It is the most profound legal transformation that Mexico has undergone in a century, according to Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, and one that has involved a broad spectrum of people and organizations, as well as Mexico’s northern neighbor, the United States.
The reform of the justice system began back in 2008 with constitutional reforms and will finish next year, according to the plan, with a new court system operating throughout the land.
The huge overhaul of the penal and court system is getting a boost with US $247 million in funding delivered under the Mérida Initiative, a crime-fighting accord more often connected with buying helicopters than training in law. The U.S. regards the process now under way as a priority.
After reforms to the constitution and the modification of up to 500 local penal codes, the country is on the last, one-year stretch, at the end of which the new accusatory penal system, employing oral trials rather than the submission of written evidence reviewed behind closed doors, will be the law of the land.
Osorio Chong said that bringing about the new system has required an alliance between government and institutes of higher education and bar associations, along with coordination and other efforts by the states.
“Our country is on the brink of achieving efficient and transparent justice that is available to all,” he said.
The secretary observed that for the new system to succeed the country needs more than new laws. “Fundamentally, we must change Mexico’s mindset, as well as current practices of those who are applying the law.”
An oral trial system implies a shorter procedure: trials that took on average 180 days to reach a verdict will now be over in just 34. The use of preventive detention will be drástically reduced, too, because under the new system no one can be jailed without justification. The system will operate on the premise that the accused is innocent until proven otherwise.
“We are about to leave behind bureaucratic procedures that were untrustworthy, slow and plagued with uncertainty. Oral trials, in contrast, are public, transparent and expeditious,” said Osorio Chong.
He also advised that swift and reliable justice reaches beyond political colors and banners, and called on state governments to work together in implementing the new system across the country before the June 2016 deadline. “The law should be applied without delay or excuses.”
The United States’ financial contribution will support the training of police officers and investigators, buying forensic equipment, building infrastructure and providing technology to be applied during trials, while also covering the training of law students, judges, public defenders and every other player involved in the new system.
The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Anthony Wayne, said his government is working closely with Mexican officials to properly equip and prepare them.
Transitioning to a new penal system is no simple feat, but “once in proper operation, the new justice model in Mexico will offer great advantages [such as] more accountability, transparency and efficiency. In consequence, these changes will give Mexicans more confidence in their justice system,” said Wayne.
As of last month, just six states had fully implemented the new system.