Mexican Judicial Reform: Example of the Need for a Closer Look

By Todd A. Eisenstadt

Foro: el Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal, a un Año de su Implementación en Baja California, con la ponencia: “Hacia una Justicia más Transparente” /Photo credit: Gobierno de Baja California  / Flickr / CC

Foro: el Nuevo Sistema de Justicia Penal en Baja California / Photo credit: Gobierno de Baja California / Flickr / CC

Mexico’s judicial reforms have proceeded at an uneven pace in each of the country’s 32 states since they were approved as a constitutional amendment in 2008.  The new and spacious “tower of justice” in Baja California shimmers in the desert sun, an outward sign of the $100 million-plus program that is the centerpiece of the state’s “law and order” administration.  However, halfway across Mexico, in the state of Puebla, litigators, police, and judges – untrained in the new judicial system they are implementing – watch their first important case, a manslaughter conviction, give way to a plea bargain after a series of errors.  Morelos, Oaxaca and other states do not have inter-connected computer systems for prosecutors and defenders, and Nayarit has not even passed a state-level criminal justice code to bring that state up to compliance with the 2008 reforms.  And Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juárez in 2011 held the distinction of being the most violent city in the world, a punitive “counter-reform” reducing the rights of the accused has set back that state’s reform efforts.

Progress on the reforms has been stymied by lack of a litigation tradition, a failure in interagency cooperation, a shortage of technology and resources, a lack of political will, and a lack of public support.  Mexico’s drug-related violence has put it at the center of hemispheric debate on judicial reform, but even heralded reforms of the 1990s, such as in Argentina, Bolivia, Panama, and Peru, have been unevenly implemented.  Chile’s reforms, widely seen as successful, were made possible by overcoming inertias, including judicial resistance to the creation of an adversarial relationship between defense and prosecution that moved judges into an institutionalized neutral position.  Legal scholar Mauricio Duce also argues that the retooling of Chile’s Ministerio Público – an autonomous body that functions as a fiscalía or justice ministry – was crucial because the institution became the “engine” of the reforms.

Each country brings its own history, culture and institutional strengths and weaknesses to the challenge of judicial reform. With the results of the first generation of reforms so mixed, a rigorous review of  what has worked – and not – in Latin America, Africa, or Eurasia and elsewhere can help overcome these dramatic shortcomings in the implementation of  reforms. The political commitment to reform is important, but understanding the political contexts and legal/administrative components in each case is also essential for improving the rule of law and accountability, deterring violent crimes, improving human rights recognition, economic development, and establishing security and law and order. When academics, program managers, and political leaders understand why a country like Mexico can have such vastly varying results from the same reforms, they can all take a giant step toward achieving more lasting and positive change.

Todd A. Eisenstadt is a professor of government at American University.

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