A courthouse in Mexico, where drastic changes have been implemented. A courthouse in Mexico, where drastic changes have been implemented.

New justice system in turmoil, report says

It's going badly, says Supreme Court judge, who describes the situation as a crisis

Mexico’s new criminal justice system is in turmoil, according to a report yesterday by the Washington Post.

The new accusatory system, which replaced a Napoleonic system based on written arguments with trials in which evidence was presented orally, came into effect in June last year.

The process has been supported by the United States, which since 2008 has contributed more than US $300 million to support the transition to the new system. The money went into outfitting courthouses with modern forensic equipment and training security and legal personnel.

The Post described the implementation of the system as “the most profound overhaul of [Mexico’s] legal structure in a century.”

But despite its ambitious intent and large investment, the system has failed to achieve the goal of restoring order in a country plagued by violent crime.

This year has been the most violent in Mexico in at least the last two decades. It is also the first full year that the accusatory system has been in place.

But “the reform is going badly,” Supreme Court judge Ramón Cossío told the Post.

“There are many small problems that, taken together, are causing what I believe to be an important crisis,” he added.

Those problems play out at different levels of the system.

It expects ineffective, often poorly-trained police to be professional investigators, it gives more independence to judges and provides more rights to those accused of crimes in a country where powerful defendants have already been known to buy their freedom.

In turn, police — who in some cases lack basic literacy skills — complain that they waste time filling out laborious forms while prosecutors blame judges for releasing criminals and judges accuse police of botching crime scenes.

Furthermore, the former head of the organization charged with implementing the changes said that the federal and state governments didn’t invest the money required to make the system work properly and that some states only started preparing for the shift a few months before the system went into effect.

“We have poorly trained, unprofessional police, poorly paid prosecutors accustomed to the old ways [and] judges that were very comfortable before because you never saw them,” Héctor Díaz Santana said.

“They created a very demanding system when we practically don’t have the tools,” he added.

Meanwhile, criminal organizations are taking advantage of the flaws in the system and in some cases further entrenching their stranglehold on some regions by making death threats or paying bribes to security authorities.

Courthouses might have high-tech cameras and fingerprint sensors — such as the one in Ocotlán, Jalisco — and investigators might be using latex gloves but the new procedures demanded by the system have done little to change old institutions that have long been plagued by corruption, the Post said.

Some politicians have blamed the new system for the surge in violent crime because greater discretionary powers afforded to judges have resulted in many suspects being released from preventative custody as they await trial.

The prison population has consequently dropped to about 202,700, down from 235,900 when the new system went into effect.

In addition, judges have increased power to throw out a case if they believe that a suspect’s rights have been violated.

Guadalajara’s police chief told the Post that only 10 to 15 of those arrested in the city each month go to jail whereas under the old system it was more than 100.

“The judges are a disaster,” Salvador Caro Cabrera said, adding that the force he leads has had “a period of great confusion” because most officers haven’t received training in the new protocols required.

Many judges are wary of the new system because they face much more public scrutiny than before. Making trials and their rulings public makes them more vulnerable to retaliation for the decisions they make.

“It’s much more dangerous. You are in front of the criminals,” said Rubio Gutiérrez, a judge who supports the system and has educated lawyers about it. “We don’t have protection, guns, nothing,” he added.

To improve the system at its base, however, it is clear that police forces need to be better trained.

But deficiencies will be difficult to overcome and critics of the Internal Security Law say that it will discourage the professionalization of police because the military will have more powers to fight crime.

Just one example of the scale of the challenges faced is evident in the rural municipality of Ocotlán, Jalisco.

The police chief has only five officers — paid US $400 a month — to patrol a municipality with a population of 25,000 people where 20 bodies were recovered by police in the Lerma River last year.

“We are weak,” Fidel Moreno Robledo told the Post, adding that the new system has made them weaker.

Moreno also said that even the “smallest error” in paperwork can result in a “criminal, a kidnapper [or] a killer” being set free.

While some politicians have called for a return to the old system, many judicial officials say that a regression would be disastrous. They argue that eventually the system will encourage more thorough criminal investigations and make the Mexican legal system more transparent and effective.

However, when those benefits will come remains unclear because a year and a half after it came into force, the new system’s teething problems and growing pains look likely to endure for some time yet.

Source: The Washington Post (en)

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