Mexican president suffers court reverse, tensions rise

Political and Legal

Mexico’s Supreme Court struck down part of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s ‘jail, no bail’ policy Thursday.

The court voted against mandatory pre-trial detention for people accused of fraud, smuggling or tax evasion. Because trials often take years in Mexico, the justices argued that being held in prison during trial was equivalent to being subjected to punishment before being convicted.

Instead, prosecutors would have to convince judges there are valid reasons not to release people on their own recognizance — for example, by arguing that they may pose a flight risk. The justices may vote next week on whether the possibility of pre-trial release may be justified for other crimes.

In 2019, López Obrador imposed mandatory pre-trial detention for a long list of crimes, and he views it as part of his crack-down on white collar criminals, like those accused of tax fraud. Mexico does not have cash bail, but before López Obrador changed the rules, judges could release suspects and require them to wear monitors, sign in at court or agree not to travel.

The president has long railed about corrupt judges and court rulings he doesn’t like, and Thursday’s supreme court vote was likely to spark more vocal attacks by the president.

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

“How can judges, magistrates and justices be defending white collar criminals? How can it be that money triumphs over justice?” López Obrador said before the ruling. “What tremendous shamelessness!”

The president has not been shy about accusing lower court judges of releasing drug and other suspects on procedural or technical points he clearly does not agree with. Underpaid, and often under threat, Mexican prosecutors often don’t bring strong cases, or make intentional or unintentional errors.

“They free them because the prosecution case was poorly written, or for any other excuse, any other pretext,” the president said, “because they have become very, very, very fixated on the fine points of the law.”

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

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