Report Analyzes Advances of Criminal Justice Reforms in Mexico

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A new report by a US-based research group offers a rare look at how Mexico’s judges, prosecutors and public defenders view the criminal justice system, which has traditionally struggled with high levels of impunity but is currently undergoing sweeping changes. 

The report by Justice in Mexico, a program affiliated with University of San Diego, used surveys to compile data about the perceptions of judicial operators in 11 states across Mexico. Many of the questions centered on the country’s transition from an inquisitorial system to an oral-based model similar to that of the United States. The surveys, conducted last year, came during the final phases of implementation of the new system.

A slight majority of judges (51 percent) believe the new justice system will help reduce crime, while 82 percent believe it will help lower corruption. An even higher number (90 percent) of all judges, prosecutors and defenders said the reforms have had a positive impact on their state. 

Nonetheless, the new system has not eliminated all of Mexico’s criminal-justice problems. The report found that “operators still do not have full confidence in the system of justice.”

While 84 percent of prosecutors said they trust ministerial police, only 34 percent of judges and 28 percent of public defenders answered that question affirmatively. Judges were generally considered the most trustworthy, while police were viewed with the most suspicion among their colleagues in the criminal justice system. (See Justice in Mexico’s graph below)

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What’s more, a significant number (40 percent) of prosecutors feel that the new justice system “favors criminals at the expense of the victims.” That attitude is reflected in the even larger number (48 percent) all prosecutors who said that it was acceptable in some instances for the authorities to break the law in order to investigate and prosecute criminal behavior.

InSight Crime Analysis

The transition to an oral-based criminal justice system in Mexico has been a slow and rocky one. Frequent delays led the Mexican think tank CIDAC to estimate in 2015 that the system would not be fully operational until 2027.  It has also come under criticism for carving out exceptions in organized crime cases that could undermine the spirit of the reforms, namely greater transparency and protection of defendants’ rights. 

In this context, Justice in Mexico’s report provides some optimism because of the high number of judicial operators who feel that the new system is in fact making improvements. However, turning that confidence into tangible results will prove challenging for a justice system that has long struggled to rein in corruption and impunity. In February 2016, the Center for Impunity and Justice Studies at the Universidad de Las Américas estimated that over 99 percent of all crimes in Mexico go unpunished. 

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The high percentage of prosecutors who feel the new system is benefiting criminals is another potential roadblock to lasting reforms. Officials will have to find a way to ensure defendants’ rights without alienating prosecutors, who may feel more justified in circumventing the law in order to pursue criminal investigations. 

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