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The Mexican President suffers a legal battle in court, tensions mount

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MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s Supreme Court on Thursday struck down part of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s “no bail” policy.

The court voted against mandatory pre-trial detention for those accused of fraud, smuggling or tax evasion. Because trials in Mexico often last for years, judges argued that detention during the trial was tantamount to punishment before conviction.

Instead, prosecutors would have to convince judges that there are valid reasons not to release people of their own accord – for example, arguing that they could pose a risk of absconding. Judges may vote next week on whether the early release option may be justified for other offences.

In 2019, López Obrador imposed mandatory pre-trial detention for a long list of crimes, and he sees this as part of his crackdown on white-collar criminals, such as those accused of tax fraud. Mexico doesn’t have cash bail, but before López Obrador changed the rules, judges could release suspects and require them to wear monitors, report to court, or agree not to travel.

The president has long ranted about corrupt judges and court decisions he doesn’t like, and Thursday’s Supreme Court vote would likely spark more vocal attacks from the president.

Even before the verdict, López Obrador criticized the court for the widely expected vote on Thursday.

“How can judges and prosecutors defend white-collar criminals? How can it be that money triumphs over justice?” López Obrador said before the verdict. “What monstrous shamelessness!”

The President has not been shy about accusing lower court judges of releasing drugs and other suspects on procedural or technical points with which he clearly disagrees. Underpaid and often threatened, Mexican prosecutors often fail to present convincing cases or make mistakes, intentional or unintentional.

“They’re releasing them because the indictment was badly written or for some other reason, under some other pretext,” the president said, “because they’re very, very, very fixated on the finer points of the law.”

López Obrador has fought the courts, often attacking their legitimacy and despising individual judges because courts have often blocked some of the president’s key initiatives.

Observers say the courts acted because López Obrador often enforced laws that openly contradict the country’s constitution or international treaties.

Previously, the President directed most of his anger at lower courts. On Thursday, Ricardo Mejia, Mexico’s deputy secretary of state for public security, said at a news conference with López Obrador that the government would recommend filing criminal charges against a judge who ordered the release of an alleged drug gang leader.

But much of the president’s anger on Thursday was directed at the Supreme Court, which is about to hear an appeal from a group saying government money and property should no longer be used to build nativity scenes, a staple in Mexico.

The appeal says the government’s involvement in exhibiting nativity scenes violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

The President angrily denied it, although the court has not yet ruled on the issue.

“This is an example. Why should they go against the traditions, the customs of the people?” said López Obrador.

López Obrador expanded the list of charges that require a suspect to be held pending trial to 16, including some nonviolent crimes that carry sentences of just a few months — far less than the time most people are facing spend waiting for the trial.

Only about two out of ten people accused of a crime in Mexico are ever found guilty. That means that of the estimated 92,000 suspects being held pending trial — often in the same cells as felons — about 75,000 remain unconvicted, despite being incarcerated in Mexico’s overcrowded, dangerous prisons, sometimes for years.

Trials in Mexico can be surprisingly long. Two men were recently released with ankle monitors after serving 17 years in prison while on trial for murder.

Being sent to Mexican prisons that are overcrowded, underfunded, and gang-controlled can be hell for those on remand, who often enter with no prison intelligence or gang connections.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention says that “mandatory pre-trial detention violates international human rights standards”.

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