Big, Big Changes In Mexican Justice

So hold up on that bank robbery you’re thinking about until the govt can get this all sorted out

A large and very impressive building has sprung up on the corner of Colosio Boulevard and Las Garzas in La Paz. It’s hard to miss. Centro de Justicia Penal, it reads, in big letters on the front of the building. This is La Paz´s first courthouse. It is the result of eight years of efforts by the federal and state governments to bring Mexico´s court system into the modern world employing oral arguments between the state and the defense. Basic stuff from the TV show Law & Order, but all new concepts to Mexico.

Although the building appears to have been built fairly quickly, the court house is part of the judicial reform initiated in 2008 and that aims to change the way the judicial system works throughout the country. For eight years court houses with court rooms have been under construction, and legal workers have been taking lessons in what to do in these new fangled court rooms. A new adversarial system, based on oral trials commonly used in Canada, U.S.A., England, Germany and other countries, will replace México´s system in which legal proceedings—and negotiations— occur in a small room without the presence of the plaintiff or defendant, and where transparency is virtually absent. Lawyers here traditionally write down the merrits of their cases for a judge to read and rule on. The lawyer comes out of the smoke filled room and tells the client if he won or lost.

However, the new system, although similar to the U.S. system will still not use a jury. Just try getting 12 Mexicans to show up for that! It isn’t going to happen unless one grows up with the tradiion of serving and even in those countries it’s often tough getting a jury pulled together. It was decided to not even try it for now, instead the trial will be decided by three judges. The judge or judges will act more as a mediator between two lawyers, rather than just asking questions of both sides.  Judges did not even attend initial hearings in about 70% of the time under the old system.

 Cases that are not considered serious or complex will still not require oral trials, however, and a special emphasis will be placed on achieving conflict resolution through dialogue with opposing parties and mediation.

 This new approach is expected to greatly improve the efficiency of the courts, speed up the judicial process, reduce the time the accused spends in jail awaiting sentencing, and will be based on a novel idea here, presumption of innocence. Mexico has presumption of guilty and although bail was introdcued a few years ago, most accused still spend long periods in jail before they even get to trial. The head of the federal teachers union has been in jail for more than three years with no trial, although she’s guilty as hell and deserves it. See, we can say that because upon arrest she is deemed guilty until proven otherwise. If she can’t get to trial how is she going to prove that? And where does her case stand now as it winds its way through the labyringh of smoked filled back rooms? Who knows?

These are monumental changes in México. Judges, prosecutors, attorneys, police, law professors, students, and others must be trained in the new method and towards this end the government of México has spent more than $600 million dollars on the new system and the learning curve is still far from conquered.  The United States has contributed at least $250 million, money originally pledged in the Merida Initiative of 2011 to assist México´s drug war that was re-appropriated by the U.S. Justice Department to support Mexico´s efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

 Money, resources and training, including the use of mock trials, have been provided by volunteers from several nations to help make the transition successful. Dr. David Shirk, director of Justice in México, said, “There are arguably few issues more important in México and U.S.-México relations than strengthening the rule of law, security, and human rights.” In 2012, A New York Times article written by Karla Zabludovsky stated, “While Mexico´s effort to turn around its justice system is a slow, long-term process that may not pay dividends for years, analysts on both sides of the border say it is vital nevertheless.”

Canada has also contributed and has sent retired federal judges to Mexico City to teach protocol and courtroom practices. It is apparant when you see these mock trials what a big, big deal this is, as court personell all strugle to fit into the new system. .

The national deadline for full implementation of the criminal justice system is set for next week, and the system is now fully operational in several states where pre-trial detention rates have already been significantly reduced. Still, many states, including Baja California Sur, are scrambling to make the full transition. La Paz´s court house was officially opened last January and became the second center in the state to implement the new system. Altogether, seven criminal justice centers will eventually operate in our state.

So, the next time you pass by the Centro de Justicia Penal, take another glance, it is much more important than it might appear on the outside. It reflects a concerted attempt on the part of the Mexican government to provide fairness, greater transparency, and due process. It is hoped (really, really hoped) that it will reduce opportunities for corruption in the judicial system. It is also expected to observe the human rights of defendants awaiting sentencing.