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.

New Regional Criminal Justice Center opens in Nayarit

Front of new regional justice center

The Bahía de Banderas Regional Criminal Justice Center opened on January 15, 2019. Source: Noticias de la Bahía.

01/27/19 (written by kheinle) — The Bahía de Banderas Regional Criminal Justice Center (El Centro Regional de Justicia Penal) officially opened on January 15, 2019. It includes two oral trial courtrooms; areas for conflict and alternative dispute resolution; designated space for protected witnesses; and offices and amenities for judicial system operators, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to work. The two oral courtrooms add to Nayarit’s 12 other such spaces throughout the state. The Center cost $25 million pesos (~$1.3 million USD) to construct.

High-ranking state and judicial officials attended the grand opening. Nayarit’s Governor, Antonio Echevarría García, spoke to the role the Regional Center and other state and national institutions play in combatting corruption and impunity. President of the Nayarit Superior Court Ismael González Parra added that the Justice Center consolidates and streamlines the oral penal system in Nayarit. “…We are complying with commitments under Plan Mérida, an international security treaty established by the United States and Mexico to strengthen our institutions that procure and administer justice,” he said. The new center also complies with a state reform passed in September 2018, writes Periódico Express de Nayarit, that integrates representatives from the state’s executive and legislative branches in the Judicial Council (Consejo de la Judicatura). Ultimately, the center supports the advances made nationwide under Mexico’s New Criminal Justice System (Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, NJSP).

Nayarit’s Justice Centers and the NSJP

unveiling at criminal justice center

President of the Nayarit Superior Court Ismael González Parra (middle) and Governor of Nayarit Antonio Echevarría García (right) unveil the new Bahía de Banderas Regional Criminal Justice Center. Source: Periódico Express de Nayarit.

The Bahía de Banderas Regional Criminal Justice Center is one of several Justice Centers now in operation in Nayarit, according to the Mexico’s Consejo de la Judicatura Federal. The state’s first Regional Criminal Justice Center (El Centro de Justicia Penal Federal) was opened in February 2016. Located in Nayarit’s capital, Tepic, it cost almost $59.5 million pesos (~$3.1 million USD) to build. Another center, El Centro de Justicia Penal Federal en el Archipiélago de las Islas Marías, opened in October 2017. There are other centers, too, that focus on other areas of law, like Nayarit’s Justice Center for Women (El Centro de Justicia para la Mujer), which opened the same day as the Bahía de Banderas Regional Criminal Justice Center. These centers replicate others throughout Mexico in terms of function, capacity, and technological advances to procure and administer justice.

Justice Centers play a critical role in Nayarit’s and Mexico’s decade-long judicial reform efforts. During the New Criminal Justice System’s eight-year implementation period (2008-2016), Nayarit was considered a post-reform adopter. In a 2015 special report, “Criminal Procedure Reform in Mexico, 2008-2016,” Justice in Mexico found that state level implementation efforts of the NSJP were fairly limited up until 2013. It noted that many states at that time were still behind in the process of meeting the June 2016 deadline to fully comply with the 2008 constitutional reforms. Nayarit’s State Congress then approved and launched oral adversarial trial reform in 2014, and the state has continued to make progress over the years towards executing the NSJP. Opening Justice Centers in 2016, 2017, and 2019 exemplify such efforts.

Sources:

Secretaría de Gobernación. “En Nayarit inicia el Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal.” Government of Mexico. March 23, 2014.

Rodríguez Ferreira, Octavio and David A. Shirk. “Criminal Procedure Reform in Mexico, 2008-2016.” Justice in Mexico. October 8, 2015.

Vargas, Gustavo. “Se instala Centro Regional de Justicia Penal en Tepic.” Nayarit en Linea. February 25, 2016.

“Inaugura CJF centro de justiciar integral en el archipiélago de las Islas Marías.” El Sol de Nayarit. October 20, 2017.

Casillas Barajas, Julio. “Inaugurán centro regional de justicia penal.” Periódico Express de Nayarit. January 14, 2019.

“Antonio Echeverría inaugura el Centro de Justicia para la Mujer y el Centro Regional de Justicia Penal de Bahía de Banderas.” Noticias de la Bahía. January 15, 2019.

“Inauguran Gobernador y autoridads judiciales el Centro Regional de Justicia Penal de Bahía de Banderas.” Periódico Express de Nayarit. January 16, 2019.

Website. “Reportes: Directorio.” Consejo de la Judicatura Federal. Last accessed January 26, 2019.

Informe ejecutivo sobre avances en la implementación del Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal. México: Consejo de la Judicatura Federal, August 2015.

Responses to the Critics of the Judicial Reform in Mexico

05/21/18 (written by Lucy La Rosa)- Amid unprecedented levels of violence, the criminal justice reforms in Mexico are facing renewed criticism from political opponents. The oral adversarial system, fully implemented across the nation by 2016, remodeled the country’s trial system in an effort to reduce corruption, protect the rights of the accused and overall, strengthen the capacity of rule of law in Mexico.  However, as of late, opponents have re-articulated their disapproval, accusing the adversarial system as the cause and culprit of rising violence levels.

Miguel Angel Mancera, critic of the oral adversarial system. Source: Saúl Ruiz

Miguel Angel Mancera, critic of the oral adversarial system. Source: Saúl Ruiz

Said criticisms echo statements such as those by Miguel Angel Mancera, the former Mayor of Mexico City and current Senate candidate, who remarked last year: “There is an increase [in violence] that coincides with the large number of people who used to be imprisoned, this is a factor that has to be analyzed (El País).” According to Octavio Rodriguez Ferreira and David Shirk from the University of San Diego, even the sitting Mexican administration has principally set aside their support of the reform, which was originally one of the touted accomplishments of the incumbent President Enrique Peña Nieto. The Technical Secretariat for Judicial Reform Implementation, which provided institutional support for the reform, was abandoned only one year after the implementation of the reform and since, many political representatives have lobbied for the old, mixed-inquisitorial system that fostered the widespread use of pre-trial detention.

However, proponents of the criminal justice system reform, continue to argue that these reforms are essential to strengthening functional democracy in Mexico and that a reversal of the reforms would merely led to further infringement on the rights of the accused. The reformed system intends to promote a greater standard of accountability for judicial system operators in their investigations and prosecutions and emphasized a strong legal defense for the accused. Moreover, as Rodriguez Ferreira and Shirk point out, it is illogical to assume that the criminal justice system can entirely resolve issues of crime and violence, which are caused by “underlying social and economic conditions” which are not necessarily remediated by judicial structure.

In an article published last year by Animal Politico- an independent and pioneering Mexican news source largely focused on increasing transparency and access to reliable information- remains relevant today. The article, “The Accusatorial System and Violence: What the Data Says,” offers a detailed, data-focused response to naysayers and reiterates the need for the oral, adversarial model. Using data and information from the Executive Secretary of National System of Public Security (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP), the authors argue that opponents’ assertions are based on skewed and inaccurate data manipulations.

The article first points to the fact that the escalation in violence precedes the implementation of the reform. As a matter of fact, the uptick in violence began in late 2014, almost two years before the full effects of the criminal justice transition. The authors also emphasize that the majority of the rise in violence has been concentrated in a select number of states, specifically states that had already experienced high levels on violence during the Calderon administration’s war on drugs. Yet, not all states who previously recorded high homicide rates are re-experienced growing violence. Hence, a blanket accusation incriminating the criminal justice reform cannot reliably account for varying levels of violence across Mexican states. Finally, the article concludes by illustrating that there is no verifiable indication that petty criminals released on their own recognizance go on to commit violent crimes and contribute to increased homicide levels.

 

A Lack of Capacity

Mexican Supreme Court of Justice. Source: Open Society

Mexican Supreme Court of Justice. Source: Open Society

Regardless of the lack of empirical evidence, opponents continue to decry the criminal justice shift that strengthened the standard of innocence until proven guilty, which under the old system had been negligible at best. These political adversaries particularly highlight the number of criminals released or at liberty due to a lack of sufficient evidence, arguing that these individuals contribute to rising levels of violent crime. This argument, however, is a tipping point for advocates of the criminal justice system who caution against hasty conclusions.

“The [adversarial] system is not the problem; the problem is in the lack of capacity among institutions,” responded Karen Silva from the Center of Investigation for Development (Centro de Investigación para el Desarrollo, CIDAC), one of the leading institutions in assessing the performance of the new judicial system (El País). She continued, emphasizing the irrationality of opponents’ logic, which does not take into account that the majority of those released from prison populations were detained for petty, non-violent crimes. Rather, she argues, that the rise in violence can be attributed to a lack of knowledge and skill among criminal justice operators, including police, prosecutors, public defenders and judges, that perpetuates high levels of impunity. In turn, impunity reinforces a precedent that violent crimes are wont to go unpunished and uninvestigated and deteriorates citizens’ faith in the judicial sector.

Viridiana Rios, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson’s Mexico Institute, expands on the low institutional capacity of judicial operators and institutions, especially in the face of a progressively fragmented organized crime network. As organized crime groups fragmented and scattered geographically following the militarized “king-pin” strategy, judicial and police institutions failed to adjust correspondingly. Rios further argues that military units should stand down from providing security that should be done at a local police level because their presence only further limits police capacity and resources. Instead, she advocates more localized policing that can better address small-time, street-level drug trafficking and measures to install greater accountability among judicial institutions. In sum, she concludes, “What Mexico needs is a local and targeted strategy to fight crime that is more fractured (Wilson Center).”

Regardless of the lack of causality between judicial reform and rising violence in Mexico, the country is experiencing a lack of capacity among judicial institutions. Justice in Mexico’s research initiative, Justiciabarómetro, was established to identify areas for improvement within the justice system by evaluating the professional development of judicial actors, and their perceptions on the functioning of the judicial system. The most recent 2016 survey results, which covered 11 Mexican states, identified several persisting challenges within the judicial system including: a lack of training in oral litigation and a persisting belief that authorities can operate above the law in the pursuit of punishing alleged criminals. However, the survey also revealed some positive changes in comparison to the first Justiciabarómetro report in 2010. For example, about 80% of the survey participants believe that the judicial reform will reduce corruption and about 95% prefer oral, adversarial trial procedures to the mixed-inquisitorial system.

The overall intention of the Justiciabarómetro project is to provide baseline measures for the evaluation of the Mexican judicial system and a jumping-off point for Mexican policymakers in their capacity-building efforts. A visual factsheet of the 2016 Justiciabarómetro study can be found here.

Rather than regressing backwards to an old judicial system that often undermined the rights of the accused, Mexico should focus on strategic capacity building among judicial operators, including police, prosecutors, public defenders, and judges. Without institutional support and trainings, judicial operators do not have the tools or knowledge to fully protect rule of law in Mexico.

 

Sources

Cortes, Nancy G., Octavio Rodriguez Ferreira and David A. Shirk. “2016 Justiciabarómetro-Perspectives on Mexico’s Criminal Justice System: What Do Its Operators Think?.” Justice in Mexico. April 2017. https://justiceinmexico.org/justicebarometer-2016/

Gallegos, Zorayda. “Las autoridades mexicanas, incapaces de adaptarse al Nuevo Sistema de justicia.” El País. April 11, 2017. https://elpais.com/internacional/2017/04/07/mexico/1491521857_742926.html

Becerril, Andrea. “Un descaro, culpar del aumento de la violencia al Sistema penal acusatorio.” La Jornada. July 8, 2017. http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2017/07/08/politica/009n2pol

Merino, José and Carolina Torreblanca. “Sistema acusatorio y violencia: lo que dicen los datos.” Animal Politico. July 12, 2017. https://www.animalpolitico.com/blogueros-salir-de-dudas/2017/07/12/sistema-acusatorio-y-violencia-lo-que-dicen-los-datos/

Rodriguez, Octavio and David Shirk. “Mexico’s badly needed justice reforms are in peril.” The San Diego Union Tribune. August 11, 2017. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/sd-mexico-justice-utak-commentary-20170811-story.html

Rios, Viridiana. “New Crime, Old Solutions: The Reason Why Mexico is Violent Again.” The Wilson Center. February 4, 2018. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/new-crime-old-solutions-the-reason-why-mexico-violent-again

“Sistema Penal acusatorio aumentó la violencia en México: Especialista.” Letra Roja. March 8, 2018. http://www.letraroja.com/sistema-penal-acusatorio-causa-aumento-la-violencia-en-mexico-especialista/

“Inadmisible, Nivel de violencia en México: SEGOB.” El Manaña, por Agencia Reforma. April 27, 2018. https://www.elmanana.com/inadmisible-nivel-violencia-mexico-segob-violencia-mexico-segob/4390571

 

 

 

 

 

Second OASIS workshop of 2018 is completed at UANL

03/09/18 (written by Genesis Lopez) – Justice in Mexico’s Oral Adversarial Skill Building Immersion Seminar (OASIS) program held its second oral advocacy workshop of 2018 from February 23- March 3, 2018, working collaboratively with the Department of Law and Criminology (Facultad de Derecho y Criminología, FACDYC) at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León (Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, UANL) in Monterrey. The OASIS program, funded through the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, emphasizes oral litigation skills, which are provided through these workshops.

The extensive two-week workshop provided critical instruction regarding the oral techniques central to Mexico’s Criminal Justice System. Approximately 85 participants, law professors and students from UANL, attended the workshop. OASIS Training Director Janice Deaton led a diverse team of instructors from Colombia, Mexico, and the United States. These instructors included: Christopher Pastrana, Bertha Alcalde, Anthony Da Silva, Jorge Gutiérrez, Michael Mandig, Albert Amado, Adriana Blanco, Carlos Varela and Iker Ibarreche.

The instructors addressed seven major topics:

Theory of the case: The strategy behind the decisions and actions a lawyer takes. This assists the participants in making strategic decisions, which help solve a case.

Opening Statements: Understanding the importance opening statements have in regards to the trial, specifically the jury. Participants learned how to prepare and present an effective opening statement.

Interrogation: Establishing the credibility of the witnesses, laying out the scene, and introducing the events that took place in relationship to the case.

Cross-Interrogation: Questioning of a witness where the opposing party looks to discredit their testimony and credibility.

Introducing Evidence: Determining whether or not the evidence one wishes to present is real, testimonial, demonstrative, or documental.

Use of Depositions: Understanding how to utilize previous statements, especially to refresh a witness’s memory during trial.

Closing Statements: Reiterating the important arguments, theories, and evidence that are relevant to the case. Participants learned how to structure their closing arguments and strengthen their communication skills.

At the conclusion of the workshop, the participants attended a plenary session on ethics and applied the skills they learned in a mock trial. The simulation was designed specifically for the OASIS program and gave the participants the opportunity to showcase what they earned over the course of two weeks. They adopted specific roles and the instructors acted as judges, overseeing the trial and providing feedback.

At the closing ceremony, the FACDYC Director, Oscar Lugo Serrato spoke with Justice in Mexico’s Program Coordinator, Octavio Rodriguez and discussed the importance of practical trainings like the OASIS workshop. They also discussed the significance of bi-national relationships between universities. The next OASIS workshop will take place at the (Universidad de Guadalajara, UdeG), ­­­from April 13 –April 21, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Justice in Mexico presents findings from 2017 Justiciabarómetro report to a Mexican delegation

11/22/17- On Thursday, November 16, 2017 the Justice in Mexico program welcomed a delegation of Mexican law professors and experts sponsored by the U.S. State Department and hosted by the San Diego Diplomacy Council and offered a presentation of the results of the 2016 Justiciabarómetro survey of Mexican judges, prosecutors, and public defenders.

The State Department-sponsored visit was organized by the San Diego Diplomacy Council through the Global Ties network. The delegation comprised a group of twenty law professors, judges, researchers, and administrators from several institutions located in ten different states throughout the country, including law schools and graduate degree programs.

On behalf of the Justice in Mexico program, David Shirk and Octavio Rodriguez presented a  PowerPoint presentation of the results of the 2016 Justiciabarómetro survey of Mexican judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. A full list of the members of the delegation is provided below.

The Justiciabarómeter is an innovative diagnostic tool for analyzing the criminal justice sector through the eyes of the professionals who serve in key positions within the system, including judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and police.

Members of the delegation were especially interested in the research methodology and raised several questions about the findings, which generally noted the increased support among judicial sector professionals for the country’s transition to a new oral, adversarial model of criminal procedure in 2016.

Universidad Autonomá de Baja California (UABC) delegate Jorge Díaz Zazueta, who collaborated with Justice in Mexico for the implementation of the survey, noted that the Justiciabarómetro provides invaluable policy insights on the Mexican criminal justice system. Specifically, he noted, the survey results were useful in identifying areas of need for further training of judicial sector personnel in the state of Baja California.

The delegates also made several suggestions for future iterations of the survey, including the possibility of partnering with their home institutions to replicate the survey with other criminal justice sector operators in 2020. Overall, the visit provided an important opportunity to share the results of the study and allow a fruitful exchange of ideas among experts working to improve Mexico’s criminal justice system.