo, and replaced him with a new coordinator for narcotics investigations, Jorge Carrillo Olea.
The timing of these changes appears to be threefold: Salinas is due to give his annual "state of the nation" speech on Nov. 1, during which he recaps the achievements of the previous year; his human rights commission is scheduled to issue its first report on Dec. 1, and human rights groups have been waiting to pass judgment on the seriousness of the commission until then; and several political observers say Salinas is trying to clean up his government's human rights record before entering into complicated free trade negotiations with the United States.