Judges in Mexico have opened up about the intimidation they face from criminal groups, illustrating the importance of protective measures to shield the country’s justice system and ensure judicial integrity and impartiality.
The recent killing of federal judge Vicente Antonio Bermúdez Zacarías has sparked fear among other judicial officials and served as a reminder that organized crime groups hold significant power. Bermúdez Zacarías was handling the extradition proceedings of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
“Fear paralyzes you,” one Mexican judge who wished to remain anonymous told El País. “I have taken and continue to take precaution. You have to always put the brakes on, tell them no. But when situations like the assassination of Judge Bermúdez happen, you realize that you have to be even more prudent.”
The judge added that the most serious threat he faces comes from criminal defense lawyers. Another federal judge, who also asked to remain anonymous, echoed that sentiment.
“The lawyers are the ones transmitting the threat to you, almost always indirectly, they call it a ‘suggestion,'” the federal judge told El País.
This dynamic has contributed to widespread impunity for serious crimes in Mexico. More than 90 percent of murders go unsolved, an alarming statistic that shows major shortcomings in the justice system as a whole.
“The judge are doomed to keep themselves in mediocrity and [show] discretion in order to maintain stability,” said Armando Ismael Maitre, president of the Mexican Association for Imparting Justice (Asociación Mexicana de Impartidores de Justicia).
It is relatively uncommon for organized crime groups to target federal judges in Mexico. Bermúdez is only the sixth federal judge murdered in Mexico over the last 16 years. However, violence and intimidation is much more common against local judges.
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The violence against judges has instigated a climate of fear in Mexico that has impacted the proper functioning of the country’s justice system. Judges cannot make impartial rulings if they feel that criminal groups will retaliate violently. In practice, this means that many dangerous — and well-connected — criminals never face justice, enabling them to continue running their illicit activities.
Nevertheless, government bodies and human rights advocates have presented some potential solutions to this issue. One proposed reform involves providing anonymity to judges, sometimes referred to as making the judges “invisible.” If criminals cannot identify the judges handling their cases, that would reduce their ability to target them with threats and violence. However, the idea of anonymous judges is at odds with Mexico’s ongoing criminal justice reform, which places an emphasis on increased judicial transparency.
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Another issue is the physical protection of judges at risk of being targeted by crime groups. According to El País, only 74 federal magistrates out of a total of 1,391 nationwide have been granted proper security measures. Allocating greater resources toward providing protection to judges could help reduce the likelihood that violent threats could actually be carried out.
However, there are a number of obstacles to reaching this goal. For one, the Mexican government has limited resources, and providing extra security to judicial officials would likely be a challenge. Meanwhile, high levels of corruption in the judiciary and public distrust may make it difficult for politicians to support increasing the budget for such measures.