Mexico is currently in the process of implementing historic changes to its criminal justice system, but the planned reforms include due process exceptions in organized crime cases that could undermine the initiative’s intent.
The exceptions, outlined in a new report (pdf) from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), provide for the use of a controversial measure known as “arraigo,” which means “hold” and is a form of pretrial that allows suspects in organized crime cases to be held without formal charges for up to 80 days.
Other due process exceptions in organized crime cases allow mandatory pretrial detention of organized crime suspects, the interception of their private communications, and the restriction of detainees’ communication and visitation rights, according to the report.
The authors of the WOLA report write that these exceptions “severely limit or negate the safeguards of the new system,” laid out in a series of reforms passed by Mexico’s legislature in 2008.
The reform effort is designed to shift the criminal justice system from inquisitorial proceedings, in which trials are largely conducted through written filings, to an accusatorial system like that of the United States, which allows for oral arguments and cross-examination of witnesses.
National implementation of the new system was supposed to be completed by June 18 of this year. However, the process has encountered a number of obstacles that have delayed progress. According to WOLA, only four of Mexico’s 31 states “met all the criteria to consider the system fully operational,” and some experts believe it could take more than a decade before the reforms are fully enacted.
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The broad definition of “organized crime” contained in the reform adds to concerns about the above-mentioned exceptions to normal due process rules. The legislation defines organized crime as “the de facto organization of three or more persons to commit crimes on a permanent or ongoing basis.” (The text of the reform, along with an English translation, is contained in this pdf report from Justice in Mexico.)
The WOLA report warns that “this broad definition can potentially widen the range of cases that fall under the exceptions and restrict defendants’ rights.” This could undermine some of the main goals of the reform effort, which is intended to bring greater transparency to judicial proceedings and to protect the rights of defendants.
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“Given how seldom the rule of law has prevailed in the country,” WOLA cautions, “the continued use of these tools and exceptions could have grave consequences and hinder the use of professional, scientific techniques in criminal investigations.”