Mexican Justice Is Slowly Getting Better, But It’s Hard to Notice

A lot of attention toward Mexico has been focused on the sharp resurgence in violence. This has obscured small but tangible gains in Mexico’s judicial system. The good news, documented in a recent comprehensive study, is that Mexico’s justice sector reforms—started in in 2008—have started to make its courts more efficient. Cases are handled more quickly, and the perception of corruption in the judicial system has decreased. But the bad news is that the overwhelming majority of crimes continue to go unreported in Mexico, thereby making the improvements largely irrelevant.

Mexico began implementing a new criminal justice system in June of 2008. The legislation set a target period of eight years to switch from the old inquisitorial system of written cases presented to a judge to the new accusatorial system of oral cases presented to a jury. Among the advantages of the new system are the presumption of innocence, guaranteed access to legal counsel, judicial review of police investigations, preventive custody only for serious crimes, and defined time periods for each stage of the judicial process.

There are two principal problems. The first involves harmonizing legal and procedural frameworks. Mexico has a federal political system, and prior to 2014, it had 31 different state criminal and procedural codes. The second major challenge involves the professionalization of law enforcement, public prosecutors, and judges. These front-line professionals in Mexico are the key implementers of the reform and are being retrained to bring stronger cases to a judge. This retooling requires not just a change in mindset, but better investigations, better chain of custody protocols, and better forensics.

Early data shows that the new system has increased efficiency significantly, but this has not yet resulted in higher public confidence in the justice system. According to 2014 data, the number of cases resolved under the new system were 56 percent higher than those under the old system. The percentage of cases in which no action was taken dropped from 62 percent under the old system to 16 percent in the new system.

Indeed, people say the system has gotten better, but they don’t really believe it. Polling data from 2011–2015 shows that public confidence has increased significantly in the local police, state police, judges, and prosecutors. But the increase bears no relationship to how long the new system has been operating in each state. Most damning, the percentage of crimes that go unreported, indicating a vote of no confidence in the system, was still an abysmal 93 percent nationwide in 2014. Worse, states that were the first to switch to the new system in 2009 had slightly higher no-report rates.

Mexico’s meager gains in justice reform are in danger of slipping back. The formal implementation period for the new justice system ended in 2016, and there is no coordinating mechanism and almost no resources for follow-up and evaluation. Part of what is missing is raw data and reliable analysis of why so many crimes go unreported. There are only guesses as to which of the many weak links in the criminal justice system should be strengthened first. The Mexican government should allocate resources to a real follow-up mechanism, which should include funds for researchers to conduct field research on police and court practices in each of Mexico’s states.

Outside organizations can continue to help Mexico institutionalize the switch to the new justice system. Private foundations and nongovernmental organizations can provide funds for research, and the United States, working through the existing Mérida Initiative, can help ensure that implementation does not remain stuck in first gear. Since FY2007, the United States has channeled over $2 billion of Mérida assistance to Mexico through the State Department's International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) account and via the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Much of this money goes to train police, investigators, prosecutors, defense counsel, and corrections systems personnel in the new justice system. While the U.S. Congress should hold Mexican authorities accountable for the lagging pace of the judicial sector reforms, it also should look for additional ways to be a part of the solutions that Mexico so desperately needs.

Richard Miles is director of the U.S.-Mexico Futures Initiative and deputy director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Richard Miles