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

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

While there is no doubt that the FARC have only a tenuous control over some of their more remote fronts, there is no evidence of any overt dissident faction within the movement at the moment.

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

If we are to believe the Colombian government, the question is not if, but rather when, an end to 50 years of civil conflict will be reached. Yet the promise of President Juan Manuel Santos that peace can be achieved before the end of 2014 is simply...

'Chepe Luna,' the Police and the Art of Escape

'Chepe Luna,' the Police and the Art of Escape

The United States -- which through its antinarcotics, judicial and police attaches was very familiar with the routes used for smuggling, and especially those used for people trafficking and understood that those traffickers are often one and the same -- greeted the new government of Elias Antonio...

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

On May 27, 1964 up to one thousand Colombian soldiers, backed by fighter planes and helicopters, launched an assault against less than fifty guerrillas in the tiny community of Marquetalia. The aim of the operation was to stamp out once and for all the communist threat in...

The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador's Police

The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador's Police

Ricardo Mauricio Menesses Orellana liked horses, and the Pasaquina rodeo was a great opportunity to enjoy a party. He was joined at the event -- which was taking place in the heart of territory controlled by El Salvador's most powerful drug transport group, the Perrones -- by the...

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 leader Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias "El Viejo Lin," is one of the most prominent spokesmen for El Salvador's gang truce. InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley spoke with Mojica in Cojutepeque prison in October 2012 about how the maras view the controversial peace process, which has...

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

When considering the possibilities that the FARC may break apart, the Ivan Rios Bloc is a helpful case study because it is perhaps the weakest of the FARC's divisions in terms of command and control, and therefore runs the highest risk of fragmentation and criminalization.

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

In October 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While this assertion seems unfounded, there is one case that illustrates just why the US government is worried about the future.

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...