Advancing Justice Sector Reform in Mexico – An Expert Take

By: Eric Olson, Associate Director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center

Co-authored by: Georgia R. Baker, Outreach & Communications Intern at the Mexico Institute


On June 26, the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute hosted a discussion about the current status and future prospects of Mexico’s justice sector reform. Since 2008, Mexico has been implementing a series of reforms that will transform the nation’s criminal justice system to make it more transparent and accountable, thereby improving the nation’s administration of justice and public security. Here are key aspects of that reform:

  • Introduction of oral trials using adversarial procedures, the creation of alternative sentencing options, and alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms;
  • Greater emphasis on the rights of the accused (i.e., the presumption of innocence, greater due process guarantees including adequate legal defense);
  • Modifications to police agencies and their role in criminal investigations;
  • Tougher measures for combating organized crime.

According to Wilson Center Global Fellow and panelist David Shirk, central to Mexico’s reforms, “is a package of ambitious legislative changes and constitutional amendments…that are to be implemented throughout the country by 2016. Together, these reforms touch virtually all aspects of the judicial sector, including police, prosecutors, public defenders, the courts, and the penitentiary system.”

With the deadline for implementation just around the corner, an update on the reform’s status seems timely.  As the map below shows, twelve of Mexico’s 31 states and the Federal District have adopted the new judicial system.  Of the remaining states, 14 have reformed their constitutions and adopted the new criminal procedures but have not yet fully implemented the reforms.  Only 6 states have yet to begin the reform process.  Mexico is also in the process of adopting a unified criminal code that all state and federal courts will have to follow. Overall, it’s been an ambitious and complex process of reformation that is still unfolding.

States that have implemented justice reform: • Baja California • Chiapas • Chihuahua • Durango • Guanajuato • México • Morelos • Nuevo León • Oaxaca • Tabasco • Yucatán • Zacatecas

In his presentation, David Shirk argued that while the introduction of oral trails in Mexico’s justice system are important, in his view, the most transformative aspect is the shift from an “inquisitorial” model of justice – where trails and judgements are made based on the written record – to an adversarial system of justice – where defense attorneys and prosecutors argue their cases before a judge in open court.  This system, for the first time, also allows for alternative sentencing mechanisms, such as a juicio abreviado, or plea-bargaining. The panel was hopeful that these alternatives would reduce the number of cases heard in court, and thereby reduce court congestion and back-log.

State ranking of conditions for the implementation of criminal justice reform. (Source: Proyecto Justicia)
State ranking of conditions for the implementation of criminal justice reform. (Source: Proyecto Justicia)

A second key factor in the reform’s success is the transformation of law school curriculum to train new and future officers of the courts, as well as retrain those already in practice. According to David Shirk, a great deal of money and time still needs to be invested in training, as well as professional oversight of many of the current and future officers of the court that will be involved in putting the reforms into practice:”We have not properly prepared the other actors that operate in the new criminal justice system.” Ultimately, the success of the reforms will depend on revising the educational requirements and vetting procedures for applicants to practice law under the new system. Moreover, since federal, state, and local law enforcement officers have been delegated more responsibility within the reformed system, such as responsibility for the protection of the crime scene, the vetting procedures in each branch of government will also need to be reevaluated to incorporate higher standards of transparency and accountability.

To date, one important element of that retraining has been exchanges between law schools and legal experts from other countries (including the U.S.) with experience in the adversarial justice system. Still, according to David Shirk:

“Efforts to promote professionalism among lawyers are needed, as they will be primarily responsible for ‘quality control’ in the Mexican criminal justice system. Although Mexico has recently adopted a new code of ethics, Mexican lawyers are not presently required to receive post-graduate studies, take a bar exam, maintain good standing in a professional bar association, or seek continuing education in order to practice law. All of these are elements of legal professionalism that developed gradually and in a somewhat ad hoc manner in the United States, and mostly in the post-war era.”

Finally, according to another panelist, Leoba Castañeda, the Dean of the Law School at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, in order to ensure that the reforms are being implemented there should be a transparent evaluation done within five years of the 2016 deadline: “We have to change the way we administer justice now, but what is equally important is that in four or five years, an evaluation done.With time running out on the 2016 deadline, it will be up to the new generation of lawyers in Mexico to ensure that these reforms are taken seriously and implemented properly in the future.Judicial Reform MPI For Eric

Carstens Won’t Rule Out Keeping Mexico Rates Low After Fed Move

4/19/2015 Bloomberg Business

Mexican central bank Governor Agustin Carstens doesn’t rule out keeping interest rates at a record low even after the Federal Reserve begins to tighten, given slow growth and inflation in Latin America’s second-largest economy.

He also said the country will benefit from faster growth in the U.S., and that the peso is undervalued as investors focus on the outlook for higher U.S. rates rather than Mexico’s economic potential.

“All options are open” for monetary policy, Carstens said Sunday in an interview in Washington after the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

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NAFTA, Free Trade and Mexico’s Drug War

InSightLogo_main_24bit4/7/2015 InSight Crime

Without providing the slightest evidence, the habitual enemies of free trade have launched a new campaign of lies, insisting that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and “neoliberal” policies in general — which according to them the United States forced Mexico to adopt — are the causes of drug violence.

I read an excerpt from Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s soon-to-be published book “A Narco History: How the United States andMexico created the ‘Mexican war against drugs.'” The book’s thesis is that NAFTA opened the US’s door to drugs from Mexico, mixing them with legal trade, which is false.

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The top story in Mexico is about a feisty journalist who exposed the first lady’s secret mansion, and lost her job

04/08/15 Washington Post

carmen-aristeguiIt’s been nearly a month since Carmen Aristegui, Mexico’s most famous journalist, was fired from her radio program after investigating the first lady’s real estate, but her prominent colleagues have not stopped rallying to her cause. On Wednesday, a group of journalists and academics argued that her firing amounted to violating the rights of the Mexican audience’s access to information, and said they are starting a legal process to try to get her reinstated to her popular morning program.

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New: The Mexico Institute’s 2015 Elections Guide

2015Elections_LargeOn June 7th 2015, Mexicans will take to the polls to elect a new cohort of federal deputies. This new generation of politicians will be the first deputies who are eligible for re-election since the Porfiriato system broke apart with the Mexican revolution.   In 2018, federal legislators will be allowed to stand for re-election for up to a total of 12 years, providing a unique opportunity to build caucuses within the congress and hopefully develop a more professional legislative support staff.

In addition to the 500 federal deputies, Mexico will elect 17 state-level legislatures, 9 governors, and more than 300 mayors. This year´s election is also, of course, a litmus test of public opinion regarding the PRI government of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Much has been made of the President´s low public approval rating, but his party remains the most popular in the eyes of the Mexican electorate, with around 32% in a recent poll. If one adds in the support for the PRI´s coalition partner Green Party, that figure quickly approaches 40%, potentially sufficient to give the governing coalition another majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

The Wilson Center´s Mexico Institute is marking this historic election by launching a new web resource that brings the latest polling numbers, analysis and opinion to our readers. The Mexico Institute’s 2015 Elections Guide will be updated daily and will provide a one-stop shop for English language information on the vote.

We hope you enjoy the new resource, and please send us your comments and suggestions so that we can improve the service.

Duncan Wood

Visit the Mexico Institute’s 2015 Elections Guide

Mexican Auto Industry Accelerates in Early 2015

02/09/15 Wall Street Journal

iStock_000008876270MediumMexico’s auto industry, which powered a large part of the country’s manufacturing gains last year, got off to a strong start in 2015 by producing 6.8% more cars and light trucks in January than in the same month a year ago, the auto industry association AMIA said Monday.

The increase in output to 266,424 units was supported by a 15% rise in exports to 204,907 units, and a 21% jump in domestic new car sales to 103,697 units.

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What Will Obama & EPN Discuss?


By Andrew Selee

mexico-usa-flag-montageOn January 6, Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto and Barack Obama will meet at the White House in Washington to go over several points on the bilateral agenda.  It’s the third visit that Pena Nieto makes to the United States, but his first to Washington, and it follows on two visits that Obama has made to Mexico for presidential discussions.

Both Presidents are facing difficult moments in their domestic agendas.  Pena Nieto for reasons that are well-known, and Obama because he faces the inauguration of a Republican Congress on the same day.  Yet there are at least four issues on the agenda between the Presidents that are critical for both countries.

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