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In Mexico, a justice system where 'citizens are heard' starts to take root

Progress watch

Judicial reforms aimed at greater transparency and more timely trials are set to be implemented federally and across all 31 states and Mexico City by June 18.

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    In Mexico City, relatives mark the 20-month anniversary of the disappearance of 43 teacher's college students with a protest march in Mexico City last week.
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A man in bright orange garb takes a seat at a sleek wooden desk here on a recent afternoon. He intermittently wipes away tears with open palms and looks anxiously over his shoulder, trying to catch the attention of a young woman in the small courtroom gallery who is there to support him.

The defendant, accused of violently kidnapping someone, was arrested that morning. The fact that he’s in a courtroom, awaiting a judge the same day, was unimaginable in Mexico just a few years ago.

Mexican trials have historically been conducted in writing, with victims, witnesses, the accused, and even lawyers rarely gaining access to a judge. This created an opaque system of justice that presumes guilt over innocence and gives prosecutors vast power. It has also led to severely overcrowded prisons, with pretrial detentions that can last for years even for petty crimes, and impunity rates that hover near 98 percent.

Today’s deposition is a direct result of judicial reforms passed nationally in 2008 and set to be implemented federally and across all 31 states and Mexico City by June 18. The overhaul centers on oral hearings that are open to the public – increasing transparency and better guaranteeing access to fair and timely trials. The reforms are also part of a bid to gain public trust in Mexico’s judicial process, with hopes that citizens will be more likely to report crimes, for example.

But, just weeks before the implementation deadline, many states are rushing to reach the finish line. The reforms have required numerous steps – from updating or building new court facilities that can accommodate public hearings to training police and prosecutors to work together on investigations to teaching lawyers how to formulate strong oral defense arguments.

As of March, only four states had reached the “optimal” level of implementation, according to Maria de los Angeles Fromow Rangel, the technical secretary for the coordination of implementation of the justice system, in an interview with Mexican daily El Universal. And even in those cases, not all municipalities within the state necessarily were in full compliance.

The last-minute hustle has many analysts concerned that the quality of the new system could vary greatly, or that years of reform efforts could stall once the deadline passes. But there is also plenty of hope: that Mexico is beginning to confront some of the deep-seated challenges that hold it back – from widespread violence that largely goes unpunished to corruption and abuse of citizen rights under the guise of delivering justice.

“This really isn't about a deadline. Justice, like democracy, is an ever evolving ideal that changes along with society itself,” says David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico project at the University of San Diego. “What is important about these reforms is the change in process to introduce greater efficiency, transparency, and fairness, relative to what Mexico had before. Further tinkering is not only likely to be necessary, it is inevitable as society changes.” 

Barriers to proving innocence

A 2008 documentary called “Presumed Guilty” brought Mexico’s justice system shortcomings into the international spotlight. The film walked viewers through the seemingly straightforward case of a young man named Antonio Zúñiga, accused of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Despite his claims of innocence, multiple witnesses who placed him miles away from the crime scene, and a unconvincing eyewitness, Mr. Zúñiga is thrown in jail.

“Before this, I thought like a lot of people…. If he’s a thief or a rapist, lock him up for 100 years,” Zúñiga tells the filmmakers.

The barriers to proving innocence in a system designed to presume guilt become abundantly clear over the course of the film. The prosecutor never proves that Zúñiga fired a gun that day, and gunpowder tests administered when he was arrested come up negative.

Indeed, under the old system, there has been little reliance on physical evidence; critics say it incentivizes actions like torture to get an accused to admit a crime, thus getting a case off an overburdened prosecutor’s plate. That tactic was famously highlighted in a recent international report on Mexico’s investigation into the disappearance of 43 teacher’s college students in the state of Guerrero.

Mexico has invested some $3 billion in support of state governments transitioning to the new justice system, and the United States has also contributed through the Merida Initiative.

There are signs of progress. In the past year, the new oral justice process has kept 15,000 people from going to prison for crimes that aren’t considered serious, like petty theft. And some 120,000 crime reports or complaints have been resolved through “alternative measures” like mediation.

"We’re moving toward a more sustainable justice system​,​" says Ivan de la Garza​, director of Fortis Consulting, which helps advise governments across the country on the reform, and a professor of constitutional law at the Facultad Libre de Derecho de Monterrey.​

Courtroom No. 2

Down the hall from the kidnapping case, in courtroom No. 2, two men await a judge. They’re each accompanied by a mediator, who months earlier met with the men to come to an agreement over a dispute about furniture in a rental property. They’re here today because the plaintiff in the case says his neighbor still hasn’t held up his end of the mediated agreement.

“He’s still threatening me and my family,” the plaintiff says.

“He runs that place like it’s a bar,” retorts the defendant.

“My client and his family are still afraid,” jumps in the plaintiff’s lawyer.

The defendant laughs.

In the end, the judge throws out the case after both men say they no longer want to uphold the agreement they mediated in January.

Despite Nuevo Leon’s classification as one of the states furthest along with the reforms, the case shows the work and training that’s left to be done, says Luis Alberto Cañamar Ezparza, who works with Fortis Consulting, which helps advise governments across the country on the reform.

“This mediation wasn’t done well. You can’t agree ‘to respect each other.’ That’s not enough,” says Mr. Cañamar. “The conflict was reflected in the threats but that wasn’t the root of the conflict.”

Training is one of the weakest links in the reform, observers say, with police presenting the biggest challenge. The National Council on Public Security was recently ordered to conduct additional strategic training of first responder police officers, teaching them how to preserve evidence at a crime scene and gather early testimonies needed by prosecutors.  

Citizen reports rise

Jorge Rodriguez, who previously worked as a private defense lawyer and is now a supervisor at an intake center for reporting crimes in the neighborhood of San Nicolás, says he’s seen a visible change in how citizens are received since the reform was implemented here.

“Now it’s a service. You stand in line, you are attended to,” he says. “Before, it was as though they were doing you a favor by opening a case file. Corruption was a big problem."

He recalls coming in with clients to report crimes late at night and having city employees tell them to come back the next day – despite the fact that citizens were supposed to be able to report crimes 24 hours a day. And it was up to the discretion of the person doing the intake as to whether the reported crime actually made it into an official case file.

Perhaps because of that, a 2012 government survey found that only 6 percent of Mexicans had confidence in the justice system, citing impunity, perceived corruption, and poor service.

“Under the new system, a case folder is always created and it has to go somewhere,” Mr. Rodriguez says. “Slowly, I think, citizens are starting to realize that they are being heard.”

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