More than 70 percent of all federal arrests in Mexico never reach trial, highlighting deficiencies in the justice system which are at least as important as issues like police firepower when it comes to tackling organized crime.

Mexico's Attorney General's Office (Procuraduria General de la Republica - PGR) released a report earlier this week saying that authorities were able to bring to trial only 28 percent of federal arrests in 2010, reports Excelsior. The rest of the more than 106,000 people detained went free. In a majority of these cases, this was due to insufficient evidence against the accused, or cases that were sloppily put together.

The PGR report highlights serious problems with the criminal justice system, both in the "ministerios publicos" which head up investigations and prosecutions, and in the judges who decide criminal cases. The integrity of these officials has been called into question on numerous occasions in recent years, and other examples of institutional incapacity abound. One famous case is the so-called “michoacanazo,” the mass arrest of dozens of state and municipal politicians in the state of Michoacan in 2009. The arrests were hailed at the time as a historic step forward in attacking official corruption, but, by early this year, every single one of them had been released from custody without charges.

Cases related to organized crime -- from drug trafficking to possession of military grade weapons -- are typically dealt with in the federal system, so its shortcomings have serious implications for the government's ongoing war against drug cartels.

Despite the evident bottlenecks in the judicial system, much analysis of Mexican public security issues has, in recent years, focused on the supposed firepower and hardware gap between law enforcement and drug gangs. For the most part, the difference is exaggerated. The Mexican armed forces have tanks, artillery, fighter jets, and warships; drug gangs do not. But the perception persists. For this reason, American aid via the Merida Initiative has focused primarily on outfitting Mexican agencies with top-of-the-line gadgetry, from Bell helicopters to CASA coastal patrol planes.

Helped by all this technology, the number of arrests on drug charges has spiked during the Calderon presidency, a fact often pointed to as a sign of his government's dedication to tackling organized crime. According to government figures released in February, 30,000 people have been arrested in Mexico for drug charges since Calderon’s term began in December 2006.

But, of course, a massive increase in the number of arrests means very little if the state can't convict them. (Indeed, such a cycle is arguably worse than failing to apprehend anyone in the first place, in that the arrests concentrate dangerous criminals in short-term facilities ill-equipped to handle them, thus creating anarchic “universities of crime.”) Calderon has made a similar point in the past. Last year, for instance, he complained, with a heavy dose of sarcasm, of the crumbling michoacanazo, “Now it turns out that nobody has done anything here, nothing is wrong; now it turns out that everything is just fine.”

Some of those arrested for federal offenses and then released without trial have gone on to commit notorious crimes. One recent alleged example is Julian Zapata, a suspected Zeta who, following his 2008 arrest and subsequent release in 2010 for lack of evidence, stands accused of participating in the shooting death of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official Jaime Zapata in February.

The hallmark effort to address this bottleneck in the criminal justice system was the 2008 judicial reform, which established provisions for the presumption of innocence and oral, public trials. However, many elements of the reform, which is to be implemented over an eight-year period through 2016, have been limited both by spending cuts and rampant insecurity.

Mexico's focus on improving police technology and capacity to track and capture criminals should not come at the expense of the slower work of building institutions.

Investigations

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