What judicial reforms is Mexico embarking on? What must happen to create a more democratic rule of law for the country by 2016? This paper explains Mexico’s justice sector challenges and proposed reforms. Mexico is currently suffering a public security crisis. In 2008 Congress approved reforms that touch virtually all aspects of the judicial sector. Reform will require time, resources and effort, and will involve a great deal of trial and error.
There were over 20,000 drug-related murders in Mexico between 2001 and 2009, levels of criminal impunity are exceptionally high, and public confidence in the judicial system is minimal. The Fox administration efforts to reform the judiciary between 2000 and 2006 failed to win Congressional approval. However they triggered national debate and support, and signalled federal approval for states to implement reform at sub-national level. Against a background of widespread support from the public, academics, jurists and human rights activists for these sub-national reforms, Congress approved a package of legislative and constitutional changes in 2008 to be implemented by 2016.
These ambitious reforms touch virtually all aspects of the judicial sector, including the police, prosecutors, public defenders, the courts, and the penitentiary system. They involve:
- Changes in Mexican criminal procedure through introducing oral, adversarial procedures, alternative sentencing, and alternative dispute-resolution mechanisms
- Greater emphasis on the rights of the accused, including a presumption of innocence, due process, adequate legal defence, limitations on preventive detention, and a ban on the use of torture
- Integrating police into the administration of justice, blending prevention and investigation functions formerly performed by separate agencies, and measures to increase police professionalism
- Tougher measures for combating organised crime including detention for 40 days without trial, greater surveillance powers for law enforcement, electronic tracking of kidnappers released from prison, and powers to seize assets.
The 2008 reform agenda attempts to radically alter hundreds of years of legal tradition in less than a decade. Advocates hope that greater transparency, accountability, effectiveness, and due process will achieve a more democratic rule of law. Critics note that the reforms attempt to achieve too much in too short a time, contain blatantly contradictory features, and do not address institutionalised corruption. It took at least a generation and major targeted investments to truly professionalise the USA’s law enforcement and judicial sectors. However, a strongly helpful factor for Mexico is that many domestic and international organisations are assisting in the reform process. Current priorities are:
- Investment in the training and professional oversight of Mexico’s 40,000 lawyers, many of whom will operate within the criminal justice system’s new legal framework.
- Development of quantitative and qualitative indicators to evaluate the performance of the new system. There are currently few baseline indicators available for this.
- Learning from the positive and negative experiences of other Latin American countries that have adopted reform in recent years.