Bloomberg Opinion — Twenty-five Oxxo convenience stores were burned down in Guanajuato in August, and cars were set ablaze in towns all along the border. At one point the US Embassy in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest and most tech-driven city, called for personnel to shelter in place.
Fights between organized crime groups help explain these violent spikes: The extradition of Chapo Guzmán combined with the rise of highly profitable and deadly synthetic drugs such as fentanyl has shaken Mexico’s underworld. But the stubborn persistence of insecurity stems from the limits of justice in Mexico. Now, years after a supposed fundamental transformation of Mexico’s justice system, it still too often fails to uphold the basic rule of law. Without it, the violence won’t end.
A 2008 constitutional reform was designed to make Mexico’s legal system more efficient, transparent and accountable. It replaced written procedures and documents with oral trials and cross-examination of witnesses and evidence. It brought judges into the courtroom, strengthened due process, gave defendants access to public lawyers and mandated a presumption of innocence. The new system also created alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and sentencing provisions for many minor and nonviolent crimes.
States and federal governments had eight years to implement the new changes, with the new system slated to come on line by 2016. Now six years in, some measures of justice have improved significantly. Proceedings are more transparent. At the most basic level, defendants are more likely to know the charges against them. Judges are actually present, and they, not their assistants, review evidence, arguments and responses first-hand. Prosecutors and defense attorneys are required to show up in court, too.
Coercion or torture during interrogations has become less prevalent: Surveys show that under the old system almost half of the confessions were extracted under duress; now it is closer to 1 in 4.
Together these steps have improved rulings. Cases are resolved faster. The average length of murder trials fell from 18 to 12 months, kidnapping trials from 22 to 18 months. Faster justice matters, especially for those held in pre-trial detention and later found not guilty.
Years behind bars have shortened, too. Sentences of 15 years or more have fallen from roughly 4 in 10 to 1 in 4. Sentences under five years now comprise almost a third of convictions. This, too, matters for lesser crimes, enabling people to serve their time and return to life outside.
Since hearings are now recorded, the appeals process is also easier for plaintiffs and defendants alike, offering greater opportunity to rectify injustices.
But the limits to justice in Mexico remain glaring. Impunity rates have risen: Almost 95 of every 100 criminals escape the law, 10 percentage points higher than in 2008. Victims only report 1 out of every 10 crimes, believing police too inept or corrupt to help. And while high-profile cases of judicial politicization are worrisome, the poor suffer disproportionately from dysfunctional justice. Their cases are less likely to be taken up, and when they are defendants, publicly-appointed lawyers are often too overwhelmed or not up to the task.
One challenge has been timing: The implementation of the system coincided with the current wave of violence. Homicides have more than doubled since 2016, extortion has risen. The new system and rules were put on the back foot from the start, with investigators, prosecutors and judges overwhelmed by cases as they navigated the new rules.
But that isn’t the whole story or reason. A bigger obstacle is that Mexico doesn’t spend enough on security overall and on justice in particular. Its security budget of far less than 1% of its GDP is less than half the OECD average. And what money it does spend increasingly goes to those in army garb, rather than judicial robes. According to the Mexico Peace Index, “since 2015, military expenditure increased by 31.3% to reach almost 167 billion pesos, the highest level on record. This corresponds with reductions in spending on domestic security of 37.2% and justice of 7.5%.”
These budget decisions have left Mexico with too few police officers, roughly 1 per 1,000 citizens compared with a global average closer to 3 per 1,000 according to a UN survey. Cops that do cover beats receive little professional training: Less than half of Mexico’s police officers have completed coursework on the new rules. Many must buy their own equipment, uniforms, bullets and even gas for their cars.
Mexico also has too few judges: Less than half Latin America’s average and nearly four times less than the global average. Like police officers, they and other court officials often lack training and expertise in the new system.
The new system can still succeed. Other Latin American nations, including Chile and Colombia, have made progress on this path.
But rule of law can’t be gotten on the cheap, and Mexico spends too little, whatever the legal rules, to make a dent. If Mexico hopes for a sustainable rule of law, the militarization of security and justice has to fade in favor of civilian-led law enforcement.
Once more civil servants are hired, they need more training. Police officers must learn how to preserve a crime scene, collect and secure evidence, keep the chain of custody (otherwise it can be thrown out in court), and interrogate suspects with words, not fists. Court officials must be taught how to cross-examine witnesses, develop expertise in ballistics, genetics and forensics and carry out investigations in compliance with the new due process standards.
Alongside the monetary investment is a societal one. Rule of law is stronger when people believe in it, and when being a judge, lawyer or police officer is a technical and attractive career path.
Trust in the system is the hardest, but most vital, element to build. But it, too, isn’t impossible. A 2020 study by México Evalúa, funded by USAID, showed that a strong majority of Mexican citizens buy into the new system’s promise of improved security and transparency, and they want the government to invest in it.
So far, no Mexican government has been willing to do that. If the nation wants to end the current terrible violence, that’s what it must try.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shannon O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the upcoming “The Globalization Myth: Why Regions Matter.”