Homicide Rates and Clandestine Graves Highlight Mexico’s Systemic Challenges

06/26/19 (written by kheinle) — The first six months of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s sexenio (2018-2024) have proven to be the most violent such period for a president in Mexico’s recent history. Mexico’s ongoing struggles to combat crime and violence were highlighted of late with the release of data on the increasing homicide rates and clandestine graves throughout Mexico.

Intentional Homicide Rate Continues to Rise

Map of homicide victims by municipality in 2018

This map depicts the distribution of homicide victims by municipality in 2018, as reported by the National Public Security (SNSP). Source: Justice in Mexico, 2019.

According to Mexico’s Secretary General of National Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SESNSP), 17,498 people were murdered between December 2018 and May 2019; an average of almost 3,000 per month. Despite a slight drop in the number of intentional homicides reported in April (2,724 homicides) compared to previous months, May saw an increase to the highest tally yet for 2019 with 2,903 killings, or the equivalent of 96 per day. February, however, continues to have the highest number of homicides per day on average in 2019 (102 homicides/day) thanks to similar numbers reported (2,877 homicides) over fewer days in the month (28 days).

The mid-year data also revealed that just over half of Mexico’s 32 state and federal entities saw increases in the number of homicides registered since the start of the López Obrador administration. According to SESNSP’s data, when compared to the same period of time the year before (December 2017 – May 2018), the most significant or “worrisome” increase in homicide rates occurred in Nuevo León. As reported by Animal Político, Nuevo León’s homicide rate increased from 5.3 homicides per 100,000 individuals to 9.2 homicides per 100,000 individuals. The 72% increase far surpassed the rises in Tabasco (50.7%), Mexico City (43.2%), Sonora (43.1%), and Morelos (42.5%). Meanwhile the states with the largest decreases in homicide rates during that time period were Baja California Sur (78.3% reduction), Nayarit (69%), and Guerrero (30.8%).

Map of Mexico and violence

Photo: El Universal.

The media’s role in disseminating information on homicides is also of note. A recent report by El Universal with support from Google News Initiative found that the Mexican media in ten different states have decreased the amount of coverage given to homicides reported in 2019 compared to previous years. In particular, Baja California Sur, Chihuahua, and Nayarit have published the least information proportional to number of homicides committed in 2019. The states of Aguascalientes, Colima, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Puebla, Quinata Roo, Tamulipas, and Zacatecas round out the list of ten. The authors looked at official homicide data spanning from 2005 to 2019 vis-à-vis the press’ reporting on such killings.

Justice in Mexico’s annual report released in April 2019, “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2018,” also took an in depth look at SNSP’s 2018 data. The authors found, for example, that although Baja California had the highest number of intentional homicide cases in 2018 (2,805), Guanajuato had the largest annual increase in total homicides, nearly doubling its recorded number from 2017. To read more about Mexico’s crime and violence at the federal, state, and local levels in 2018, check out Justice in Mexico’s full report here.

Clandestine Graves and Desaparecidos

In addition to Mexico’s record-breaking levels of homicide, the nation continues to grapple with the existence of clandestine graves and associated disappearances (desaparecidos).

Forensic experts move a body found in a clandestine grave on a farm in Guadalajar, Jalisco in April 2019. Photo: Francisco Guasco, EFE.

Forensic experts move a body found in a clandestine grave on a farm in Guadalajar, Jalisco in April 2019. Photo: Francisco Guasco, EFE.

In mid-June, researchers with Mexico City’s Universidad Iberoamericana confirmed the existence of 1,606 clandestine graves throughout Mexico. According to their report, “Violence and terror: findings on clandestine graves in Mexico 2006-2017” (“Violencia y terror: hallazgos sobre fosas clandestinas en México 2006-2017”), the states in which the most sites were located were Guerrero, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, and Zacatecas. The graves documented are from 2006 and 2017, a period of time that spans almost two presidents’ full sexenios (Felipe Calderón, 2006-2012; Enrique Peña Nieto, 2012-2018). According to the Associated Press, the graves found “may just scratch the surface of the true numbers behind what the [Universidad Iberoamericana] study called a ‘building phenomenon.’”

The reported graves contained nearly 2,500 bodies, of which the predominant majority are tied to the ongoing battles between drug-trafficking organizations (DTO) and organized crime groups (OCG). The researchers also clarified that their data was not comprehensive because eight of Mexico’s 32 states and federal entities did not submit data or documentation to their research project, claiming that no graves had been found within their entities during the specified timeframe.

Contextualizing the data, the report out of Universidad Iberoamericana emphasized the role that Mexico’s high levels of impunity have in perpetuating the existence of secret graves. “It is reflective of the level of social decay and dehumanization that the country has reached,” the researchers wrote. Jan Jarab, representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Mexico, also weighed in on the findings. “This horror map of clandestine graves can only be combatted with strategies addressing impunity,” he said.

Such disappearances like the victims’ remains found in the graves have long been a critical issue in Mexico. According to the government’s national search commission, there are more than 40,000 persons estimated missing in Mexico.

Impunity vis-à-vis the NSJP

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.

Mexico’s systemic challenges with crime, violence, impunity, and the ways in which they manifest themselves in society (i.e., clandestine graves) were recently at the center of criticism leveled by human rights activist Alejandro Martí toward the government. According to Martí, who is the head of the organization México SOS, Mexico’s New Criminal Justice System (Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, NSJP) carries some of the responsibility in perpetuating impunity. “The fundamental problem of the [NSJP] is the corruption,” he said. “And corruption produces this terrible impunity, which I have said for years. Impunity is a result of all the wrongs of Mexico.”

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 promoting Mexico’s 8th National Forum on Security and Justice (“8° Foro Nacional de Seguridad y Justicia”) held June 7-8.

Whether the New Criminal Justice System does indeed bear some of the responsibility, as Martí alleges, it is clear nonetheless that the López Obrador Administration faces systemic challenges when addressing Mexico’s notorious levels of crime and violence. Homicide rates, clandestine graves, disappearances, and impunity are but a few.


Calderón, Laura et al. “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2018.” Justice in Mexico. April 2019.

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

Román, Esteban. “En 10 estados guardan silencio sobre homicidios.” El Universal. June 13, 2019.

Krumholtz, Michael. “Researchers confirm 1,600 secret graves in Mexico since 2006.” Associated Press. June 20, 2019. 

“México enfrenta abismo de desinformación para encontrar a sus desparecidos.” Agencia EFE. June 20, 2019.

Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública. “Víctimas de Delitos de Fuero Común 2019.” Centro Nacional de Información. June 20, 2019.

Angel, Arturo. “Con 17,500 asesinatos, el primer semestre de AMLO es el más violento de los últimos sexenios.” Animal Politico. June 21, 2019.

“Today in Latin America.” Latin America News Dispatch. June 21, 2019.

Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de Derechos Humanos. “Violencia y terror: hallazgos sobre fosas clandestinas en México 2006-2017.” Universidad Iberoamericana. June 2019.

The Potential Effects of Violence on the Mexican Economy

Source: DIMSA

06/01/18 (written by Quinn Skerlos)- In the shadow of its most violent year in decades, Mexico experienced economic challenges and a downturn in economic growth rates. As the country faced an average of 80 intentional homicides per day in 2017 (El País), CNN reports that Mexico’s economic growth rate also fell almost a full percent, while 2% GDP, rising interest and inflationary rates show more signs of economic trouble. While levels of rising violence cannot be held fully accountable for this period of economic contraction- as lengthy NAFTA negotiations and widespread distrust in electoral processes also play a part- the Mexico Peace Index has suggested that violence is an obstacle for the Mexican economy.


Violence Generating Threats to Business

According to the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico, companies are consistently tasked to deal with the threat of theft, extortion, and violent attacks against their employees and supply chains. Mexican companies, such as “Grupo Lala,” closed distribution centers in states with high crime and intentional homicide rates like Tamaulipas.

In Guerrero, another state grappling with high homicide rates, the Coca Cola bottler, Coca-Cola FEMSA, closed a major distribution center. The firm previously employed 160 people at that location. FEMSA may be a major international business player, but most small and medium companies face similar challenges. According to Canacintra, a Mexican industry association, in recent years approximately 6% of annual revenue goes into defense for these small and medium sized firms. FEMSA pinned the violence on “a lack of rule of law and the prevalence of impunity (Associated Press).” According to Consejo Coordinador Empresarial (CCE), “high levels of violence have become the greatest obstacle to economic activity,” ultimately impeding economic activity across Mexico and heightening the risk workers face in their everyday occupations (Reuters).


International investment in Mexico is has also been impacted. Just recently, in the state of Chihuahua, Canada’s Pan American Silver Corp scaled down operations after a series of threats by armed groups against employees. A large number of employees were sheltered in the mine over the weekend of May 25-27, while others were airlifted out. As workers are impeded from getting to job sites, large and local companies deal with threats and broken supply chains, multinational firms potentially reconsider investment in Mexico. While this incident highlighted the challenges for international companies operating in Mexico, Mexico’s nationalized companies, such as Mexican Petroleum (Petróleos Mexicanos, PEMEX), have faced similar dilemmas. It is estimated that the theft of oil and gas from PEMEX is equal to about one billion dollars annually.


Source: CNN

The Bigger Picture

According to Reuters, in 2017 alone, violence cost the economy 2.18 trillion pesos (106 million US dollars), and the Mexico Peace Index shows that the Mexican government increased violence containment spending by 70% in the past decade. According to the Mexico Peace Index, said statistics could suggest a parallel between violence with economic instability.

According to a recent Pew Research poll, in 2017, Mexicans were generally unsatisfied with their country’s progress. The ruling party, Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI), presidential candidate is sitting behind the pack in a distant third place. The emergence of a new popular party in the recent elections might show a dissatisfaction with the status quo. A 2018 Bloomberg poll shows that the leadership of Mexico will likely change after the upcoming election. What that means for the rule of law and the economy in Mexico is still unknown.




Angulo, Sharay., Esposito, Anthony. “Businesses turn up the heat on Mexican government over crime surge.” Reuters. May 28, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-violence/businesses-turn-up-heat-on-mexican-government-over-crime-surge-idUSKCN1IU031

Verza, Maria. “Canadian mine latest business affected by Mexico violence.” Associated Press. May 28, 2018. https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/canadian-owned-mine-cuts-back-mexico-safety-55491513.

“El Banco Mundial en Mexico.” Banco Mundial. April 16, 2018. http://www.bancomundial.org/es/country/mexico/overview

“3 Focos Rojos Para El Crecimiento Economico de Mexico En 2018” Expansion. March 12, 2018. https://expansion.mx/economia/2018/03/12/3-focos-rojos-para-el-crecimiento-economico-de-mexico-en-2018

Stargardter, Gabriel. “The Refinery Racket.” Reuters. January 24, 2018.  https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/mexico-violence-oil/

“Mexico Peace Index 2018.” Institute for Economics and Peace. 2018.

Perez, David Marcial. “Mexico cerrara 2017 como el mas violente en 20 anos.” El Pais. December 23, 2017. https://elpais.com/internacional/2017/12/23/actualidad/1513997748_288693.html

Vice, Margaret. Chen, Hanyu. “Mexicans are Downbeat on their Country’s Direction.” Pew Reseearch Center, September 14, 2017. http://www.pewglobal.org/2017/09/14/mexicans-are-downbeat-about-their-countrys-direction/

Ahrens, Jan Martin. “Sobrevivir en Tamaulipas.” El Pais. April 15, 2015. https://elpais.com/internacional/2015/04/15/actualidad/1429128474_283895.htm

Gayol, Rafeal. Manuel Rodriguez, Carlos. Spinetto, Juan Pablo. Walsh, Brandon. “Mexican Election Coverage.” Bloomberg. June 25, 2018. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-mexican-election/




Impunity in Mexico: A Rising Concern

Written by Jose Luengo-Cabrera & Tessa Butler, Institute for Economics and Peace.

The failure or inability to penalize criminals in Mexico is a widespread phenomenon. In 2016, it was estimated that only 9 out of every 100 crimes resulted in convictions. Amid growing concerns over impunity, citizens need to feel confident that their government can protect them and that they can trust the authorities in the enforcement of the law. The government’s efforts, however, continue to fall short of citizens’ expectations.

The percentage of citizens reporting impunity as their most worrisome issue has been on the rise in Mexico.  Despite insecurity and unemployment being worrisome for a higher percentage of citizens, the number of those concerned about impunity more than doubled between 2012 and 2016, overtaking narco-trafficking at a time when the trend for corruption has also been on the rise.

Gauging the degree of impunity in Mexico remains elusive. This is largely due to the fact that the collection of data on crimes is hampered by the high levels of underreporting – itself a consequence of distrust in the authorities’ ability to respond to crimes. Underreporting has been exacerbated by a lack of transparency in the methods of statistical collection, with major discrepancies identified across the 32 states, as explored in the ‘Verifying Mexico’s Official Crime Data’ subsection of the 2017 Mexico Peace Index. Consequently, any data-driven estimates are bound to generate inferences that provide only a partial diagnostic of the true magnitude of violence, not to mention the extent to which the authorities are responding to it.

The problem of underreporting

The most significant indication of this challenge comes from the Encuesta Nacional de Victmización y Percepción sobre Seguridad Pública (ENVIPE), Mexico’s annual victimisation survey carried out by the national office of statistics (INEGI). In its 2016 iteration, it showed that 93.7 percent of crimes in 2015 were either not reported to the authorities, or went uninvestigated. Dubbed as the cifra negra (black figure), 2015 saw the second highest percentage of underreporting since 2010. When broken down by type of crime, levels of underreporting have been the highest for cases of extortion, reaching a peak of 99 percent in 2014.

The cifra negra phenomenon is a symptom of the state of Mexico’s criminal justice system. Indeed, the 2016 ENVIPE results show that 63 percent of citizens did not report a crime for reasons attributable to the authorities. Thirty-three percent of citizens who did not report a crime stated that it was due to perceiving it as a waste of time, while 17 percent claimed it was the result of distrust in the authorities. Moreover, 50.4 percent of the citizens that did report a crime claimed that treatment by the authorities was ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’.

This reality is compounded by results that shed light on the levels of citizen trust and perceptions of corruption across public security authorities. According to the 2016 ENVIPE results, an average of 45 percent of citizens reported to have ‘little’ or ‘no trust’ in the public security authorities – namely police, judges, state attorney generals and the public ministry. The average figure was 64.4 percent for those who perceived the same entities as corrupt.

The latest available data from 2014 shows that citizen trust in the enforcement of the law was pervasively low across states. The highest percentage was recorded in Chiapas, where no more than 14 percent of citizens perceived that criminals were being penalized. Nationally, close to 11 percent of the population reported the belief that criminals were never punished, with just over five percent believing it was always the case. Seventy-two percent reported it as sometimes being the case. In addition, out of the total crime investigations initiated in 2015 by the Public Ministry (Ministerio Público), 45.9 percent of them were either left unresolved or where no action was taken, with 25.9 percent remaining in process. Reparations were made in only eight percent of cases.

A nationwide phenomenon

The failure or inability to penalize perpetrators of crime in Mexico can be considered nationally ubiquitous. According to the 2016 Global Impunity Index (GII), the average score for the 32 Mexican states was 67.42 points on a scale of 0-100, where 0 represents a total absence of impunity. It placed Mexico 58th out of a total of 59 countries under study.

The impunity variance across states was small; 24 states were within ten points of the worst score of 77 recorded in Quintana Roo. This is an indication that impunity in Mexico is a nationwide phenomenon, especially when considering that three quarters of state impunity scores were within approximately six points of each other.

Mexico’s poor international ranking in the GII highlights the country’s structural weaknesses in addressing impunity, as explored in section four of the 2017 Mexico Peace Index. For example, the national average of magistrates and judges per every 100,000 people in Mexico was estimated at 3.5. The average for countries included in the GII was 16, or 4.5 times the level in Mexico. Moreover, there were 20 penitentiary officers for every 100 inmates in Mexico. The average across countries included in the GII was more than double that amount, 47 officers per every 100 inmates. In addition, according to the latest available data, Mexico’s prisons were found to be 12 percent over capacity, with some states facing prison overpopulation rates as high as 164 percent.

A barrier to peacefulness

High levels of impunity imply that the rule of law is not being fully enforced and that state governments are failing to provide adequate funding for the provision of justice. Notwithstanding, some notable progress has been made. For example, the investigation rate for torture complaints carried out by the office of the Federal Attorney General improved by four-fold between 2013 and 2014 alone, increasing from 17 percent to 67 percent.

This sudden increase could be attributable to better prosecution and investigation procedures. However, it could also be the result of rising political pressure to investigate human rights violations in the wake of the 2014 enforced disappearance (Desaparición Forzada) of 43 students in Iguala – where police officers were arrested for having tortured 17 suspects.

Moreover, the high level of impunity for violence against journalists undermines efforts to disseminate information on crime and the activities that support it. This is particularly telling considering that the number of media professionals murdered was three times higher in 2016 than in 2002, despite a downward trend since a peak of 143 murders in 2012.

Mexico has made and continues to make significant strides in improving the rule of law and the quality of governance. The rule of law and the provision of justice are two critical aspects of the well-functioning government domain of Positive Peace. Where impunity remains high, it stands as a barrier to peacefulness. Better legal processes for filing citizen complaints, tracking the instances of human rights violations, and investigating cases can reduce impunity and improve peace.

Justice in Mexico and USD School of Law co-host International Conference on Mexico’s Judicial Reform Efforts

6/24/16 (written by ncortes) – On June 10th, Justice in Mexico co-hosted “Promoting the Rule of Law in Mexico” International Conference with USD’s School of Law at the Hahn University Forums on campus. Approximately 100 students, faculty, legal professionals, and government officials from both sides of the border attended the international conference on Mexico’s judicial reform efforts just one week prior to the official full implementation deadline of the judicial reform.

The audience was welcomed by the heads of the organizations that made the conference possible: Dr. David Shirk, director of Justice in Mexico, Dr. Stephen Ferruolo, dean of the School of Law, and Justin Bird, vice president of Sempra Energy. In his brief opening address, Dr. David Shirk emphasized the critical time at which the conference was taking place: the conclusion of an eight-year process to reform Mexico’s justice system.

Dr. Héctor Díaz Santana, director of Inter-Institutional Coordination of the Council for the Implementation of the Criminal Justice System’s Technical Secretariat (SETEC), inaugurated the conference by offering an overview of what brought about the reform and the current challenges to its full implementation. Dr. Díaz Santana observed that the late publication of the national criminal procedural code, the lack of funding, and the tendency to procrastinate created a crisis that demanded renewed attention as the deadline approached. The government had to come up with clear plans, funding, and new indicators for evaluation. Moreover, the federal government had to acquire new technologies for investigation and help reluctant state governments assimilate to the inevitability of change. According to Dr. Díaz, there are still many issues that remain unresolved, including updating law school curriculums and informing the public. In his view, even though the implementation phase will be over by June 18, the system will need to continue to make adjustments over the long term.

Dr. David Shirk moderates first panel of "Promoting the Rule of Law in Mexico" international conference. Panelists include State supreme court justice Pablo Héctor González Villalobos (Chihuahua), State supreme court justice Alejandro González Gómez (Michoacán), Hon. Teresa Sanchez Gordon (Los Angeles Superior Court), and Hon. Runston Maino (San Diego Superior Court)

Dr. David Shirk moderates first panel of “Promoting the Rule of Law in Mexico” international conference. Panelists include State supreme court justice Pablo Héctor González Villalobos (Chihuahua), State supreme court justice Alejandro González Gómez (Michoacán), Hon. Teresa Sanchez Gordon (Los Angeles Superior Court), and Hon. Runston Maino (San Diego Superior Court)

Following Dr. Díaz Santana’s reflections on Mexico’s justice reform efforts was the panel “From the Bench: Judges’ Take on Justice Reform,” moderated by Dr. Shirk. The recurring themes included newly acquired responsibilities of judges, the importance of training judges, and the United States’ partner role in this transition. Pablo Héctor González Villalobos, state court justice in Chihuahua, discussed how the reform redefined the job of judges. In the past, a judge’s duty was to serve as an instrument to apply the law while oral trials now demand judges have a more dignified role as interpreters of the law. For him, this is a radical change not often spoken of but that nonetheless carries important consequences, such as the need to implement safeguards that guarantee the impartiality of judges. Alejandro González Gómez, state court justice of Michoacán, drew attention to the absence of an established procedure that outlines the process of appeals in the new system. He recommended training programs and clearly defining the appeals process under the new system.

Judges from the United States complemented the discussion by sharing their observations and recommendations. Hon. Teresa Sanchez Gordon (Los Angeles Superior Court) shared her experience participating in a successful program implemented by the California Judges Association (CJA) that allowed for judge-to-judge interactions between U.S. judges and their Mexican counterparts. As an advocate of judge-to-judge training, she invited Mexican judges to visit California where judges are willing to take their commitment to the next level. Hon. Runston “Tony” Maino (San Diego Superior Court) pointed to the magnitude of the transformation required under the new system to emphasize that change will take time and that one should not be discouraged. He also mentioned the importance of having more individuals buy into the change in order for the change to become real.

Anti-corruption panel moderated by Alejandro Rios Rippa. Panelists include Peter Ainsworth, Dr. Marco Antonio Fernández, and Benjamin Hill

Anti-corruption panel moderated by Alejandro Rios Rippa. Panelists include Peter Ainsworth, Dr. Marco Antonio Fernández, and Benjamin Hill

The next panel, moderated by Alejandro Rios Rippa, director of Corporate Ethics and Litigations at IEnova, focused on anti-corruption efforts in Mexico. Panel themes included the importance of prosecutorial independence, recent changes in the law, and future hopes to reduce corruption and impunity. Peter Ainsworth, senior anti-corruption counsel of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division emphasized the importance of having the tools, ability, capacity, and most importantly prosecutorial independence in order to fight corruption. In his view, people need to be able to bring cases against their bosses. Dr. Marco Antonio Fernández, associate researcher at México Evalúa, observed that public pressure is pushing the Mexican government to deal with corruption, which has resulted in new legislation. However, much work is required to implement the new laws at the state level. Dr. Fernández drew attention to the great level of impunity in Mexico and noted that unfortunately, “patrimonialism continues to be the name of the game.”

Benjamin Hill, head of the new Specialized Ethics and Conflicts of Interest Prevention Office of the Mexican Federal Government was hopeful about Mexico’s prospects to change. He observed that while the reactions to political scandals have usually been cosmetic in the past, there are signs that this time around is different. In addition to having a working democracy and a stronger civil society aided by social media, he noted that there is now a more robust body of knowledge on corruption from which Mexico can benefit. In terms of conflict of interest, he observed it is a difficult one to discuss in a society where it is often considered a moral obligation to help one’s relatives. Mr. Rios added that sometimes individuals are not aware of what conflict of interest entails and thus it is important to have an ongoing conversation that engages civil society.

Dr. Alfonso Pérez Daza, advisor for the Federal Judiciary (Consejo de la Judicatura Federal) gives his keynote luncheon address.

Dr. Alfonso Pérez Daza, advisor for the Federal Judiciary (Consejo de la Judicatura Federal) gives his keynote luncheon address.

During the luncheon that followed, the audience first heard from William Ostick, U.S. consul general in Tijuana. Mr. Ostick said Mexico’s effort to reform its judicial system required a generational change and reiterated the United States’ willingness to be Mexico’s partner in that process. Mr. Ostick also introduced keynote speaker Dr. Alfonso Pérez Daza, advisor for the Federal Judiciary (Consejo de la Judicatura Federal). He outlined five procedural changes that resulted from the reform: investigation, chain of custody, writing vs. oral, preventive detention, and alternative solutions. Dr. Pérez concluded that Mexico is facing one of the most important changes in its legal history and hopes the reform will improve the criminal justice system by shortening trial times and achieving victims’ restitution. According to Dr. Pérez, “the new criminal system is not a panacea, nor will it bring an end to crime, corruption, and injustice, but I am sure it is a better system than what we have already.”

Professor Miguel Sarre speaks to conference attendees about impunity and the prison system in Mexico.

Professor Miguel Sarre speaks to conference attendees about impunity and the prison system in Mexico.

As an introduction to the last panel “Improving the Administration of Justice,” Miguel Sarre Iguíniz, professor at the Instituto Tecnológico de México, gave a brief commentary on impunity, human rights, and the prison system in Mexico. To illustrate the prevalence of impunity in Mexico, he observed that only 0.49% of criminal cases are actually reported to and investigated by authorities. Moreover, he noted the number of crimes propitiated by the government in Mexico City alone is higher than the number of crimes handled by the justice system at the national level. According to Professor Sarre, 40,000 detainees in Mexico City are forced to pay a quota three times a day in order to avoid abuses. Subsequently, there are 120,000 daily extortion cases that result from the system itself. Mr. Sarre emphasized the importance of taking into account human rights in the prison system.

Octavio Rodríguez, Justice in Mexico program coordinator, moderated the last panel in which capacity building and training, U.S.-Mexico partnership, and institutional independence were recurring themes. Ray Allan Gattinella, senior legal advisor for the Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development of the Department of Justice observed that capacity building and training along with the professionalization of the police are the most important tasks to improve the administration of justice. Mr. Gattinella also noted the lack of institutional stability and an accreditation system for Mexican law schools may hinder progress.

Octavio Rodríguez moderates panel on improving the administration of justice in Mexico. Panelists include Ray Allen Gattinella, Judge Luciano Angulo, and Robert Ciaffa.

Octavio Rodríguez moderates panel on improving the administration of justice in Mexico. Panelists include Ray Allen Gattinella, Judge Luciano Angulo, and Robert Ciaffa.

Luciano Angulo Espinoza, judge in the state of Baja California, observed the importance of receiving ongoing training. He described his personal experience of having training discontinued at a moment were it was very much needed. Judge Angulo reflected on the importance of having an independent judiciary as well as job security in order to improve the administration of justice. He mentioned that Baja California judges are ratified every five years, which hurts judges’ independence. Robert Ciaffa, federal prosecutor pointed out that Mexico will not be the only beneficiary of the efforts made to improve the administration of justice. He observed that currently there are many barriers, including lack of trust, that prevent U.S. prosecutors from collaborating with their Mexican counterparts. He observed that while Mexico and U.S. share common targets, many times this results in competition instead of collaboration. In Mr. Ciaffa’s words, “we strive for the day when we can recognize each other’s orders.”

Dr. David Shirk gives closing remarks to conference.

Dr. David Shirk gives closing remarks to conference.

To conclude, Dr. Shirk offered his reflections regarding the outcomes of the conference. The conference will inform an upcoming Justice in Mexico report on judicial reforms and serve as a step towards further collaboration with UNAM, where Justice in Mexico will cohost a similar event September 8-9 to continue the conversation. Dr. Shirk also announced the creation of an anti-corruption course within the USD Master of Arts in International Relations and the School of Law that will hopefully attract both USD students and members of the legal community. The final and perhaps most important deliverable is the knowledge, hope, and optimism that all attendees take with them following the conference. According to Dr. Shirk, “all of us should look at this new system as an opportunity to improve the rule of law and the administration of justice in Mexico. All of us are part and responsible for helping achieve better results moving forward.”

Gang violence, overcrowding, corruption underpin deadly Topo Chico prison riot

Topo Chico prison

Families and friends of inmates in Topo Chico waited anxiously to hear updates on their loved ones following the February 11 riot. Photo: Daniel Becerril, Reuters.

03/06/16 (written by kheinle) – A prison riot last month in Monterrey left 49 prisoners dead and more than a dozen others hurt, five of whom suffered serious injuries. The fight broke out in the Topo Chico prison in Monterrey, Nuevo León on Thursday, February 11. It took a combined effort between the Mexican Army (Ejército), Navy (Secretaría de Marina, SEMAR), and Federal Police (Policía Federal, PF) to get the brawl under control, which lasted more than an hour. The brawl allegedly began between prisoners from rival factions of the Zetas criminal organization vying for control of the prison, some with allegiance to Los Zetas’ leader Jorge Iván Hernández Cantú, “El Credo,” and others to leader Juan Pedro Saldivar Farías, “El Z-27.” Reports indicated that prisoners carried knives, razors, bats, clubs, and other homemade weapons; they also set fire to part of the prison.

The deadly riot was the worst such incident in the last three decades in Mexico, and the latest in several smaller uprisings just in Nuevo León alone in recent years. In September 2015, a leader of Los Zetas was stabbed to death in the Topo Chico prison where he was serving time; 11 other inmates were also injured in the fight. Several years prior, 44 prisoners were killed in a fight that broke out in the Nuevo León prison of Apodaca in 2012 between inmates from rival cartels, Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo, CDG). In 2011, 11 more inmates were killed in Apodaca, although that incident was allegedly not related to organized crime violence, and another 11 prisoners were killed in the Cadereyta prison in Nuevo León that same year. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH), 82% of the 1,737 violent incidences that occurred in prisons throughout Mexico in 2014 were due to infighting among inmates.

At the time of the February 11 fight, Topo Chico was 35% overpopulated, with nearly 3,800 inmates incarcerated. Prison overcrowding is a serious issue in Mexico, which fuels the environment for riots and deadly brawls like the Topo Chico fight. A report published by the Center for Studies on Impunity and Justice at the University of the Americas in Puebla, the “Global Impunity Index (IGI),” found that state prisons in Mexico are overcrowded by 30%, while the world average is 17%. Prisons are thus understaffed to accommodate the number of inmates. As translated by Mexico Voices, the IGI reports, “the ratio of prison staff responsible for caring for inmates in state rehabilitation centers [in Mexico] is only 20 guards per 100 prisoners. The average for [all] IGI countries is 47 per 100.” Mexico therefore has almost double the amount of prison overcrowding compared to all other IGI countries studied while have less than half the number of prison staff to safely and effectively manage the prisons.

Topo Chico prison

Prisoners set fire to one of the buildings in Topo Chico prison during the brawl. Photo: EPA.

In addition to prison rioting and overcrowding, staggering levels of impunity and corruption further undermine Mexico’s penitentiary system. The National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, INEGI) ranks Mexico 58th of 59 countries studied for highest levels of impunity in its 2015 ENVIPE survey (Encuesta Nacional de Victimización y Percepción sobre Seguridad Pública), adding that perpetrators in only 1% of all crimes in Mexico are held accountable. INEGI further argues that impunity is one of the ten most pressing issues Mexican society faces today. Even the perpetrators of crime and violence that are found guilty and serve time are not all held to equal standards, a reflection of the corruption that underpins the prison system with prison wards and administrators often bought out by inmates with deep pockets and/or criminal connections. This was the case in the Topo Chico prison, which was unearthed following the brawl in February when it was discovered that the prison was filled with “luxury cells” for incarcerated organized crime group (OCG) leaders including El Credo and El Z-27, reported BBC News. Such inmate cells allegedly include king-size beds, large TVs, mini-bars, air conditioners, mobile saunas, and more.

Since the deadly brawl in Topo Chico, 233 prisoners have been transferred to other prisons in Mexico to reduce the overcrowding and to allow authorities to investigate the incident. Several administrators and guards have also been released or arrested for abuse of authority or charges of homicide, the latter of which is being pressed on one guard who allegedly killed an inmate during the fight. While such actions are steps towards addressing the specific situation at Topo Chico, the fight between rival incarcerated Los Zetas factions that left 49 inmates dead in a prison 35% overpopulated that ultimately led to the discovery of “luxury cells” is indicative of a much more serious problem facing Mexico with its corrupt penitentiary system operating in a climate of impunity. “We are living through tragedy due to the conditions in the prisons,” lamented Nuevo León Governor Jaime Rodríguez Calderón. The former Nuevo León public security secretary added, “The problem is that the majority of Mexican prisons are out of control. They are run by organized crime and the prisoners themselves.”


“Encuesta Nacional de Victimización y Percepción sobre Seguridad Pública.” Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía. September 2015.

Mexico Institute. “Mexico’s Security Review 2016: Assessing the Outlook for the Rule of Law.” Conference. Woodrow Wilson Center. January 21, 2016.

Centro de Estudios sobre Impunidad y Justicia. “Índice Global de Impunidad México: IGI-MEX 2016.” Universidad de las Américas Puebla. February 2016.

Centro de Estudios sobre Impunidad y Justicia. “Índice Global de Impunidad México: IGI-MEX 2016; Resumen ejecutivo.” Universidad de las Américas Puebla. February 2016.

“Mexico Justice System: 99% Impunity for Crimes.” Translation. Mexico Voices. February 4, 2016.

Malkin, Elisabeth. “At Least 49 Inmates Killed in Mexican Prison Riot.” New York Times. February 11, 2016.

Paullier, Juan. “49 muertos en enfrentamiento en la cárcel de Topo Chico en México.” BBC News. February 11, 2016.

“Mexico dismantles ‘luxury cells’ in Topo Chico riot jail.” BBC News. February 15, 2016.

“No solo en Topo Chico…también en Apodaca hay lujo y droga.” CNN Expansión. February 18, 2016.