The federal government has launched another attack on the judiciary, triggering a warning from the Americas director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) that “the rule of law is under attack in Mexico.”
Navy chief José Rafael Ojeda took aim at the nation’s judges at President López Obrador’s press conference on Friday, declaring that it seems that the judiciary is the “enemy” of the state in many organized crime cases.
Referring to the importation via Pacific coast ports of precursor chemicals to make synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and methamphetamine, Ojeda said the government is working on a legal reform that would place a greater number of chemicals on the banned list.
The navy minister said the reform must be carefully formulated to ensure that there are no loopholes that could allow judges to free suspected criminals.
“We don’t have much help from judges and [state] Attorney General’s offices [in organized crime cases], we have to close the circle well because if we don’t [the criminals] get away from us,” Ojeda said, underscoring the need to draw up a strong reform and present comprehensive and compelling evidence in cases against drug traffickers.
There are “many cases” in which judges act in a way that makes it appear they are on the side of the criminals, the navy chief said.
“It seems that we have an enemy in the judicial power; we have to close the circle well in order to carry out arrests,” and keep criminals in prison, Ojeda said.
The broadside comes after repeated attacks on the judiciary by López Obrador, who has been angered by rulings against government laws and policies and infrastructure projects such as the new Mexico City airport and the Maya Train.
Late last month, the president asserted that Supreme Court judges would become accomplices to corruption if they don’t approve a law – backed by him – to extend the term of the court’s chief justice by an additional two years, even though the Mexican constitution restricts the maximum term of a chief justice to four.
López Obrador argues that only Arturo Zaldívar, the court’s chief justice and president of the Federal Judiciary Council, is capable of implementing the government’s laws to overhaul the judicial power, among which are reforms designed to eliminate corruption, nepotism and harassment in the court system.
In addition to pressuring Supreme Court judges to support the extension of the chief justice’s term, the president has recently criticized members of the judiciary for striking down his administration’s energy sector laws.
He said in March that judges that hand down rulings against the Electricity Industry Law, which favors the state-owned Federal Electricity Commission over private companies, should be investigated for corruption. López Obrador even wrote to Zaldívar – considered an ally of the president – to ask him to initiate an investigation into Judge Juan Pablo Gómez Fierro, who suspended the electricity law on the grounds that it could harm free competition and cause irreparable damage to the environment.
An investigation into the judge is necessary because there are “people, organizations and companies” that are close to the old political regime, he said March 17.
The president has also threatened to name and shame judges who regularly free criminal suspects, a common occurrence in Mexico due to irregularities such as authorities’ fabrication of details about how a suspect was arrested.
The addition of the navy chief’s voice to the government’s offensive against the judiciary was slammed by Human Rights Watch Americas director José Miguel Vivanco, who was also highly critical of the move to extend Zaldívar’s term.
Ojeda’s declaration that the government has enemies among the nation’s judges is a “symbol of the militarization of Mexico and the degradation of the rule of law” under the presidency of López Obrador, he wrote on Twitter, adding that the situation is “very dangerous.”
Vivanco described the navy minister’s remarks as “outrageous” in another Twitter post.
“The head of Mexico’s navy says (while standing next to President López Obrador at a press conference) that judges are the ‘enemy.’ This should be a wake-up call. The rule of law is under attack in Mexico,” he wrote.
Chief Justice Zaldívar also took to Twitter after Ojeda’s appearance at the press conference.
“The role of judges is to defend human rights and the constitution,” he wrote without referring specifically to the navy chief’s remarks. “We will continue guaranteeing their autonomy. An independent judicial power is essential in a democracy.”
For its part, the National Association of Federal Judicial Power Circuit Magistrates and District Judges issued a statement asserting that federal judges “are neither the friends nor enemies of anyone.”
Rather, the statement added, “they only obey the constitution and act in defense of people’s human rights.”