Rodolfo Campos Priego
Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson, left, and Mexican attorney Rodolfo Campos Priego share a laugh Wednesday evening at the Benton County Court House. The pair had spent the day observing trials in Linn, Benton and Polk counties. (Andy Cripe/ Gazette-Times)

Benton DA hosts Mexican counterpart trying to reform system there

Mexico’s justice system historically has been characterized by corruption. The accused are guilty until proven innocent. Secret trials are held without juries. The legal system is terrorized by drug cartels whose brutal leaders threaten prosecutors with death — and then follow through against those who refuse to back down.

Now an international coalition of prosecutors are working together to help enact nationwide judicial reform in Mexico. Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson and Mexican attorney Rodolfo Campos Priego are part of the Alliance Partnership, a collaboration between the Conference of Western Attorneys General and other U.S. agencies and CONATRIB, a national commission of tribunals. The aim of the partnership is to help train Mexican judges and attorneys to understand and apply procedures followed in the U.S. judicial system to ensure fairness.

Campos Priego visited Corvallis last week as Haroldson’s guest as a stop in his multi-state observance of the U.S. judicial system.

“Mexico is going through a profound reform in its criminal justice system,” Campos Priego said last week. “It’s a historical moment because it removes 100 years of history.”

The effort began June 18, 2008, when the Mexican government enacted a constitutional reform stipulating that all 31 Mexican states must switch to a new, reformed justice system by June 18, 2016. The new system includes oral trials in front of a judge and the presumption of innocence, as in the U.S., where the rule of “innocent until proven guilty” puts the burden of proof on the prosecutors.

Largely because of fear of reprisal from criminals, victims report fewer than 25 percent of crimes in Mexico, and fewer than 2 percent are prosecuted, according to David Shirk, the director of the Trans-Border Institute and a political science professor at the University of San Diego.

Campos Preigo’s trip is all about changing such realities, and he’s paying for it out of his own pocket. He plans to share his observations with his colleagues. During his stay in Oregon, he watched two criminal trials, a divorce case and a personal injury trial. He also attended a law school class at Willamette University in Salem. He planned similar stops for Idaho, New York, Florida, Colorado and California.

“The goal is to study trials in as many different jurisdictions as I can,” Campos Priego said.

Haroldson met Campos Priego when he and his wife, Maria Chavez-Haroldson, visited Villahermosa last summer to attend a symposium that drew 4,000 judges, lawyers and community members to a 12-hour mock murder trial.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to see the incredible level of commitment and passion that the prosecutors, the judges and the lawyers that we have worked with have for preserving justice in Mexico,” Haroldson said. “It’s really inspiring.”

Haroldson and his wife have strong ties to Mexico. Maria is from Chihuahua, and Haroldson is a dual citizen of both countries, living in both at various times throughout his childhood. For him, being a part of the change is personally rewarding.

“It’s an incredible experience to come from families of immigrants to really realize the successes that we have here,” Haroldson said. He said he also enjoys the ability “to share and contribute to this reform in hopes that the criminal justice system and the things that are so beautiful about Mexico are not compromised by the violence and the crime that threatens it.”

Of the 31 Mexican states, 10 have begun the switch to the new judicial reforms, Campos Priego said. It’s a hazardous process.

“The judges are being really, really brave as well as the district attorneys, who are the ones that charge the bad guys. Defense lawyers are being killed … lawyers are being threatened,” he said. “It’s tough on all the parties in the system.”

Campos Priego gave the example of a one-armed man, accused of crimes, who threatened to burn down the public defender’s house if he wasn’t released.

“You can see this very, very bad man with one hand, and he says, “with the other one, I can hold the AK47.”

Haroldson and Campos Priego themselves are being brave for speaking out about this issue.

In Mexico, Campos Priego cannot be quoted in the media because of the fear of violent retaliation. But he is ready to take action on behalf of the citizens he represents.

“Mexico is really, really tired of corruption,” Campos Priego said.

Haroldson said that he is proud of his friend’s efforts.

“To have him so committed to come up here and learn, participate in these programs and to be a visionary to this change; it’s very inspiring,” Haroldson said. “Really, the work that he’s doing is aimed at changing a country.”

Emily Gillespie can be reached at 541-758-9548 or emily.gillespie@gazettetimes.com.

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