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Exclusive: Mexican reform would allow phone calls as evidence, speed extraditions - draft


By Diego Oré

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A sweeping reform of Mexico's criminal justice system would allow private communications to be used as evidence and limit legal challenges to avoid extradition delays for criminal suspects, according to a draft reviewed by Reuters on Tuesday.

It would also extend Mexico's penal code to crimes committed outside the country if the wrong-doing causes harm in Mexico or to Mexicans, such as a shooting last August in El Paso, Texas, that took the lives of eight Mexican nationals.

The reform proposal, which would involve changes to the constitution, comes as the government scrambles to tackle growing insecurity nationwide by removing legal obstacles that have been criticized for gumming up criminal proceedings and making the country's justice system too unwieldy.

Senate Majority leader Ricardo Monreal said on Monday the reforms had been drawn up by the legal advisor to the office of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the attorney general and were due to be presented in the Senate on Wednesday.

The top legal adviser to Lopez Obrador, Julio Scherer, the attorney general's office and the president's spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment late on Tuesday.

Mexico's constitution currently prohibits the entry into evidence of phone calls or other private communications without the prior approval of a judge.

"Evidence considered unlawful due to the means by which it was obtained may, where appropriate, be taken into consideration and assessed by the judge of a case," according to the text of the draft.

The proposal also seeks to restrict the use of legal challenges known as amparos to avoid delaying extraditions, something that has been used to draw out the legal process of several drug traffickers, including that of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman, who is currently serving a life sentence in the United States.

The draft would also reduce the time to lodge a legal challenge during legal proceedings from eight to five years, while a defendant would only be allowed one opportunity to seek a delay in their hearing to present new evidence.

The reform is broken up into nine separate legislative initiatives. Overall, it would amend several articles of the constitution, create a new federal criminal code, set out new procedures, modify an existing law that defines legal challenges, and change the legal framework of the attorney general's office and its regulations.

Rampant violence and criminal impunity have become a major headache for Lopez Obrador's one-year-old government. Last year's homicide rate reached a new record and the president's once-sky-high popularity has taken a hit.

His leftist Morena party controls both chambers of Congress, and proposals he backs will likely be approved.

The formal presentation of the reform on Wednesday will come a day before U.S. Attorney General William Barr is set to visit Mexico where he is expected to discuss security with Mexican officials, including the threat from the country's brutal drug cartels.

During the past year, Mexicans have watched as cartel gunmen temporarily took over a major city, incidents in which soldiers have been killed after coming under attack from heavily-armed bandits, as well as the gangland ambush in November of nine members of a family that included U.S. citizens.

(Reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Richard Pullin)

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