Two investigators recently sat down to discuss Mexico’s ongoing judicial reforms, highlighting several shortcomings related to juvenile detention and police procedures that threaten to undermine new policies set to be fully implemented next year.
Speaking at the Wilson Center on March 27, Elena Azaola — a Mexican psychoanalyst and anthropologist — discussed her recent work investigating juvenile delinquency and the institutions available to help support at-risk youth in Mexico. Azaola examined the obstacles facing adolescents, interviewing a total of 278 jailed youths (aged 18 and younger) in the states of Coahuila, Hidalgo, Morelos, and Sinaloa.
Azaola found that informal institutions (family, friends, gangs, etc.) are the major forms of social control for these youths, with Mexican institutions largely failing to support them in their development. Indeed, 28 percent of the jailed youths said they had no dreams, trusted no one, and did not know or want to think about the future. Another 45 percent felt they would leave their prison institution in either the same, or worse, position as when they entered.
Azaola also found a general lack of knowledge and expertise in youth detention institutions. Overall, she said that Mexico needs to invest in prisons, developing effective intervention strategies for the social reinsertion of youths and their families into society, remarking that, “If a child goes in at 15, and leaves at 37, that person is essentially lost.”
Speaking at the same event, Roberto Hernandez — a Mexican lawyer and filmmaker who directed the award-winning documentary “Presumed Guilty“ — echoed much of what Azaola said, arguing that police and investigatory procedures remain under-regulated. He advocated for reforms that regulate how investigations are conducted.
Based on his work documenting trial proceedings and interviewing prison inmates in Mexico, Hernandez questioned the emphasis judicial reforms have placed on transparency, stating that while transparency regarding topics like police mistreatment of suspects is important, the vital issue of eyewitness testimony has gone relatively unaddressed.
For example, Hernandez stated that both judges and defense lawyers struggle to discount or refute eyewitness testimony (even if it is clearly inaccurate), a problem that is exacerbated by the difficulties defense lawyers face when trying to obtain evidence or argue whether police procedures in an investigation should have been conducted differently.
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Mexico is in the midst of implementing criminal justice reforms passed in 2008, substituting inquisitorial court trial proceedings — in which trials are conducted mainly through paperwork and defendants have few opportunities to communicate directly with a judge — with oral-based, accusatorial proceedings more akin to those employed in the United States. The objective is to bring greater transparency to court proceedings, as well as to expand the rights of the accused and institute the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
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However, the rollout of the reforms has been slow: only four states have completely made the switch, while 25 have made partial changes. All 31 states plus the federal district are expected to implement the reforms by June 2016.
By most accounts judicial reform was crucial, as the previous system was plagued by corruption, delayed trial proceedings, lengthy pre-trial detentions, and the conviction of innocent people despite a complete lack of reliable evidence.
Nonetheless, as the investigations conducted by Azaola and Hernandez suggest, carrying out such a complete reform is fraught with complications. Azaola argued during the event that if steps are not taken to reform and regulate Mexican institutions and police procedures, Mexico may end up with a new justice system that works just as badly as the previous one.