14 January 2011 ~ 8 Comentarios

Judges for sale in Latin America

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

The flags outside Miami courthouses flew at half-staff as a sign of mourning. It happened last December, after the unexpected death of Circuit Judge Roberto Piñeiro. He was 56. He was an extraordinary jurist, a graduate of Duke University, to whom everyone augured a dazzling future, perhaps even on the U.S. Supreme Court.

No one would even think of trying to bribe him or influence his decisions. He was incorruptible and famous for the ponderation of his rulings. He was compassionate when necessary, when there were elements that counseled a milder sanction, but he was harsh when he had to be, because he was fully aware that the society that periodically re-elected him to that delicate post expected him to drop the weight of the law on certain guilty parties who were particularly harmful.

It is because of people like Roberto Piñeiro that the United States is part of the First World. The quality and legitimacy of the states are measured by the level of excellence of their judicial system and the probity of their judges. Without this factor, there is no development or civilized coexistence.

In contrast, let me tell you a recent story that explains why a substantial part of Latin America does not, and will not, rise off the ground, and, if it manages to, will repeatedly fall down. It happened recently in an Andean country, but, to a greater or lesser degree, it could happen (and happens) in at least 15 of the 20-some Latin American countries.

It was Christmas, and the daughter of a very wealthy family, more scatterbrained than evil, mixed alcohol and cocaine. While driving, she ran over a pedestrian, fled, and crashed her car three times while trying to escape from the police. Finally, the young woman (let’s call her Sabrina) was stopped and jailed. The crimes were serious and her behavior was very reprehensible.

So far, the anecdote seems not to be important. But the family lawyer then began to act in the way problems are solved in his country. He went out with a briefcase full of money and, after posting a small bond to get the girl out of jail, bribed the police officer, who changed his report of the events.

He bribed the injured pedestrian so he would not accuse his client. He bribed the witnesses so they would retract or modify their testimony. He bribed the prosecutor so he would substantially reduce the degree and type of charge. He bribed the judge so he would pronounce absolution and, in a stunning display of prestidigitation, he bribed the court clerk so there would be no record of a trial. The case file disappeared. The mad night of the drunken and drugged girl was settled with less than $20,000 and total impunity.

How have we reached that horizontal level of corruption where almost all the social agents are willing to break the law if the price is right? Very simple. If many functionaries, elected or appointed, sometimes including the very president of the republic, steal, sell influence, accept bribes, practice patronage, benefit their friends and try to control the judges for their own benefit and their adversaries’ misfortune, why should we surprised that the entire judicial apparatus – from the people who supposedly investigate the crimes to the people who supposedly try the criminals – ends up selling itself to whoever pays them the most?

There can be no selective systems of justice. Either there is justice for all or there is justice for none, because the gangrene spreads throughout the social tissue.

It is no coincidence that the world’s most advanced nations are the least corrupt and have the best and most equitable judicial systems. That costs a lot of money, of course, because it requires good law schools, sensible lawmakers, reasonably paid and better recruited police officers, and judges who are well trained, independent, distant from political pressure, well remunerated and socially well recognized.

The societies that are not willing to pay that price will never manage to leave the Third World. In Latin America, so far, no more than four or five countries are ready to make that sacrifice.



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