Mexico has spent 8 years overhauling its dysfunctional justice system, but it may need 11 more to fix the mess

mexico justice 43 students

For the last eight years, Mexico has been trying to overhaul its justice system, described by many as dysfunctional, with a series of extensive reforms set to be implemented next month.

But Mexico isn’t even close to being ready.

A study published on Wednesday by CIDAC, an independent Mexican think tank, said that the country needs 11 more years for the reforms to be implemented at the current pace.

The reforms, which have a constitutional deadline of June 18, replace Mexico’s current system with one more similar to the US’s criminal-justice system.

Mexico’s old justice system operated under an inquisitorial model, meaning that trials were closed to the public and conducted primarily using written evidence and arguments. In addition, defendants were not automatically given the presumption of innocence.

The US criminal-justice system, like the system Mexico is trying to implement, uses oral trials open to the public.

Because of the slow-moving nature of written proceedings, a massive case backlog has formed in Mexico’s courts. The result: a patchy and antiquated justice system that leaves some perpetrators unpunished and suspects languishing in prison awaiting trial for years.

The justice system’s dysfunction was most recently seen in the government’s botched attempts to get to the bottom of the apparent massacre of 43 students by a drug gang working with corrupt police in 2014.

So far, just 24 of Mexico’s 32 states have adopted the reforms, according to Mexico News Daily. Mexico City was one of the nine most recent governments to begin using the new system in late February.

According to CIDAC’s report, the reforms have taken so long to implement because of a failure by the state and federal governments to coordinate across institutions. The report found that the government’s implementation of the new system was “uncoordinated,” “carried out in isolation,” and plagued by a constant turnover of authority figures.

The result, the report found, was that each of Mexico’s states and its federal district conducted their own independent and disjointed “processes of transformation,” often in a hurry and without implementing “suitable rules” for the overhaul. These rushed, disparate efforts inevitably affected the success of the reforms, the report said.

mexico supreme court

Viridiana Rios, a research fellow at the Washington, DC-based think tank The Wilson Center, told Business Insider last fall that another reason the reforms are taking so long is the difficulty in helping Mexico’s lawyers adapt to oral arguments. Retraining an entire profession is no minor feat, and the lawyers are often reluctant to learn an entirely new method of arguing, she said.

“They want to read and write. They don’t know how to argue,” she said. “Find a lawyer that has never had an oral trial, that has never been trained since he was in law school to talk in public. Then tell him that he needs to talk in public and publicly make his arguments. They are not used to that.”

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has put an effort into helping Mexico retrain its lawyers, Rios said, but the three-day or weeklong sessions offered are far from adequate — especially when law schools in the US typically take two or three years to properly train a lawyer.

Further, these reforms have been lagging behind schedule for years, the report found. Mexico made its historic constitutional amendment to overhaul the legal system in 2008, in the hopes that oral arguments will help cases move more quickly. In the current system, the court backlogs are so daunting that cases are often prevented from going to trial, and police officers lack the capacity to investigate crimes thoroughly.

Rios said that because of the court system being consistently bogged down with red tape, corrupt resolutions to unsolved cases are often far easier to implement than legitimate ones.

“It’s not that politics are inherently corrupt, or they’d rather be corrupt than legitimate,” she said. “It’s just that being legal is such a hassle, or impossible. It’s the only path sometimes.”

The report offered up a strategy to consolidate the reforms to ensure that they remain on pace during the next 11 years. The government must take action to integrate the separate components of the national criminal-justice sector, and be conscious of the effect these reforms have on Mexican citizens, it suggested.

Maria de los Angeles Fromow, head of SETEC, the government committee responsible for implementing the reform, defended progress on the new justice system, saying that it already covers 82% of the population. She acknowledged that next month is just a “starting point.”

“There are areas that need work, we recognize that,” she said after the presentation of the report.

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