Rodrigo Baez is set to assume his new role as a Mexican diplomat in Sacramento, Calif., this month. “It's a big state, a big state for Mexicans,” He said, noting its significance as California's capital and the opportunity to dialog with the governor and members of the legislature about the interests of Mexicans there.

Before taking on that daunting task, Baez studied at the University of New Mexico, filling the sole 2012-2013 position in the UNM School of Law's Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Relations Visiting Scholar Program, which gives Mexican diplomats an understanding of United States law that will aid them in their diplomatic posts in the U.S. Their year at UNM also provides two internships, one in the New Mexico District Court - to give an in-depth understanding of a state-level criminal justice system; as well as a second internship at the Federal Public Defender's office - to learn how the office operates, particularly as it relates to consular functions.

“This might include interviewing Mexican-citizen defendants to help prepare their defense,” said Daniel Ortega, research professor of law and director of International Law Programs at the UNM School of Law. “It was very helpful and complete because the program included not just classroom experience, but practical law in court,” Baez said.

Baez studied law in Mexico, quickly identifying an interest in international law and diplomacy. He earned a master's in international law and then went to Leiden University in The Netherlands for a LL.M. in public international law. He got a position with the Mexican Foreign Affairs Ministry. “It was in the human rights and multilateral affairs field, but I wasn’t a diplomat yet,” Baez said. He applied for a diplomatic role and had to take many tests – language tests in English and French, Mexican history, law and international affairs. Meantime, he was selected to study at UNM. “It was my first assignment. It was an honor to be selected to participate for the year,” he said.

When he takes his new role, he will assist Mexicans with legal problems, either as they relate to the individuals' immigration status, criminal or other legal issues. “At UNM, I learned a lot about U.S. law. The professors were very good. I got to select courses based upon my future assignment,” Baez said. He took Comparative and Historical Perspectives on the Law. “We explored the differences between legal human rights and international law. I know I will use what I learned,” he said. He learned how the defense and prosecution work during a trial and the role of the judge. “The legal system in the U.S. is adversarial between the defense and the prosecution. The role of the judge is to regulate the process. In Mexico, it isn't adversarial and the judge takes an active role in the trial,” he said.

Illegal entry into the United States is a federal offense. “The Federal Public Defenders office handles lots of these cases, often for a third, fourth or fifth reentry, with additional penalties for other crimes,” Baez said, noting that defendants accept or reject the right to a consular visit.

“When they accept a consular visit, we make sure that their rights are being respected, that they understand the charges against them,” he said. Other times, they learn of Mexican citizens who have been held for extended periods of time charged with hard crimes and death penalty crimes. “In some cases they haven't received assistance from the consulate because the U.S. held back that right,” Baez said.

This is in violation of international consular access agreements. “There are cases where translation services were withheld, where the defendants had mental health issues that were not recognized in court. The consulate makes sure these things don't happen. They notify family members and make sure defendants get proper identification so that when they are deported to Mexico they have paperwork needed to seek employment,” Baez said.

Each student in the UNM-ForeignAffairs Ministry program is required to write a thesis on a topic related to U.S. law or U.S./Mexico bilateral issues. Baez chose to write about the legalization of marijuana as an internal/external conflict. “The laws passed in Colorado and Washington conflict with U.S. law and international conventions on drugs that the U.S. signed and has to comply with,” he explained, adding that his conclusions are not related to the drug problem, but rather the controversy of legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.

“The response from the U.S. government hasn't reversed this illegal use of marijuana. The Mexican president (Enrique Peña Nieto) is against legalization of marijuana,” he said.

The Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Relations visiting scholar program at UNM was established by a November 1989 agreement between the Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores of Mexico and the school.

Rodrigo Baez, banner image above left, is congratulated by Stephen P. McCue, Federal Public Defender for the District of New Mexico.