Mexico’s Morales Tackles Creaky Justice System

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Marisela Morales is just a couple of months into her tenure as Mexico’s attorney general, but she already has a mountain of issues weighing down on her.

As the Los Angeles Times reported in a recent profile of Morales, the official faces a number of political, cultural, and organizational challenges as she takes the reigns of the PGR, as Mexico’s Justice Department is called.

Among the most important bottlenecks for the new attorney general is the system’s failure, in many cases, to move from arrests to trials, and much less to convictions. As InSight Crime noted in April, the PGR’s own figures indicate that in 2010 72 percent of all federal arrests, which includes most offenses related to organized crime, were dismissed without the suspect being submitted to a legal judgment, typically due to lack of evidence.

This and other problems long predate Morales’ arrival to one of Mexico’s top law-enforcement jobs, and her efforts to fix them are complicated by ongoing judicial reforms that are changing the format in which PGR prosecutors bring cases. From the old system of written, closed trials, Mexico is moving toward an adversarial, oral system much like that in the U.S., which is scheduled to be in place by 2016.

Another of the biggest issues facing Morales is political corruption. While dirty police are arrested with great frequency in Mexico, politicians that provide favors to organized crime groups or just take public funds are rarely punished. At the same time, rumors of wrongdoing fly incessantly, which has led some to the conclusion that Mexican authorities aren’t really interested in punishing politicians’ wrongdoing.

Morales seems to have arrived to her office intent on changing that. Within a couple of weeks of her arrival, a number of politicians, including the former governor of Chiapas, had been fingered for corruption charges. But the most high-profile attack so far — the arrest of Jorge Hank Rhon, a former Tijuana mayor and famously wealthy scion of a prominent political family — was a disaster. Indeed, the embarrassing dismissal of weapons charges against Hank Rhon merely laid bare the scale of the problems facing Morales.

Among Mexican commentators, much of the blame for the Hank Rhon debacle has fallen at the feet of other agencies, namely the army, which videotapes show manipulated the evidence against Hank Rhon, and the interior secretariat, which reportedly planned the operation. As the Times reports, Morales tersely replied that she accepted “None” of the responsibility when asked about her role in a recent television interview. But Morales’ agency, which presents criminal cases before the judge, was the one with egg on its face in the immediate aftermath of Hank Rhon’s release.

Some say that discrediting Morales and the PGR was the Machiavellian goal of such a shoddily planned and executed arrest operation. Jorge Zepeda Patterson, one of Mexico’s preeminent journalists, suggested that Morales was set up to fail, with competing agencies aiming to knock the new kid on the block down a peg. He also speculated that her being one of a small number of women at the top of Mexico’s criminal justice hierarchy, and the first female attorney general, increases the scope of her challenge.

Regardless of the animosity and sexism that may be directed toward Morales from within the government, the problems in convicting suspects, and the relative decline in importance of the PGR over the past several years, the PGR remains one of the nation’s key criminal justice agencies. Consequently, its recent fade in prestige and in capacity poses a significant impediment to improved public security in Mexico. As the Mexico City daily El Universal wrote upon her arrival to the post:

The challenge for whoever heads the PGR is significant. It goes from attacking a deeply rooted culture of inefficiency and corruption, which necessarily will affect powerful economic and criminal interests, but there’s no turning the page, no possibility of starting with a clean slate. Without changing this, there will be no way that soldiers, marines, intelligence agents or police will have success in their work in the field. If the fight is sabotaged from the PGR, everything else is doomed to failure.

Her ability to address those problems, rewrite that description, and build a PGR that is no longer an agent of impunity will go a long way to determining both her legacy and the state of Mexican security.

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