Mexico’s New Criminal Justice System Garners Mixed Reactions in 2019

There were 127 homicides reported on December 1, 2019 in Mexico, the deadliest day of the year. Source: Gobierno de México.

01/12/20 (written by kheinle) – Mexico’s New Criminal Justice System (Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, NSJP) continues to garner mixed reactions from the public, government officials, judicial system operators, academics, and beyond, almost four years after it was implemented. In 2019, support and critiques were leveled throughout the year, some coming from higher-profile figures, as discussed below.

Background on the NSJP

Former President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) rang in the system’s official launch on June 18, 2016, in Mexico City. This ended the judicial system’s eight-year implementation period stretching from 2008 to 2016 that was inaugurated by former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). Read more about the NSJP in Justice in Mexico’s special report, “Criminal Procedure Reform in Mexico, 2008-2016.”

The life of the NSJP has spanned multiple presidents’ sexenios. It has been more than 11 years since the launch of its implementation in 2008, and three and a half years since the end of the implementation period in 2016. Unprecedented amounts of resources (financial, capacity building, academic, infrastructure, etc.) have been poured into the NSJP’s development and significant progress has been made. States continue to implement and fine tune the NSJP despite the setbacks and challenges each face in doing so. As Mexico faces its deadliest year on record, and most recently its deadliest day of 2019, it is critical that the federal, state, and local governments continue to strengthen its adversarial criminal justice system.

Critics of the NSJP

Alejandro Martí

México SOS Director Alejandro Martí speaks at a conference. Photo: La Otra Opinión.
México SOS Director Alejandro Martí speaks at a conference. Photo: La Otra Opinión.

Human rights activist Alejandro Martí, head of the organization México SOS, has been a critic of the overhauled justice system, arguing that it plays a role in perpetuating impunity in Mexico. “The fundamental problem of the [NSJP] is the corruption,” he said in June 2019. “And corruption produces this terrible impunity, which I have said for years. Impunity is a result of all the wrongs of Mexico.” A recent study by México Evalúa found that more than 90% of crimes committed in 31 of Mexico’s 32 states and federal entities were left unresolved. In seven states, impunity rates top 99%.

Martí also called out elected officials – particularly governors – and the police for the pervasiveness of corruption within their systems. He reminded the media with which he spoke that “half of the group of kidnappers who killed my son were police,” referencing his son’s murder in 2008 that led him to become an activist. Martí leveled his criticisms during a press conference that was promoting Mexico’s 8th National Forum on Security and Justice (“8° Foro Nacional de Seguridad y Justicia”) held June 7-8.

Elected Officials

Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum speaking at her swearing in ceremony in December 2018. Photo: STR/AFP.

Former Mayor of Mexico City (Ciudad de México, CDMX) Miguel Ángel Mancera also voiced his concern that the New Criminal Justice System is responsible for higher levels of insecurity in the nation’s capital. In an interview with Ciro Gómez Leyva in June 2019, Mancera argued that the NSJP led to the early release of nearly 15,000 formerly incarcerated individuals to the streets of Mexico City in 2014 as part of the legal reforms. The NSJP is therefore, he reasoned, partially to blame for the kidnappings and assaults that now occur.

Mancera did acknowledge that Mexico City has long dealt with challenges related to drug trafficking and criminal activity, but that they were being addressed. Mancera’s comments came in response to criticism from current Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, who said the actions of former government administrations are responsible for today’s crime.

Support for the NSJP

Supreme Court Justice Arturo Zaldívar

A strong supporter of the New Criminal Justice System, however, is the president of Mexico’s Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación, SCJN). Justice Arturo Zaldívar, who joined the bench in 2009, came to the justice system’s defense.

Supreme Court Justice Arturo Zaldívar. Photo: Notimex.

“With the unfortunate situation our country encounters with high levels of insecurity and impunity, there is no shortage of voices that claim the new [justice] system is responsible for these ills,” said Justice Zaldívar. “What is certain is that the new criminal justice system is neither the cause nor the effect of that problems that we face. More likely, it is the probable solution to them.” He continued, emphasizing that a strong and effective criminal justice system is critical to achieving peace and justice. “If we want a better country, if we want a country in which laws are respected, if we want a country where we live in harmony with peace and justice,” he said, “we should advance on the path on which we’ve come, we should perfect the accusatorial criminal system, [and] we should respect and value the richness of due process, the presumption of innocence, and the right to defense.”

His comments came as part of the bilateral conference, “Diálogos sobre el Sistema de Justicia Penal con el Reino Unido,” held August 12-15, 2019, in Mexico City. It is an annual meeting between the United Kingdom and Mexico that started in 2015. Each year, justices from both countries gather to exchange experiences and best practices, host mock courtroom hearings, and learn from one another, writes Excélsior. Despite operating different styles of criminal justice systems, the conference offers an opportunity for judges, public defenders, prosecutors, and law students to convene. This year’s topic focused specifically on oral trials, a pillar of Mexico’s New Criminal Justice System.

Roberto Hernández

Roberto Hernández of Presunto Culpable. Photo: Sopitas.

The co-director and co-producer of the popular documentary, “Presunto Cupable,” Roberto Hernández, also voiced his support for the NSJP. As reported by El Heraldo de Tabasco, Hernández commented in December that the adversarial system has made positive changes over the years, which were reinforced by the new system in place.

He drew his comments from a recent survey he helped conduct of more than 58,000 people. It was done in collaboration with the World Justice Project and Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, INEGI). The results showed that people thought the quality of justice in Mexico had advanced, in part due to the implementation of oral trials. Additionally, the quality of evidence collection and sentencing also improved. Still, Hernández acknowledged the additional work that needs to be done to bring the NSJP to its full capacity. In particular, he pointed to voids in police reform and police training that need to be addressed, as well as a raise in police salaries to help root out corruption.

These are but a few of the many examples of mixed support leveled towards Mexico’s New Criminal Justice System and its role in crime, violence, justice, and accountability nationwide. Justice in Mexico has explored both these topics throughout the years, which can be read about here.

Sources:

Rodriguez, Octavio and David A. Shirk. “Criminal Procedure Reform in Mexico, 2008-2016.” Justice in Mexico. October 2015.

Cortes, Nancy G. et al. “Perspectives on Mexico’s Criminal Justice System: What Do Its Operators Think?” Justice in Mexico. April 2017.

Zaldívar, Arturo. “Cambio cultural y nuevo sistema de justicia penal.” Milenio. November 14, 2017.

Dávila, Patricia. “Corrupción en Nuevo Sistema de Justicia produce esta terrible impunidad’: Martí.” Proceso. June 2, 2019.

“Atribuye Mancera inseguridad a Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal.” Excélsior. June 12, 2019.

Angel, Arturo. “Más del 90% de los delitos denunciados en el país no se resuelven, muchos los ‘congela’ el MP.” Animal Político. August 7, 2019.

“Violencia que vive el país no es responsabilidad del sistema penal: SCJN.” Noticieros Televisa. August 12, 2019.

“Defiende Zaldívar nuevo sistema penal.” Reforma. August 13, 2019.

Robertson, Corin. “México y el Reino Unidos: tres años de compartir experiencias en la impartición de justicia.” Excélsior. August 19, 2019.

“Tercera Edición, 2019.” Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación. Last accessed August 30, 2019.

Secretaría de Seguridad Pública. “Víctimas reportadas por delito de homicidio.” Gobierno de México. December 1, 2019.

“Mexico homicide record: 127 deaths reported in a single day.” Al Jazeera. December 3, 2019.

Guadalupe Pérez, José. “Avanza sistema de justicia en México.” El Heraldo de Tabasco. December 16, 2019.

Román Gallegos, Juan. “Necesario capacitar a policías y Ministerios Públicos en cuanto a corrupción.” Diario Presente. December 17, 2019.

“Around the States: Updates on the New Criminal Justice System.” Justice in Mexico. December 29, 2019.

Around the States: Updates on the New Criminal Justice System

12/29/19 (written by kheinle) – Mexico’s New Criminal Justice System (Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, NSJP) has been in effect for well over three years, but each state’s implementation and effective functioning of the system varies widely. From public defenders to prosecutors, and from human rights protections to police officer trainings, the adversarial justice system encompasses many facets. The updates below from around the states demonstrates the NSJP’s breadth.  

Colima

Source: Justice in Mexico

Just over 40% of Colima’s public defense attorneys are being let go due to budgetary cutbacks approved by that state’s Congress in December, dropping the total number on staff from 83 to 47. The president of Colima’s Bar Association (Federación de Colegios, Barras y Asociaciones de Abogados Asociación Civil), Oswy Delgado Rodríguez, spoke on the matter. He lamented that the lawyers affected were valuable, experienced, and able to sufficiently defend Colima’s vulnerable populations. Their loss would have an impact.

The lack of resources allocated to Colima’s public defenders is not unique to the state. According to the Washington Office on Latin America citing México Evalúa, “In 2018, these [public defense] agencies received less than 2 percent of a pool of funds allocated to public defenders’ offices, federal courts, the Federal Police, the National Prosecutor’s Office, and the Executive Commission for Attention to Victims.”

This is compounded by the fact that Colima has regularly been one of the latter states to advance the NSJP. As Justice in Mexico noted in its 2015 report, Colima was one of the last two states along with Hidalgo to approve the reform to implement the NSJP, not doing so until August of 2014. It was also one of the last five states to begin implementing the system itself, again not doing so until December 2014. This left just over 18 months for the state to fully implement the justice system before the constitutionally mandated deadline of June 2016.

Mexico City (Ciudad de México, CDMX)

Source: Justice in Mexico

Mexico City is complying with the nationwide push at federal and state levels to make the Prosecutor’s Office autonomous from the Executive Branch. In effect, this would bolster the adversarial justice system by “strengthen[ing] the public prosecutor’s offices in combating violence, corruption, and impunity,” writes WOLA in a detailed report from November 2019. In a follow up report, WOLA elaborated that this shift would ultimately bring the Prosecutor’s Office’s structure and investigative priorities “more in line with the adversarial system.”

The nation’s capital is doing so, however, in a “unique and innovative” way, argues WOLA. What sets Mexico City’s approach apart from the other 31 states is that the process is rooted in civil society and led by a Technical Commission. As mandated by Mexico City’s updated constitution in 2018, its State Congress is to “select a Technical Commission made up of seven civil society leaders to design a proposal for how to complete the city’s transition toward an autonomous prosecutor’s office,” writes WOLA.

The commission was filled just over a year ago and has since drafted a proposed “Implementing Law” (Ley Orgánica) to help guide the creation of the Prosecutor’s Office, specifically outlining the office’s structure and function. The Law’s main goals in establishing the Prosecutor’s Office are “improving results in high-impact cases, managing case flows and complaint reception efficiently, strengthening institutional professionalization, and ensuring strong internal controls.”

Click here to read more about WOLA’s comprehensive reporting on Mexico City’s Technical Commission.

Michoacán

Source: Justice in Mexico

The State of Michoacán took two key steps in December to strengthen protection of human rights, a pillar of the New Criminal Justice System.

First, the State’s Legislative Committees recommended the naming of Michoacán’s head of the State Commission on Human Rights (Comisión Estatal de Derechos Humanos, CEDH). On December 4, Dr. Jean Cadet Odimba On’Etambalako Wetshokonda was nominated to the ombudsman role, edging out the other candidate, Mtra. Elvia Higuera Pérez. Cadet shared his plans for the CEDH, starting with a “reengineering” of the agency to ensure it can be flexible enough to adjust to the needs of the people. He also plans to ensure all members of the CEDH receive quality training on human rights protections to strengthen the agency’s services. This was Cadet’s second attempt to run for the position.

Human rights were also a key focus of a training attended by Municipal Police from Charo, Michoacán in November and December. The State’s Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General del Estado, FGE) led the course, titled “Updating Police Roles,” which included specific training on human rights vis-à-vis police responsibilities. This portion of the course was facilitated by the FGE’s Director of Human Rights Promotion and Defense, Marcela Verónica Chávez Hernández. At least nine police attended the training.

Sources:

Rodriguez, Octavio and David A. Shirk. “Criminal Procedure Reform in Mexico, 2008-2016.” Justice in Mexico. October 2015.

Cortes, Nancy G. et al. “Perspectives on Mexico’s Criminal Justice System: What Do Its Operators Think?” Justice in Mexico. April 2017.

Hinojosa, Gina and Maureen Meyer. “Mexico’s Rule of Law Efforts: 11 Years After Criminal Justice Reforms.” Washington Office on Latin America. November 13, 2019.

Hinojosa, Gina and Maureen Meyer. “Steps Toward a Functioning Local Prosecutor’s Office: The Mexico City Model.” Washington Office on Latin America. November 25, 2019.

“Ya es tiempo de que Michoacán tenga un ombudsman ciudadano: Jean Cadet Odimba.” Mi Morelia. November 25, 2019.

“Después de las comparecencias, el Panorama se aclara en el nombramiento del Ombudsman Michoacano.” PCM Noticias. December 6, 2019.

“Clausura FGE curso de capacitación a policías de Charo en materia de Derechos Humanos y actualización de la función policial.” Contramuro. December 23, 2019.

De la Torre, Martha. “Gobierno de Colima despide a 40% de sus defensores públicos.” El Heraldo de México. December 26, 2019.

“Hallazgos 2018: Seguimiento y evaluación del sistema de justicia penal en México.” México Evalúa. August 7, 2019.

USD’s Justice in Mexico Program receives a $3 million government grant to continue collaboration with Mexican public law schools, while extending their geographical reach

10/01/19 – Justice in Mexico at the University of San Diego is pleased to report that due to the generosity of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the Oral Adversarial Skill-Building Immersion Seminar (OASIS) has been extended through the year 2022, receiving an additional $3 million grant. This oral advocacy training program may now utilize the total federal grant of approximately $9.3 million to further its principal mission of providing legal actors in Mexico with the competencies and best practices necessary for the successful performance of their professional duties within the judicial system. 

To achieve the aforementioned goal of OASIS, the Justice in Mexico team organizes and executes three activities throughout the year. First, the program coordinates three 40-hour litigation workshops in Spanish to 240+ law professors and students from Mexico’s most important public law schools. Second, OASIS offers the opportunity to embark on three study tours where Mexican jurists can learn more about the U.S. criminal justice system. Third, in an effort to advance legal scholarship on criminal justice consolidation and provide public education on the inner-workings of the criminal justice system, the program holds an annual international symposium to promote this public awareness and scholarly exchange. 

However, under the new proposal of activities for 2019-22, OASIS will extend its geographical reach to local communities that have previously not had access to participate in the aforementioned training programs. Furthermore, OASIS looks to fortify relations with other regions that will provide important opportunities for broader regional impact. 

Dr. David A. Shirk, Director of USD’s Masters in International Relations and Principal Investigator of Justice in Mexico, states that OASIS provides a model for the “high-level academic exchange” programs needed to establish stronger, more durable ties between the United States and Mexico. “OASIS gives skilled practitioners the opportunity to develop deep and lasting ties that can last well beyond the life of the grant to advance the long-term of strengthening the rule of law in Mexico and improving binational cooperation.” 

This additional funding will allow OASIS to broaden the geographical and methodological reach of the program, and ultimately, engage more critically with the spheres of citizen security, the rule of law, and human rights in Mexico.

Around the States: Oral Trials

06/02/19 (written by kheinle) — Oral trials (juicios orales) were one of the landmark features of Mexico’s New Criminal Justice System (Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, NJSP). The introduction, incorporation, and institutionalization of such a critical component in the judicial system has required a significant amount of resources, including human capital, training, infrastructure, and financial investment. Three years since the NSJP was formally launched in June 2016, Mexican states and Mexico City (Ciudad de México, CdMx) continue to invest in developing the efficiency and effectiveness of oral trials. The successes of such efforts in several entities are described below.

Mexico City (CdMx)

Source: Justice in Mexico.

According to the Superior Court of Justice of Mexico City (Tribunal Superior de Justicia de la Ciudad de México, TSJCDMX), more than 7,600 hearings are held each month in the nation’s capital. This is in large part thanks to the 160 judges who oversee the proceedings and the 122 oral trial courtrooms in operation that are equipped with videotaping functionality.

The Executive Director of TSJCDMX’s Judicial Administration (Gestión Judicial), José Eligio Rodríguez Alba, commented on the positive impact that technology has had on the courts’ operations. “We utilize three technology systems,” he said. “The first is the system of judicial administration, which coordinates the various hearings throughout the different zones. There is also the central notification system, which helps to keep those involved in the proceedings informed of matters [pertaining to their case]. And lastly, we have video recording capabilities that capture all of the testimony, which impacts judicial expediency.”

Rodríguez Alba emphasized the impact that this system of shared work has had on oral trials. Allowing judges to focus solely on the courtroom proceedings by removing the administrative duties from their plates, he said, have made the courts and oral proceedings more efficient.

San Luis Potosí (SLP)

Source: Justice in Mexico.

Judges and magistrates from the State Judiciaries of San Luis Potosí and Quintana Roo (Poderes Judiciales de los Estados, PJE) attended a training the week of May 20, 2019, titled “Competency-based Oral Resolutions and the Test of the Accusatory Penal System” (“Resoluciones orales basado en competencias y la prueba en el Sistema penal acusatorio”). The course, which was held in San Luis Potosí, was facilitated by representatives from Canada’s National Judicial Institute and the University of Ottawa.

The training focused on strengthening the oral trial system by making the proceedings more accessible to and better understood by the people of Mexico. It worked with judges and magistrates to use less technical language when overseeing courtroom proceedings and more common language instead. “To be able to communicate in simple language when speaking with community is what this new system of justice and oral trials are seeking to do,” said Magistrate Lucero Quiroz Carbajal of Mexico State’s Supreme Court of Justice (Supremo Tribunal del Estado de México, STEM) at the event. “The people will be able to understand the motives and reasoning for why a verdict was given towards a person, based on the legal determination.”

San Luis Potosí is recognized for its advances in implementing the oral trial system. Magistrate Quiroz noted that was part of the decision-making behind hosting the training there in May.

Veracruz

Source: Justice in Mexico

Eliseo Juan Hernández Villaverde, consultant to the president of the Superior Court of Justice of Mexico City (TSJCDMX), facilitated a training in Veracruz in mid-May titled “Civil Orality” (“Oralidad Civil”). Attendees included judges, magistrates, and public servants who work in civil and family law in Xalapa and Coatepec. Members of the State’s Superior Court of Justice (Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Veracruz, TSJV) also attended.

As part of the training, Hernández Villaverde referenced the success the courts have had in Mexico City with oral trials. This includes, he said, the 26 civil law judges and ten family law judges active in oral trials. He also shared the court’s plans to prepare 50 civil and 50 family law judges within the next year. At the end of the training, Hernández Villaverde encouraged participants in their own states to “be open to breaking the procedural [traditional] paradigm. We need more judges that have the courage to disrupt such paradigm and…that have the confidence in developing the judicial operators with the skills, ability, and technicalities of the oral trial system.” This, he concluded, would in turn expedite judicial proceedings.

Sources:

“Imparten conferencia sobre oralidad civil a servidores públicos del Poder Judicial.El Democrata. May 18, 2019.

Escalante González, Bertha. “Poder Judicial rumbo a la consolidación del NSJP.” El Sol de San Luis. May 20, 2019.

Redacción. “Poder Judicial y el Instituto Nacional de la Judicatura de Canadá inician curso.” El Exprés. May 20, 2019.

Notimex. “Tribunal de Justicia local realiza más de siete mil audiencias al mes.” 20 Minutos. May 26, 2019.

“TSJCDMX, crea 122 salas de oralidad con sistema de videograbación.” Contra Réplica. May 26, 2019.

Fifth journalist killed in Mexico in 2019

Journalist killed in Quintana Roo.

Francisco Romero Díaz was killed on May 16, 2019 in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo. Source: Notimundo.

05/21/19 (written by kheinle) — Mexico is on pace to be the world’s most dangerous country for journalists in 2019, according to Reporters Without Borders. Five media workers have been killed in Mexico in just the first five months of the year, the most recent coming in the early morning of May 16. Authorities found the body of Francisco Romero Díaz in the popular Playa del Carmen beach town in Quintana Roo. Romero was a reporter with Quintana Roo Hoy and oversaw an online Facebook page called Ocurrió Aquí through which he posted on local stories, politics, and harassment against journalists. He was the fourth journalist killed in Quintana Roo in the past 12 months, reports El Universal, and the sixth nationwide since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December 2018, according to advocacy organization Article 19.

The 28-year-old reporter and his family faced ongoing threats in response to his coverage of crime and violence. The threats were serious enough that Romero had enrolled in a federal protection program for at-risk journalists, which gave him access to body guards and to a “panic button,” among other tactics, to ensure his safety. The night of his death, however, Romero had reportedly dismissed his guards for the evening, but then received an early morning phone call about a tip on a story at the local club, to which he responded. Authorities found his body soon thereafter with at least two gunshot wounds.

Committee to Protect Journalists’ Mexico Representative Jan-Albert Hootsen responded to Romero’s death. “This brutal murder of Francisco Romero Díaz is a direct consequence of the unabating violence in Quintana Roo and Playa del Carmen, a state and city popular with tourists, but lethal for journalists,” he said. “Mexican authorities must do everything in their power to bring the culprits to justice…”

Violence Against Journalists in Mexico

Mexico has long been one of the most dangerous countries for members of the media to work. In 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), four journalists were killed in Mexico, tying it with the United States in fourth place on their list of most journalists killed. Only Afghanistan (13 journalists killed), Syria (9), and India (5) had more. Justice in Mexico’s Memoria dataset, however, adopts a less conservative measure than CJP, considering cases of both media workers and journalists who may have been victims of intentional homicide for a variety of motives not limited to their reporting. According to that dataset, 16 such individuals were killed in 2018 — four times higher than CPJ’s tally.

The New Criminal Justice System

Despite the danger that Mexican journalists face, the government recently took a step forward in its efforts to protect this vulnerable population. On May 15, a Special District Judge (Juez de Distrito Especializado) in the Center for Federal Criminal Justice (Centro de Justicia Penal Federal) in Xalapa, Veracruz sentenced an individual for threatening a journalist. According to local sources, the defendant, Joaquín R. P., threatened reporter Edgar Juárez Gómez via social media, telephone calls, and text messages in response to a story that Juárez Gómez had published about the defendant’s brother being held in detention. The six-month sentence handed down was the first of its kind for such crimes to be given in Veracruz under the New Criminal Justice System (Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, NSJP).

To read more about the dangers that journalists face in Mexico, check out Justice in Mexico’s annual report released in April 2019, “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico.”

Sources:

“54 Journalists Killed.” Committee to Protect Journalists. Last accessed March 24, 2019.

Calderón, Laura et al. “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico.” Justice in Mexico. April 2019.

Barranco Déctor, Rodrigo. “Por primera vez en Veracruz, sentencian a sujeto por atentar contra periodista.” La Silla Rota. May 15, 2019.

“Por amenazar a periodista veracruzano, lo sentencian a 6 meses de prisión.” Noreste. May 15, 2019.

J.M.C. “Asesinado un periodista en Playa del Carmen, el sexto en México en 2019.” El País. May 16, 2019.

“Reportan al quinto periodista asesinado durante el 2019 en México.” El Universal. May 16, 2019.

“Reporter shot and killed in Mexican tourist resort.” Reuters. May 16, 2019.

“Mexican reporter Francisco Romero Díaz shot dead in Playa del Carmen.” Committee to Protect Journalists. May 17, 2019.