November 22, 2014 / 2:43 AM / 5 years ago

Grappling with protests, Mexico president urges swift judicial reform

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Embattled President Enrique Peña Nieto called on Mexico’s states on Friday to swiftly adopt steps to modernize the justice system as he tries to defuse mass protests over the apparent massacre of 43 trainee teachers.

Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto speaks during a military parade in celebration of the 104th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, at Campo Marte in Mexico City November 20, 2014. REUTERS /Henry Romero

Peña Nieto is facing the deepest crisis of his presidency after the students’ abduction in late September by rogue police in league with drug gang members shone a light on chronic corruption and impunity.

Those woes have been compounded by a conflict-of-interest scandal after his family home was found to belong to a company that was part of a Chinese-led consortium awarded a major high speed rail contract.

“Society is rightly sick of feeling vulnerable. It is tired of impunity and crime,” Peña Nieto said on Friday, vowing to push for a more transparent, trustworthy justice system in Mexico.

“The Mexican state has a decades-old debt with its citizens, and it’s time to pay it.”

In 2008, Congress approved a reform that sought to modernize the judicial system, setting a 2016 deadline for Mexico’s 32 states to end behind-closed-doors trials and implement public proceedings where prosecutors and defenders present evidence.

However, with less than two years to go until the deadline, only a handful of states have fully or even partially implemented the measures.

A recent survey by the national statistics agency found that the vast majority of crimes went either unreported or uninvestigated in Mexico last year, with most people saying they remained silent due to a lack of faith in authorities.

Police are frequently accused of drumming up evidence or torturing suspects to win convictions. And drug gangs often pay off police in local forces across the country.

“I want to call on the state attorney generals’ offices as well as legislative and judicial powers to accelerate the implementation of the new national penal code,” Peña Nieto said, cautioning however that the system would not change overnight.

Public anger at the government over impunity is swelling.

Protesters clashed with riot police outside the National Palace on Thursday night, the latest in a series of demonstrations to voice outrage at the trainee teachers’ apparent murder in the southwestern state of Guerrero.

They also burned an effigy of Peña Nieto.

While promising changes, Peña Nieto vowed on Friday that he would not allow the protests “to be abducted by those who act with violence and vandalism”.

Reporting by Simon Gardner, Michael O'Boyle and Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Kieran Murray and Andrew Hay

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