MEXICO CITY — Even as Mexico fumes over President Trump’s aggressive stance toward its people, the Mexican government is quietly trying to rip up basic legal protections for its citizens at home and gut longstanding efforts to fix the nation’s broken rule of law.
Legal experts fear the move will set back human rights in Mexico by decades.
The tool is an innocuous-sounding bill, submitted last month by a close ally of President Enrique Peña Nieto — only a day after his government publicly chided the Trump administration to respect the rights of all Mexicans.
The governing party says the bill, labeled a reform to the criminal code, will make “adjustments” to Mexico’s new legal system, a linchpin of cooperation with the United States that was completed last year with more than $300 million in American aid. It is widely considered Mexico’s most important legal advancement in the past century.
But while the American-backed legal system is supposed to enshrine human rights in a nation desperately lacking them, this new bill heads squarely in the other direction. Legal scholars say it will broaden the power of the Mexican government to detain suspects for years before trial, enable the police to rely on hearsay in court and potentially allow prosecutors to use evidence obtained by torture.
Beyond that, the bill, which has not yet been approved by Congress, flips the very premise of modern justice on its head: Rather than innocent before proved guilty, it would require concrete evidence of reasonable doubt, essentially shifting the burden of proof to the accused.
“It is not only a counter reform, but it has reforms that contravene the right to a proper defense,” said Alejandra Ramos, a judge in the state of Chihuahua. “They want to pass this because it is easier to do than to train police officers and prosecutors, clean up the entire system and break the use of torture as the main tool of investigation.”
The legislation reflects a central contradiction of modern Mexico under Mr. Peña Nieto and his party: the version of the country that his government promotes to the world versus the reality it creates on the ground.
In promoting Brand Mexico, the government has fashioned the image of an ascending nation, a regional leader ready to take its place on the global stage, competitive on issues of trade, economics and culture. And yet, presented with mounting violence, vast inequality and a human rights crisis in which torture at the hands of security forces is “generalized,” in the words of the United Nations, the same government frequently runs roughshod over the rights it claims to defend.
The government’s recent scolding of the Trump administration — while actively trying to roll back the rights of Mexicans at home — underscores the paradox.
When Mr. Trump ordered a wall between the two nations, the Mexicans called it an alarming assault on their dignity, vowing to defend their citizens in the United States and publicly insisting last month that “all Mexicans should be treated with absolute respect to their civil rights and human rights.”
But back home, the Mexican government was busy doing the opposite, introducing a bill to reverse central tenets of the new justice system with such little publicity that many lawmakers, judges and defense lawyers do not even know about it.
International bodies that oversee Mexico’s human rights record say the legislation is part of a long pattern by the government. In its handling of the vast corruption that runs through the justice and political systems, the impunity of its security forces, or the investigations into the tens of thousands of disappearances across the country, they say, the government often undermines the major breakthroughs it claims to be making.
“Mexico has worked hard to promote its image as a state that defends or advances international human rights,” said James Cavallaro, a commissioner on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and a professor at Stanford Law School. “But at home, the human rights situation is simply dreadful: severe abuse, torture, summary executions and virtually guaranteed impunity.”
The bill is part of a broader packet of changes. The governing party and other lawmakers have also submitted several versions of the law that would legalize the army’s enforcement of domestic security, a role the military has played without a legal mandate since the drug war began a decade ago.
During that time, torture and extrajudicial killings have soared. According to the government’s own data, the military kills far more combatants than it injures, a lopsided record that defies the history of war. The elite marine forces, for instance, kill 30 people for every person they injure, a ratio that experts say points to a high likelihood of extrajudicial killings.
Very few soldiers are ever punished for crossing the line. Of the roughly 4,000 complaints of torture that the attorney general’s office has reviewed since 2006, only 15 have resulted in convictions, raising broad international concerns about impunity and the government’s willingness to tackle human rights abuses.
The government says the military bill will help regulate the armed forces, giving them the legal authority to continue their essential role in fighting organized crime.
“But that isn’t the right question,” said Jan Jarab, the representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico. “The right question is, Should they continue to do it at all? The right question is, Has the military paradigm been successful? The answer to that, in a huge and overwhelming majority, is no.”
Driving the government’s legislative push is a profound fear: that the nation’s fragile security situation, already a major stain on Mexico’s international image, could unravel further.
The new legal system, for example, retooled with the United States over a period of eight years, affords more protections for…