Mexico’s Judicial System is Modernizing with Digital Justice

02/10/21 – The following work is an investigative piece by Justice in Mexico Training Coordinator Janice Deaton.

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all sectors of society in Mexico, including its criminal justice system. Judicial powers throughout the country, which administer the state and federal justice systems, have had to modernize with new and updated technologies as they migrate to digital administration of justice. Many envision the potential of digital justice to broaden access to justice, but caution against further exclusion and marginalization of vulnerable groups.

Closure of Mexican Judicial Powers

On March 17, 2020, Mexico’s Health Secretary (Secretaría de Salud) issued an order closing all non-essential government offices, including the courts.  The administration of justice in Mexico came to a standstill. Hearings were postponed with the expectation to resume them when conditions allowed and the pandemic ended. As weeks turned into months with no end in sight, however, judicial powers had to balance public health and safety with fundamental legal rights.  This led to an acceleration of digital administration of justice, for which some states were more prepared than others.

Many state judicial powers initially relied on remote technology such as videoconference to resolve matters not requiring hearings or in-person appearances. In-person hearings were held for only the most urgent of matters, such as domestic violence and evictions. In the criminal justice system, defendants remained in custody, awaiting resolution in their cases.

Some States Are More Prepared than Others

On August 10, 2020, courts throughout the country reopened to a backlog of cases. Social distancing and other conditions of the pandemic required the judicial powers of each state to incorporate some form of technology in their administration of justice. Some states such as Nuevo León, Aguascalientes, and the State of Mexico, were able to accelerate the transition to digital administration of justice because they had already been using the technology in other facets of the administration of justice. For example, the judicial power in Nuevo León implemented electronic filing of legal forms and remote hearings in 2016. In May 2020, the judicial power in Nuevo León opened its “Virtual Courthouse” to the public, with an instructional video on YouTube. In 2018, the State of Mexico implemented its virtual court by employing electronic signatures and resolving certain disputes on-line. The Coahuila Judicial Power (Poder Judicial del Estado de Coahuila de Zaragoza) set up an electronic mailbox on its website to accept legal documents or forms 24 hours a day. Its implementation was completed on August 17, 2020.

As of August 2020, six months into the pandemic, the federal judicial power and 21 state judicial powers were holding hearings through videoconference. However, in criminal matters, only Nuevo León and Coahuila provided remote public access to hearings, raising concerns of public access to hearings (publicidad). Although there has been progress, there is still no national uniformity in the administration of justice or public access to justice during the pandemic.

The technologically-advanced judicial powers of some states have been assisting other states that are new to digital justice. For example, when the judicial power in Jalisco initiated its virtual justice program in July 2020, judicial powers in Nuevo Leon, Aguascalientes, and the State of Mexico provided assistance.

In spite of good progress, there remains a lack of uniform implementation of digital justice as judicial powers continue to await an over-due National Code of Civil Procedure. This resulting lack of coordination between the federal judiciary and the 32 states and entities is paramount among the challenges of digital justice.

Current and Pending Legislation

On March 18, 2014, the Mexican legislature issued a National Code of Criminal Procedure (Código Nacional de Procedimientos Penales , CNPP) that applies in federal cases throughout Mexico, as well as in each state and Mexico City. Article 51 of the CNPP provides for the use of digital technologies in criminal justice, including videoconferences. Three years later, the September 15, 2017, constitutional reform provided the Mexican legislature would draft a national, unified code of family law and civil procedure, whose ambit would include legal standards, norms, and procedures for the digital administration of justice. Congress agreed that, during the following 180 days during which time it would draft a new code, the current code would remain in place. 

In spite of Congress’s agreement to draft and approve a new, unified code of family law and civil procedure in 2017, it has not yet happened. This code will establish rules and standards for digital justice nationally. In the meantime, states are prohibited  from issuing their own codes, rules, or regulations in the interim period because, as the Supreme Court of Mexico (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, SCJN) has held on two occasions, this would invade the exclusive purview of Congress. This leaves the state judicial powers unable to ensure their use of digital technology is in compliance with yet-unknown standards on appeal.

Constitutional reform proposals have been brought to the floors of Congress. On June 3, 2020, the president of the Justice Commission in the House of Representatives, Pilar Ortega, along with Representative Janet Melanie Murillo Chávez, presented an Initiative for a National Code of Civil Procedure to the floor. While the Ortega bill mentions digital or electronic administration of justice, it does not provide standards or norms. 

Senator Ricardo Monreal Ávila proposed a different constitutional reform on July 8, 2020. According to the MORENA party (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional), Senator Monreal’s proposal specifically addresses digital platforms, and attempts to provide easy access to digital justice, through the use of information and communication technologies.

These are not the only proposals being considered. Congress is currently evaluating over 24 constitutional reform initiatives  to ensure justice administrated through digital platforms conforms with Mexican constitutional and human rights standards. Additionally, the Federal Judicial Council (Consejo de la Judicatura Federal, CJF), which oversees and administers the federal judicial branch, (excluding the Supreme Court of Justice and the Electoral Court) has issued several General Agreements regulating the integration of electronic files and the use of videoconferences in federal jurisdiction. In June 2020, it issued General Agreement 12/2020, with criteria for the use of video conferences and electronic filing in all federal matters, including criminal justice. This does not negate the need for a new civil procedure code, however. There will not be uniform guidelines or norms governing this crucial area of law until a new civil procedure code is legislated and passed for state judicial powers.

Creativity, Patience, and Thinking Outside the Box

Academics, think tanks, civil society organizations, and judicial operators have attempted to fill gaps in legal standards and norms by producing webinars, and writing guides or manuals to aid judicial powers as well as litigants and judges.  Judicial operators generally agree digital administration of justice requires flexibility, creativity, and patience. They agree vast disparities in resources throughout the country, from access to infrastructure and the internet, to the consumer power to purchase the tools required for such access, require new approaches to justice. As retired Supreme Court Justice José Ramón Cossío  stated, “We are not building a utopia (…) We must think about how we bring the greatest number of tools to the greatest number of people, to resolve the greatest number of conflicts in the best possible way.” (“No estamos construyendo una utopía (…) Debemos pensar cómo acercamos el mayor número de herramientas al mayor número de personas, para resolver el mayor número de conflictos de la mejor manera posible.” Translation by author)

In Chile, Leonardo Moreno, an instructor and senior researcher with Justice in Mexico’s OASIS project, co-authored a manual, “Technology, Criminal Process, Hearings and Oral Trial.” It was published in collaboration with Alberto Hurtado University (Universidad Alberto Hurtado) and CEJA (Justice Studies Center of the Americas, Centro de Estudios de Justicia de las Américas), on June 6, 2020. The manual offers a broad approach to justice administration during the pandemic, and emphasizes flexibility and creativity. The authors suggest varied approaches to case management, from rescheduling hearings where defendants are not in custody, to holding remote hearings where possible. There might be cases that are processed in a hybrid manner, with certain witnesses appearing in-person and others remotely. Where internet is not available, telephones can be used as long as it is possible to confidently identify the witness. 

The think tank México Evalúa is a leader in the study of the use of technology in the administration of justice. In October 2020, building on their long-term research project on digital justice, México Evalúa published its “Guide to Good Practice on the Use of New Technologies in the Administration of Justice” (available here in English  and Spanish.) The manual focuses on the potential of technology to broaden access to justice while checking its capacity to further marginalize vulnerable groups. It also provides good policy practices for judiciaries or judicial powers, as digital justice becomes a permanent part of Mexican justice. The guide concludes with recommendations for the judicial powers, based on its case studies and research. As Laurence Pantin, the Coordinator of the Transparency in Justice project at México Evalúa says in her introduction to the manual, “Our intention is to offer a referential guide … to the various dilemmas that judiciaries face when they promote the use of new technologies, not only to expand access to justice, but also to make proceedings more efficient, faster and/or less costly or, ultimately, to guarantee the service of remote administration of justice under the circumstances we find ourselves in this year.”

Newspapers and opinion writers have also weighed in. In his editorial for El Universal, Miguel Carbonell offers various ways digital justice can save time and resources, including providing direct public access to legal forms, streamlining certain processes and lowering legal costs. He also highlighted four tools each judicial power needs in order to implement digital administration of justice. These include: access to file complaint or initial filings, with availability 24 hours a day; electronic filing system available to litigants; telephonic or videoconference hearings; electronic signatures; and a reduction of “red tape.”

OASIS’s Contribution

On July 29, 2020, Justice in Mexico’s OASIS project presented a webinar on fundamental rights in the administration of justice during the pandemic. Three OASIS instructors, from Chile, Mexico, and the United States, presented challenges and successes in the administration of justice in their respective countries since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Jesus Romero, from San Diego, California, said the closure of courts is denying fundamental rights to defendants, especially those who are detained pretrial. Mr. Romero mentioned several potential rights violations, including the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. In the United States, the right to confront witnesses means confront in person, with face-to-face cross examination.  Confronting witnesses or the accused via video or the internet would violate the Sixth Amendment rights of the defendant.

Mr. Romero explained that the California judicial system has made various adjustments in response to the pandemic, including allowing money-based bail to be eliminated in certain cases. 

Leonardo Moreno, from Santiago, Chile, explained there are some hearings and cases that can easily be resolved remotely, without the need for any in-person hearings. With trials or more complicated hearings, Mr. Moreno emphasized the need for legal standards covering the admission of evidence, use of prior statements to impeach or refresh recollection, and other litigation tools typically used. 

Iker Ibarreche, from Mexico City,agreed the lack of uniform code or regulations governing digital administration of justice is a paramount challenge. Mr. Ibarreche said each state is proceeding based on procedures it believes comply with the federal constitution, creating as many approaches to justice during the pandemic as there are states in the Republic of Mexico. This makes it difficult for litigants to prepare for hearings since the requirements change, depending on which jurisdiction a case is under. Further, this lack of a uniform code means there is no assurance that the cases will be upheld or affirmed on appeal. Thus, when the cases arrive in front of the federal tribunals or the Supreme Court, Mr. Ibarreche continued, they might be reversed on appeal and result in a “waste of time.”

All three presenters agreed on the need for litigants and parties to conduct themselves ethically, and testify in accordance with the law without notes or coaching from others. This is even more true with the use of videoconferences where it is difficult to monitor all conduct off-screen.  OASIS is now working in collaboration with the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) to publish a practical, hands-on manual on best practices in digital justice for litigants and judges. The manual will address the challenges and successes litigants and judges have encountered during digital hearings. This includes minimum technological requirements; proper use of cameras and microphones; the use of exhibits and prior declarations; the regulation of witness behavior, and other issues. OASIS expects to publish the manual in the Spring of 2021.

Conclusion

Mexico is undergoing a modernization of its judicial system that is here to stay.  Justice system operators envision digital justice to positively transform Mexican system of justice, making it more accessible and user friendly for the nation’s citizens. If so, Mexican citizens will find their judicial system more accessible and more user-friendly, which would in turn lead to a stronger judicial institution.

Sources

Diario Oficial de la Federación. Acuerdo General 03/2020, del Pleno de la Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación. March 17, 2020.   

Diario Oficial de la Federación. Acuerdo General 12/2020, del Pleno del Consejo de la Judicatura Federal. June 12, 2020. 

 El Informador staff. Ponen Ejemplo A Jalisco Con Juzgados Virtuales. El Informador. August 11, 2020.

Garcia, Claudia Ivett, La Primavera Mexicana de la Justicia Digital, El Economista.  Sept. 3, 2020.

García Mejía, Mauricio.  Justicia y COVID-19: 3 formas de impartir justicia durante una pandemia. Sin Medios. June 9, 2020.

Grupo Parlamentario Senado MORENA, LXIV Legislatura.  Impulsa Ricardo Monreal a rango constitucional la justicia digital. July 8, 2020.  

Ortega Martínez, Pilar and Murillo Chávez, Janet Melanie.  Iniciativa Con Proyecto De Decreto Por La Que Se Expide El Código Nacional De Procedimientos Civiles Y Familiares. Camara de Diputados. June, 2020.

Pantin, Laurence. How to Resume the Administration of Justice, México Evalúa. May 15, 2020.

Pantin, Laurence. No Hay Vuelta Atrás Para La Justicia Digital. México Evalúa. June 18, 2020.

Poder Judicial Ciudad de México. Información Covid-19. (Last visited January 10, 2020.)

Ramírez Benítez, René and Altamirano Escalante, Santiago.  Audiencias virtuales e impartición de justicia en tiempos de COVID-19: Caso Yucatán.  Derecho en Acción, May 20, 2020.

Transparencia Mexicana, Retos para el acceso a la justicia (y a la justicia digital) tras la pandemia. August 19, 2020.

Querétaro at the forefront of Mexico’s justice system

Image: Justice in Mexico.

01/02/20 (written by kheinle) – The State of Querétaro appears to be the model in Mexico for implementing the Accusatorial Criminal Justice System (Sistema de Justicia Penal Acusatorial, SJPA), at least according to several research organizations and elected officials. When considering the state’s use of an inter-institutional collaboration system, as well as its efforts to reform its prison systems, Querétaro has been at the forefront.

México Evalúa

One of Mexico’s leading research institutes, México Evalúa, found that Querétaro was the top state for the third consecutive year in a row in terms of its criminal justice proceedings. The findings were published in its annual report, “Hallazgos 2019: Seguimiento y evaluación del sistema de justicia penal en México,” released in October 2020. The report looked at factors including the strength and integration of the SJPA, the technology used, and the state’s unique, institutional coordination. It specifically highlighted Querétaro’s use of the model known as “Cosmos,” or the Commission for the Evaluation of the Operation of the SJPA (Comisión para la Evaluación de la Operación del SJPA). The model focuses on inter-institutional collaboration, which, according to México Evaluá, has expedited the state’s consolidation of the criminal justice system since it went into effect just one year ago (Hallazgos, pg. 30).

Querétaro Governor Domínguez Servién

Querétaro’s governor, Francisco Domínguez Servién, similarly credits his state’s judicial success thanks in large part to the “strong inter-institutional coordination.” Speaking at the second Cosmos session in early December, Domínguez proclaimed that “with the participation of the people of Querétaro, [this state] will be the epicenter of justice in the country.”

Querétaro Governor Domínguez Servién speaking at the second session of Cosmos in December. Photo: El Heraldo de México.

The Governor also emphasized the state’s leading role in protecting human rights within the penitentiary system. “I come back to the fact that the Querétaro State Prison System (Sistema Estatal Penitenciario) has been at the top nationwide for two consecutive years, 2018 and 2019, in terms of respecting human rights, according to the National Commission of Human Rights (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos,” said Governor Domínguez. The governor spoke at the XLVI Ordinary Session of the National Public Security Council (XLVI Sesión Ordinaria del Consejo Nacional de Seguirdad Pública) in mid-late December 2020.

First International Innovation of Justice Forum

Governor Domínguez’s comments came on the heels of the First International Innovation of Justice Forum (Primer Foro Internacional: La Innovación en la Justicia) held in late November. Mexico’s Secretary of Government, Juan Martín Granados Torres, spoke on two panels at the event: “Innovations in Prisons” and “Innovations, Justice, and Security.” Granados Torres, who is also involved in the coordination and operation of the Accusatorial Justice System, specifically highlighted Querétaro’s success with aligning its prison system with the new model. He focused on the state’s use of the restorative justice model – a key component in the alternative dispute resolution methods introduced in the SJPA. One critical element of the restorative practice is the focus on the offending party’s reinsertion into society in a dignified and structured manner that reduces recidivism. Although the social reintroduction takes time and capacity, noted Granados Torres, the outcomes are worth the efforts.

The event was sponsored by México Evalúa, the German organization Friedrich Naumann Foundation, la Fundación para el Debido Proceso, and la Barra Mexicana de Abogados, among others. More than 60 experts from 19 countries participated in the conference as panelists and keynote presenters, including former Mexican Supreme Court Justice José Ramón Cossio.

Secretary of Government Granados Torres speaking at the First International Innovation of Justice Forum in November. Photo: Querétaro Quadratín.

World Justice Project’s “Rule of Law Index”

Looking more broadly at the rule of law across Mexico, Querétaro ranks fifth out of the nation’s 32 state entities in the World Justice Project’s “Rule of Law Index 2019-2020.” It placed behind Yucatán at the top, followed by Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, and Campeche. It was one of only six state entities that did not see a change in their Rule of Law Index score from 2018-2019 to 2019-2020.

Of the World Justice Project’s eight factors taken into consideration to develop the Index, Querétaro scored the highest on Factor 4: Fundamental Rights. This indicator measures absence of discrimination, due process of law, freedom of opinion, freedom of religion, right to privacy, freedom of association, and labor rights. It scored the lowest, however, on Factor 3: Open Government, which measures access to information and citizen participation.

To read World Justice Project’s full report, click here.

Sources:

“Mexico States Rule of Law Index 2019-2020 Insights: Highlights and Data Trends.” World Justice Project. April 2020.

“Hallazgos 2019: seguimiento y evaluación del sistema de justicia penal.” México Evalúa. October 22, 2020.

“Querétaro primer lugar nacional en Justicia Penal por 3er año consecutivo: México Evalúa.” Secretaría de Gobernación de Querétaro. October 22, 2020.

“Querétaro, líder en justicia penal gracias a su capacidad coordinación entre instituciones.” 6 en Punto. November 10, 2020.

Press Release. “Organizaciones convocan al Primer Foro Internacional: La Innovación en la Justicia.” México Evalúa. November 19, 2020.

MC, Andrea. Querétaro será epicentro de la justicia en el país: gobernador.” Update México. December 7, 2020.

“Con la participación ciudadana Querétaro será epicentro de la justicia en el país: Domínguez Servién.” El Heraldo de México. December 8, 2020.

“Querétaro el el único estado con 100% Certificado Único Policial.” Quadratín Querétaro. December 21, 2020.

“Cosmos innova en justicia restaurativa.” Quadratín Querétaro. December 29, 2020.

Antes y después: New Working Paper

09/30/20 (written by lcalderon) – Justice in Mexico, a research-based program at the University of San Diego, released a working paper by Juan García Cruz entitled, “Antes y Después: Análisis comparativo de casos de sistema de justicia penal tradicional y del sistema acusatorio”. The study is a result of the #compara project that compiles a series of indicators curated by Justice in Mexico as part of the “Justicia en Marcha” initiative to measure the implementation and consolidation of the Accusatorial Criminal Justice System (Sistema de Justicia Penal Acusatorio, SJPA). Specifically, the paper compares and analyzes some of the main procedural differences between the Traditional Inquisitorial Criminal Justice System (Sistema de Justicia Penal Tradicional Inquisitorio) and the SJPA. To make this comparison possible, the author draws on three specific cases that share important similarities and were processed under the two different criminal justice systems. The results suggest that there is an apparent consolidation of the SJPA —at least from an analytical perspective— that allows several benefits that were not possible under the traditional system.

In order to select the cases to compare, García Cruz developed a methodology that consisted in finding cases from both criminal justice systems that were as similar as possible and allowed to highlight some of the key elements of each process. The main criteria evaluated were:

  • Type of crime
  • Number of defendants
  • Conclusion of the criminal proceeding (oral trial or ordinary process)

After describing the selection process, García Cruz analyzes the compiled information. For the traditional system, the author needed to conduct an exhaustive revision of all court records or each case. For the SJPA, the author conducted an extensive record analysis as well as reviewing court recordings for each case. Based on this analysis, García Cruz identified 7 main indicators that allowed comparing the different procedures for each system:

  • Evidence
  • System principles
  • Process duration
  • Victim treatment and the role of the complaining party
  • Volume (size of the court records)
  • New figures
  • Judges’ impartiality

The working paper examines the procedural differences in three crime types: kidnapping and organized crime; fuel theft; and crimes against public health.

Methodology for selecting the compared cases

Main Findings

Evidence

  • Most of the evidence presented under the SJPA consisted of testimonies. Documents and court records are not considered in the SJPA unless they are mentioned and properly incorporated by the appropriate party during direct examination.
  • Under the traditional system, most of the evidence consisted of written documents and statements. In addition, the evidence value of such statements was pre-determined under the Criminal Procedures Code (Código de Procedimientos Penales).
  • Presenting testimonies under the SJPA allowed for the participating parties to conduct direct and cross-examinations to the witness, a benefit that was not possible under the traditional system.
  • The total amount of evidence presented under the SJPA was significantly lower than in the traditional system. In addition, evidence under the traditional system was diverse and consisted of statements, testimonies, testimony complements and additions, court records and official documents, and ratifications, while under the SJPA most of the evidence consisted of testimonies.

Figura 1: Pruebas (Comparativo I)

Total amount of evidence under the traditional system and the SJPA for kidnapping and organized crime

Figura 2: Pruebas (Comparativo II)

Total amount of evidence under the traditional system and the SJPA for fuel theft

Figura 3: Pruebas (Comparativo III)

Total amount of evidence under the traditional system and the SJPA for crimes against public health

System principles

  • Cases analyzed under the SJPA emphasize the presence of main system principles such as: contradiction and immediacy.
  • While procedures under the traditional system were considered public, institutions often denied the presence of external people. Under the SJPA, the public is welcome to attend,including the defendant’s family and law students.
  • In cases under the SJPA it was also possible to identify the principles of consolidation and continuity.

Process duration

  • In the three comparisons, cases under the SJPA required less time than cases under the traditional system.
  • In terms of complementary investigations, all SJPA procedures were concluded before the legal six-months limit. This limit was not met on cases under the traditional system, resulting in significant delays in the process.

Victim treatment and the role of the complaining party

  • In the kidnapping and organized crime case under the SJPA, all victims intervened through their legal advisors throughout the process and had their image protected (blurred) during the oral trial, where they provided testimony from a different courtroom. Under the traditional system, however, victims were required to face their aggressors, allowing re-victimization.
  • The role of the legal advisor was key in cases under the SJPA, where they were able to be in all the proceedings, offer evidence, and examine witnesses, among other benefits that were not possible under the traditional system.

Volume (size of the court records)

  • The orality factor of the SJPA allowed for smaller court records, while the traditional system required all in writing, making up large volumes of court records.
  • In addition, cases under the SJPA have their court proceedings recorded on video, rather than paper.

Figura 7: Volumen (Comparativo I)

Volume Comparative I
Total number of pages in court records for kidnapping and organized crime

Figura 8: Volumen (Comparativo II)

Volume Comparative II
Total number of pages in court records for fuel theft

Figura 9: Volumen (Comparativo III)

Volume comparative III
Total number of pages in court records for crimes against public health

New Figures

  • Judges under the SJPA are required to ensure the right to adequate defense, giving them the authority to substitute the defense if they do not meet the standard. Under the traditional system, defendants could be represented by a trustee without requiring the legal certifications to provide an efficient defense.
  • In the case of crimes against public health, there was also the use of stipulations of facts under the SJPA. This allows the court to disregard incontrovertible facts and focus the debate to make the process faster.

Judges impartiality

  • In cases under the SJPA, judges were not involved in the previous stages of the oral trial, allowing them to resolve the matters based on facts presented during the proceeding. Under the traditional system, the same judge was in charge of preliminary proceedings and sentencing, making it complicated for the judge to stay unbiased and reconsider his rulings.

Final thoughts

Lastly, the author offers a series of final considerations, emphasizing the importance of studying and understanding the different nature of both systems in order to measure the consolidation of the SJPA and assess the benefits presented by the accusatorial system.

About the author:
Juan García Cruz is a Mexican attorney. He graduated from the School of Law at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) where he also completed a graduate diploma on Criminal Law. Mr. García studied
Criminalistics, and got a Masters of Criminal Procedural Law and Oral Trials by the Universidad Analítica Constructivista de Mexico (UNAC). He is a Research Associate at the University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico
Program. He has collaborated with non-governmental organizations dedicated to human rights training and analysis of the criminal justice system in Mexico. He has also actively collaborated at UNAM’s Human Rights Program. Currently Mr. García is an Auxiliar de Gestión Judicial at the Federal Criminal Justice Center Mexico City. His academic and professional interests include criminal justice, transitional justice and human rights.

Artículo de opinión: “BREVES REFLEXIONES DE UN JUZGADOR EN TORNO A ALGUNOS ASPECTOS DEL PROYECTO DE INICIATIVA DE REFORMA PROCESAL PENAL EN MÉXICO”

El Magistrado Pablo Héctor González Villalobos, instructor en nuestro proyecto OASIS, comparte algunas reflexiones personales sobre el proyecto de iniciativa de reforma procesal penal en México.

Sala de Juicios Orales
Fuente: La Jornada Baja California

Pablo Héctor González Villalobos.

Como se hizo del conocimiento público a través de los medios de comunicación, el pasado 15 de enero de 2020 la Fiscalía General de la República estuvo a punto de presentar la iniciativa de un paquete de reformas al sistema penal mexicano. Se trata de un proyecto de honda envergadura que incide, fundamentalmente, en dos aspectos: a) la estructura orgánica de la Fiscalía General de la República y del Poder Judicial de la Federación (junto con algunas medidas destinadas a controlar, desde una óptica de política criminal, el ejercicio de la función judicial), y; b) el proceso penal.

En este breve trabajo me ocuparé solamente de este último aspecto, en atención a que, aunque ha sido menos comentado en medios de comunicación, tienen hondas consecuencias de las que vale la pena prevenirnos. Además de que, por mi experiencia como juzgador en el sistema penal mexicano, es el ámbito que mejor conozco y en el que, por tanto, estas sucintas reflexiones pueden resultar de mayor utilidad.

Para tal efecto, me ocuparé de dos temas: la problemática que la iniciativa genera en relación con el principio de imparcialidad y la pérdida o vaciamiento de la audiencia como el espacio natural de tutela del debido proceso penal.

A).- LA PROBLEMÁTICA QUE LA  INICIATIVA GENERA EN RELACIÓN CON EL PRINCIPIO DE IMPARCIALIDAD.

Parece claro que la iniciativa responde a la creencia de que su contenido hará más eficaz el proceso penal como instrumento para abatir, o al menos disminuir, la impunidad. Se trata, sin duda, de una finalidad que debe atenderse de manera urgente, dados los altos índices de impunidad que existen en nuestro país. El problema, por tanto, no es de fines, sino de medios que, a nuestro entender, no son los adecuados para la consecución de aquéllos.

Dicho de manera breve, el Estado debe, al mismo tiempo, respetar el debido proceso y ser efectivo en la delicada tarea de castigar penalmente a quienes han atentado seriamente en contra de la paz y la seguridad de los miembros de una comunidad.  Pero la iniciativa parece caer en la trampa de establecer una disyuntiva entre ambas obligaciones. Lo cual es un falso dilema, ya que sin debido proceso no hay justicia y sin justicia no hay legítimo combate al delito y al delincuente. Esto último, no solo porque sin las garantías del debido proceso no se sabe en realidad si, quien aparece como culpable, efectivamente lo es, sino, además, y de manera fundamental, porque sin debido proceso se pierde la superioridad moral que legitima el uso del poder público del Estado en contra de los ciudadanos. En efecto, sin debido proceso se difuma la diferencia entre una cárcel del Estado y la casa de seguridad de una banda de secuestradores.

Ahora bien, como es sabido, el debido proceso legal constituye un derecho fundamental complejo que tiene su origen en el derecho anglosajón. Su antecedente más remoto se ubica en el artículo 39 del texto original de la Carta Magna de Juan Sin Tierra, signada, mediante coacción de los barones de la tierra ingleses, en el año de 1215.  Desde entonces, y con los desarrollos posteriores de Coke y Blackstone, así como, fundamentalmente, con su incorporación al derecho norteamericano, ha evolucionado de manera significativa. Finalmente, se incorporó al derecho internacional de los derechos humanos, con su formidable desarrollo durante la segunda mitad del siglo XX.

En un lenguaje sencillo, se puede definir el debido proceso legal como el conjunto de condiciones que, cuando se cumplen, permiten calificar de justa la solución al conflicto. Dicho en una feliz expresión del maestro Miguel Sarre: “el debido proceso es lo que hace la diferencia entre la justicia y la venganza”.

En todo caso, el principio de imparcialidad judicial (no así, por ejemplo, el de la independencia de los jueces) es un componente del debido proceso desde sus orígenes y hasta nuestros días. De manera que sin la posibilidad de acceder a un tribunal imparcial para que resuelva el conflicto, no es posible calificar de justa la solución al mismo. Y esto es precisamente lo que ocurre con la iniciativa que se comenta, particularmente en dos aspectos, que son de suma gravedad. A saber:

En primer término, la idea de atribuir al juez penal el papel de director de la investigación. Se trata de un concepto propio del inquisitivo medieval, que supone renunciar, prácticamente de forma absoluta, a la idea de un juez imparcial. En el inquisitivo, la confusión de funciones respondía a una concepción ontológica de la Verdad (entendida así, con mayúscula), como un concepto unitario, cuya realidad es independiente de que sea conocida o no, y que, no obstante, es una Verdad dada y que está ahí para ser conocida.  Cuando se concibe así, es lógico que el descubrimiento de esa Verdad pueda ser encomendado a un único funcionario. Pues una vez descubierta, esa Verdad permitirá hacer justicia.

Sin embargo, en una concepción adversarial, y por lo tanto dialéctica, del proceso, existe una correspondencia con la idea de que la verdad procesal (que sin embargo no renuncia a ser un correlato con lo que ocurrió), no es una verdad dada y que está ahí para ser descubierta, sino una verdad que se construye a partir de un ejercicio dialéctico entre la tesis de la fiscalía y la antítesis de la defensa. De manera que el hecho que el juez tiene por demostrado en su sentencia, constituye la síntesis o conclusión.

En este orden de ideas, la concepción ontológica de la Verdad, aunque sea un concepto que tenga sentido en otros ámbitos de la razón humana, no puede seguir siendo la finalidad del proceso penal. Porque, aunque esa Verdad sea inteligible, las limitaciones del conocimiento humano en general, y de la actividad probatoria en particular, no permiten plantear legítimamente la encomienda de la función de investigación en el mismo funcionario que va a emitir el juicio sobre los hechos, dado que ello supone un enorme y permanente riesgo de sesgos indebidos y, por tanto, de sacrificio al principio de imparcialidad.

En segundo lugar, el principio de imparcialidad también sufre un grave atentado con la propuesta de la iniciativa de encomendar a un solo juez (que además es el director de la investigación), el trámite tanto de las etapas preliminares como del juicio en sentido estricto. La idea de separar las funciones de juez de control y de juez de juicio, que surge entre nosotros a partir de la reforma procesal penal que se incorporó a la Constitución de la República en 2008, fue precisamente la de garantizar que el juez de juicio, por no tener ningún conocimiento previo sobre los hechos materia del proceso, no tuviera prejuicio alguno y, por lo tanto, estuviera garantizada su imparcialidad. Con ello resulta claro que la eliminación de la distinción de que se trata, conduce a un estado de cosas en el que el Juez que dirigió la investigación y tramitó las etapas preliminares, difícilmente será un juzgador imparcial a la hora de emitir sentencia.

B).- LA PÉRDIDA O VACIAMIENTO DE LA AUDIENCIA COMO ESPACIO NATURAL DE TUTELA DEL DEBIDO PROCESO.

Para comprender mejor la idea a la que se refiere el subtítulo de este segundo y último apartado, es conveniente tomar como punto de partida el concepto de controles procesales. Se trata de un término poco habitual entre nosotros y que hace referencia a los instrumentos que, en un proceso (en este caso) penal, garantizan fundamentalmente dos cosas: a) que en el curso de una investigación penal o en el trámite de un procedimiento penal, no se cometan violaciones a derechos fundamentales, y; b) que sea fiable la información sobre cuya base un tribunal finca un juicio de reproche.

Las formalidades son una especie de controles procesales y son las únicas que existen como tales cuando el procedimiento se tramita en un expediente. Ocupémonos, para los fines de estas breves reflexiones, en aquéllas que garantizan la fiabilidad de la información. Para entender correctamente esta función, primero debe tenerse claro que, en una metodología del expediente, se produce una confusión entre expediente, proceso, causa y juicio. Y, de manera análoga, se confunde la prueba con el acta en la que se documenta la prueba. Así, el testimonio de María deja de ser la testigo sentada en el estrado declarando, para pasar a ser la declaración de María, tal como fue documentada en el acta que se incorporó al expediente.

Suelo ilustrar esta situación con una metáfora “rulfeana”. A mí me ocurrió, y seguramente esta situación era habitual en mi generación (y quizá no sólo en la mía), que en la clase de Español la maestra explicó que Pedro Páramo es una novela que trata de un señor llamado Juan Preciado que fue a Comala porque le dijeron que ahí vivía su padre, a reclamar la parte de la herencia que le correspondía. Agregó la maestra que Preciado de pronto se dio cuenta de que estaba hablando con los muertos. Pero en realidad esto es inexacto. Los muertos ya están muertos. Lo que pasa es que nos dejaron sus voces. Con quien Juan hablaba es con las voces que dejaron los muertos. De hecho, el título original de la novela era “Los Murmullos”.

Ahora bien, lo mismo ocurre en un expediente. Porque el expediente no es otra cosa que un conjunto de “murmullos” documentados. Es decir, cuando un testigo declara y su narración se documenta, el acta correspondiente se convierte en la prueba y es lo único que queda, ya que la persona se “muere” procesalmente, es decir, se torna irrelevante. Me explico: por virtud del principio de inmediatez (que no inmediación) procesal, las primeras diligencias del procedimiento deben prevalecer sobre las posteriores, en virtud de que, como decía la vieja jurisprudencia de la Corte, no ha habido tiempo ni para el aleccionamiento ni para la reflexión. Si el testigo comparece posteriormente y quiere cambiar su versión, será él quien tenga la carga de la prueba para justificar por qué debemos creerle a lo que viene a decir ahora, y no al “murmullo” que nos dejó en su declaración inicial.

Siendo esto así, es imperativo entonces cuidar las declaraciones tan pronto se documenten. Son la columna vertebral del expediente. Por eso, se requieren controles, llamados formalidades, destinados a garantizar dos cosas: a) que la información sea auténtica, es decir, que si María declaró que vio a Hipólito disparar a Rosita, efectivamente María haya dicho eso, y; b) que la declaración, una vez documentada, permanezca inalterada durante la vida del expediente, dado que este instrumento de metodología procesal se trabaja en ausencia de las partes y no puede descartarse la existencia de incentivos para alterarlo (derivados, lógicamente, de la confusión entre prueba y acta en la que se documenta la prueba: si ésta última es lo único o casi lo único relevante, basta con tener la posibilidad de manipularla para tener en nuestras manos la suerte del proceso).

Las primeras, es decir, las formalidades que garantizan la autenticidad de la información, son aquéllas que exigen que: la declaración sea por escrito, firmada por el testigo y por el funcionario que la recibe, ante un secretario o dos testigos que den fe (precisamente de que la información es auténtica), etcétera.

Las segundas, o sean las que garantizan que la información una vez documentada no sufra alteraciones, son tales como: que las fojas que conforman el expediente sean cosidas, foliadas y selladas; que al final de cada párrafo se tire una línea hasta el final, de manera que el espacio en blanco no pueda ser reutilizado; y que si se comete un error, se teste la parte correspondiente, de forma que el texto original siga siendo legible, y se “salve” antes de cerrar el acta.

Ahora bien, he decidido explicar lo anterior porque, en mi experiencia, uno de los aspectos más difíciles de asumir en una transición desde una metodología del expediente hacia una metodología de audiencias, es precisamente la comprensión del papel que, en cada una de ellas, juegan los controles procesales, particularmente aquéllos que garantizan que la información sea fiable. En efecto, en una metodología de audiencias, la calidad de la información está garantizada, en lo fundamental, por la audiencia misma. A ello es a lo que se refiere la feliz expresión de Ferrajoli que afirma que “la audiencia es la garantía de las garantías”. Es la audiencia, con sus principios rectores, el instrumento que permite confiar en la información que se produce en la misma. ¿Qué sentido tiene exigir formalidades para garantizar la autenticidad del testimonio de María, si es María misma quien declara de viva voz, en público, en presencia del juez y sujeta al contraexamen? ¿Qué sentido tiene pedir formalidades que garanticen que la prueba no se altere, si el tribunal debe valorarla inmediatamente, en la misma audiencia (principios de continuidad y concentración)? Esto, y no otra cosa, es lo que significa el principio que postula que, en una metodología de audiencias, la investigación es flexible y desformalizada. Porque exigir formalidades en la investigación conduce a pre-constituir prueba y, por tanto, a vaciar la audiencia, ya que entonces la información no se produce durante su celebración, sino antes, y lo que es más grave, sin el resguardo de la audiencia misma y de sus principios rectores.

Las formalidades de las actuaciones policiacas y de ciertos actos de investigación solo tienen la función de permitir el control de la calidad de la información que se produce en la audiencia, que es la única valorable, pero no de sustituirla. Por la sencilla razón de que solo tiene el carácter de prueba la que se produce en la audiencia en presencia del tribunal (principio de inmediación).

Con esto, me parece, queda claro el segundo grave problema del proyecto de iniciativa de reforma procesal penal al que he dedicado estas breves reflexiones. Me refiero a que regresa a una investigación formalizada, que pre-constituye prueba y que vacía la audiencia. Es decir que, al retomar la sustitución del testigo por su “murmullo”, trastoca en uno de sus aspectos más relevantes, la lógica de un sistema acusatorio, en el que, como se ha dicho con razón, la “audiencia es la garantía de las garantías”. Si además el proyecto se adereza con un uso extensivo de la prisión preventiva oficiosa y con la disminución de controles preliminares, la mesa está servida para el desastre que el mismo implica para el debido proceso. Me atrevería a decir que se trata de un retroceso, no de 20 años, sino de 200.

Leaked Reforms to Mexico’s Criminal Justice System Raise Serious Concerns

02/01/20 (written by kheinle) — Critics are fiercely pushing back against a package of proposed reforms to Mexico’s justice system made public in mid-January. Alejandro Gertz Manero, Mexico’s Attorney General (Fiscal General de la República, FGR), and Julio Scherer, the president’s chief legal adviser, prepared a draft of reforms that was leaked on January 15, 2020, causing immediate pushback from experts who argue it would fundamentally undermine the country’s criminal justice system and devalue human rights protections.

Background on Proposed Reforms

Mexico’s Supreme Court. Source: Supreme Corte de Justicia Nacional

The initiatives have been aptly referred to as contrarreforma, or counter reforms, giving reference to the overhaul of the judicial system in Mexico in 2008 through sweeping constitutional reforms. Critics argue that the draft reforms made public in January 2020 run counter to and undermine the 2008 reforms and subsequent implementation in 2016 of the Accusatorial Criminal Justice System (Sistema de Justicia Penal Acusatorio, SJPA). 

Still, the bills seek to address Mexico’s record-breaking levels of crime and violence. In 2019 alone, there were 34,582 murders – an all-time high – according to data reported by Mexico’s Secretary General of National Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP). The proposals would aim to reduce impunity and recidivism, writes Human Rights Watch, which is desperately needed in a country where only 2% of all crimes are resolved, according to a 2018 report by the United Nations. Attorney General Gertz added that they would also seek to address corruption and crime.

The bills are still in draft form, having not yet obtained the final approval from the Attorney General’s Office. They were expected to be presented in full to Congress in February, but there is no indication of when exactly that will be.

Main Concerns

Nevertheless, there are several key proposals put forth within the reforms that have created considerable pushback.

Arraigo

Justice in Mexico’s 2015 report, “Detention Without Charge.” Photo: Justice in Mexico.

Perhaps the most controversial change would be the expansion of the already fraught procedure of arraigo, a form of preventive detention. Under current Mexican law, suspects in organized crime cases can be held for up to 40 days without being charged while investigations unfold, and extend it to 80 days at the prosecutor’s request. In either case, prosecutors are required to obtain judicial authorization to detain a suspect under these conditions. The proposed reforms seek to expand upon this initial 40-day holding period by allowing “prosecutors to seek prolonged pre-charge detention for any crime, without bringing charges,” explains Human Rights Watch. This would also expand the current law that only allows arraigo in cases involving organized crime to now cover any crime.

Critics argue that this change would set the nation back in terms of the judicial and social reforms enacted the past few decades, specifically with the inauguration of the SJPA in 2016. Outspoken political analyst Denise Dresser commented on the proposals in an OpEd titled, “The Fourth Inquisition,” a play on President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s movement, the Fourth Transformation. “If the authoritarian regression that he has in mind continues, the López Obrador government will return to a judicial and criminal system built on incarcerating innocents, manufacturing the guilty, and creating injustices,” she said. “The contrarreforma wants to do away with control judges that today value the legality of detention and care for the rights of the victims and the accused.”

Read more about arraigo in Justice in Mexico’s 2015 special report, “Detention Without Charge.”

Admissibility of Evidence

A second change put forth would make it easier for evidence obtained through illicit (e.g., torture, wiretapping) means to be used in courtroom proceedings. If ratified, the Mexican Constitution would shift from barring evidence obtained through the “violation of human rights” to now allowing judges the final say in whether or not to admit such evidence. As Human Rights Watch precisely notes, this amendment would undermine and effectively undo all of the change made to protect individuals’ human rights as part of Mexico’s 2017 General Law on Torture. While recognizing the law has not been implemented as quickly as was hoped, the progress made would still effectively be undermined by the proposed changes by making evidence received through torture more viable and utile in the courtroom.

Emilio Álvarez, a Mexican Senator and a rights activist, spoke out on the measure. “It is an extraordinarily regressive reform that seriously threatens human rights and processes given as basic, such as presumption of innocence.”

Mexico’s National Criminal Code and the New National Code of Criminal Procedures

Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero. Photo: Línea Directa.

The Constitutional Initiative (Iniciativa Constitucional) would amend 14 articles of the Mexican Constitution to allow for the changes expressed here (e.g., arraigo, admissibility of evidence, freedom of expression). It would also create a new National Criminal Code (Código Penal Nacional, CPN). Attorney General Gertz acknowledged the latter, announcing the proposal to create a uniform, singular criminal code, which would replace already-existing codes at the state and regional levels. Another part of the proposals would put in place a new National Criminal Procedural Code (Código Nacional Procesal Penal, CNPP).

In a January 2020 publication, “La Nuevo Iniciativa de Reforma Procesal Penal,” Michael Mandig, attorney at law in Arizona with extensive legal work in Latin America, cautioned against installing a new CNPP, the current version of which was entered into force in 2016. “Procedural changes of such proportions require cultural transformations, economic inversions, professional commitments, and societal acceptance; it cannot be implemented over night.” Mandig also commented on the proposal to eliminate the “intermediary stage” in criminal proceedings, thereby eliminating the division of responsibilities among judges and specifically that of the Control Judge (juez de control). This was a critical pillar in the creation of the SJPA, as Mexico moved towards a more accusatorial judicial system, as opposed to an inquisitorial model. By blending the judges’ roles together once again through the proposed CNPP reform, it will render the courts partial, argues Mandig.

Freedom of Expression

Another concern raised is the potential undermining of freedom of expression put forth in the reforms. According to Mexico’s Regional Director Leopoldo Maldonado of Artículo 19, an international human rights organization, the reforms would criminalize freedom of expression through charges of defamation, slander, and libel. “This is not only about journalism,” he said. “It is about any person’s right to exercise freedom of expression in this country, thereby running the risk of being charged with this type of crime.”

Next Steps

It is believed that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s party, the National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional, MORENA), backed the leaked reforms. The president, however, denied being involved in or knowing about the draft reforms during one of his daily addresses to the nation. “I have not seen [the law]; I do not know of it. Therefore,” he said, “it has nothing to do with us.”

The full package of finalized reforms is supposed to be released in February, at which point Mexico’s Congress will take up the review.

Sources:

Deaton, Janice and Octavio Rodríguez. “Detention Without Charge.” Justice in Mexico. January 2015.

Human Rights Council 37th Session. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders on his mission to Mexico.” United Nations. February 12, 2018.

Mandig, Michael. “La Nueva Iniciativa de Reforma Procesal Penal – ¿Solución a la Impunidad o Receta para Desigualdad Procesal y Parcialidad Judicial?” No Volver al Sistema Inquisitorio. January 18, 2020.

Dresser, Denise. “La Cuarta Inquisición.” Diario de Yucatán. January 21, 2020.

Oré, Diego. “Critics warn sweeping Mexican judicial reform threatens human rights.” Reuters. January 23, 2020.

“Mexico: Justice System Proposals Violate Fundamental Rights.” Human Rights Watch. January 30, 2020.

“Defensores de derechos humanos combatirán ‘contrareforma’ judicial en México.” El Diario. February 1, 2020.