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Mexico referendum finds support for death penalty

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 19, 2003

MEXICO CITY -- Voters in a key central state have voted overwhelmingly in favor of capital punishment in a nonbinding referendum, reflecting the rising potency of the death penalty as a political issue in a country long opposed to it.

More than 82 percent of 806,416 people participating in Sunday's voluntary poll by telephone, Internet and at hundreds of polling places in the state of Mexico said they approved of putting criminals to death for the crimes of murder, kidnapping, child theft and violent assaults, official results showed Tuesday.

The death penalty runs counter to the stated beliefs and foreign policy of President Vicente Fox. The Fox administration recently asked the International Court of Justice in The Hague to stay the executions of 51 Mexican nationals now on death row in U.S. prisons.

While the move was largely symbolic, Fox hoped to focus international attention on what he described as the U.S. penal system's discriminatory application of the death penalty. He also asked U.S. prisons to halt all executions until the court rules.

In 2002, Mexico refused to extradite to the United States more than 26 suspects who faced the death penalty.

"Personally and as president I am totally opposed that this country establish the death penalty," Fox said in a Sunday interview with reporters. Mexican law and tradition supports him: No criminal has been put to death in Mexico since 1857. But the rising tide of kidnappings, murders, armed robberies and random drug violence is pushing Mexicans to take up hard-line opinions that may not be fully appreciated by their politicians, said Pamela Starr, a international relations professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

"It's another example of how Mexican leaders are out of touch with reality. Mexicans have had it with crime and they are willing to try anything to reduce it," Starr said.

Others, such as National Autonomous University law professor Enrique Diaz Aranda, dismissed the referendum as an electioneering ploy that has little chance of leading to a change in Mexican law, which prohibits capital punishment.

"This is demagoguery to win votes. It has been proven that even when penalties have been toughened, these crimes have not diminished," said Aranda. "Only policy measures to increase jobs, reject violence and an integrated program of public education can reduce crime."

Because it was a voluntary election, the results are almost certainly skewed to pro-death penalty voters, observers said. The people who voted were not a scientifically selected sample.

At the very least, the vote showed the issue resonates in the relatively affluent state of Mexico, which rings the capital and which like the rest of Mexico has suffered a large number of murders and kidnappings in recent years.

Several mayoral and legislative candidates representing the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, are hoping to ride the issue to power in closely watched elections March 9. The PRI formed an alliance with the Green Party to push for the referendum and to put forth a slate of candidates.

Dozens of PRI-Green candidates running for 75 state congress slots and 125 mayoralties said that if elected they would back a nationwide initiative to legalize the death penalty. Restoring the death penalty would require that the federal congress pass a new penal code permitting it.

"We know that to apply the necessary reforms is a long and controversial process," said Isidoro Pastor Medrano, president of the state PRI. "However, obeying this mandate, the candidates of the Alliance if elected will take the reforms to Congress and fight for them."

Instituting the death penalty would appear to be a long shot. The national PRI has so far not endorsed the death penalty, said spokesman Feliciano Hernandez. Fox's party and the minority Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, are officially opposed to it. Mexican church leaders have strongly denounced the death penalty.

Hunt fails to find Americans in Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Three Americans who vanished after their U.S. plane crashed during an intelligence-gathering mission last week are believed held by a Colombian rebel faction known for high-profile kidnapping operations.

Colombian troops made no progress Tuesday in their search for the missing Americans, whose plane crashed in guerrilla territory on Thursday.

The Teofilo Forero unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are apparently holding the Americans, Colombian military officials said.

The group, believed to be under the direct orders of the FARC's top military commander, German Briceno, kidnapped legislators in Colombian city of Cali in April while posing as government bomb-squad members. On Feb. 20, 2002, they hijacked a domestic airliner, forced it to land on a rural road and kidnapped a Colombian senator who was aboard.

The Americans were on an intelligence mission when their U.S. government single-engine Cessna crashed Thursday in the Colombian jungle. A fourth American and a Colombian army sergeant aboard the plane were found shot to death.

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