Mexico’s Judicial Reforms, Four Years Later

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The cuffed hands of Antonio Mercado are pictured as he is presented to the media in Guadalajara (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

The cuffed hands of Antonio Mercado are pictured as he is presented to the media in Guadalajara (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

In 2008 Mexico passed a series of constitutional and legislative reforms that, when implemented, should fundamentally transform its justice system. The reforms are designed to improve public security and the administration of justice, moving Mexico’s courts from a system of written evidence to one of oral trials and bolstering due process rights for the defendant by ensuring the presumption of innocence and better access to an adequate defense. Law enforcement agencies will also see changes, as the reforms give police a larger role in criminal investigations and stronger tools to take on organized crime such as the arraigo, which allows authorities to hold suspects for up to eighty days. The deadline for the reform’s implementation was set for 2016.

This week the Network for Oral Trials (composed of over a hundred civil society organizations) is gathering in Mexico City for the fourth forum on judicial reform, entitled “Four Years of Judicial Reform: What Still Needs to be Done.” Founded in 2005, the Network for Oral Trials has brought together lawyers, academics, and other activists to promote changes to Mexico’s justice system. Starting at the state level, the Network galvanized around federal negotiations over judicial changes, culminating in the 2008 reforms.

Now four years on, many are worried about Mexico’s judicial future. Though technically halfway through the transition phase, less than half of Mexico’s states have taken steps to change their justice systems, and the policies put in place vary. Pioneers such as Chihuahua (which implemented its own state level shift in 2007, before the federal reform) have backtracked, reviving many elements of the older inquisitorial-style system, such as permitting hearsay (effectively undermining the rights of the defendant).

The federal government is also still wrangling over its own role, with legislation to guide the states caught up in Congress. During a speech on Tuesday at the forum, President Calderón chastised Mexico’s legislators for dragging their feet. “It doesn’t matter if they are in recess,” he said, “in any moment they could hold an extraordinary session and resolve it [the legislation].”

Moving forward requires not just these federal and state legislative changes. It will also entail investing billions of dollars to create or remodel courtrooms, train Mexico’s roughly forty thousand active lawyers and thousands of judges, and revamp law school courses and materials. This undertaking will require the political resolve and concentrated focus of Mexico’s next administration, especially to overcome those resisting change. The high level attendance at the forum—in addition to Calderón’s appearance, the three presidential candidates will also address the group on Thursday—attests to the influence of these civil society organizations. But Mexico will need more than discussions to meet its deadline.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.