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Mexico's Huge Justice Reforms Are Scrambling To Cross The Finish Line

President Enrique Peña Nieto’s much-hyped reforms depend on a key judicial overhaul. Now, experts are worried that the slowly moving changes will not stand the test of time, or culture. BuzzFeed News' Karla Zabludovsky reports from Durango, Mexico.

Posted on March 11, 2015, at 11:38 a.m. ET

DURANGO, Mexico — Outside the courtroom in Durango, in northern Mexico, workers were drilling into the staircase and walls, filling the Federal Center for Penal Justice’s modern new hallways with dust. The thumping and stamping construction sounds — and, at one point, music — bled into one of the courtrooms, drowning out the judge’s words.

Everyone struggled to hear as the judge, sitting before a man accused of carrying an unauthorized weapon, leaned into the microphone and said that the $200 fine requested by the prosecutor was excessive and that the accused would have to check in at the criminal justice center every 15 days until the investigation concluded.

Just a few years ago, this scene would have been unimaginable in Mexico, where trials have historically been conducted not only in writing but in utmost secrecy, with victims, the accused, and lawyers rarely having direct access to a judge.

An overhaul of the judicial system, passed in 2008 and slated to be completed by June 2016, aims to increase transparency in judicial investigations and make courtroom proceedings public and speedy. Oral trials, like the one in the unfinished justice building in Durango, are the backbone of the new system.

Passed under former President Felipe Calderón, the revamp is doing away with the partial inquisitorial system, in which a judge both investigates the facts and renders a decision, in favor of an adversarial one, where both parties in a trial must gather evidence and argue their case before a neutral judge.

The revamp is also instituting a system of alternative justice, which offers accusers and the accused an opportunity to mediate and negotiate a solution before having to take their cases to court. In theory, this will reduce jail populations and ensure that judges can focus on the most contentious cases.

But with only 15 months left before the deadline, implementation remains piecemeal. Only four states are operating under the new system completely. Twenty-five states have managed to partially put the changes into place — others not at all. Courthouses are under construction and thousands of people involved in the judicial process — police, investigators, lawyers, prosecutors, and judges — are yet to receive formal training.

“In the judicial sector, there is a deep sense of anxiety about the enormous amount of change that needs to be made in a very small amount of time,” said David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico Project at the University of San Diego.

Getting the judicial reform right is necessary to underpin the reforms President Enrique Peña Nieto has passed with much fanfare, including those of the energy, telecommunications, and education sectors. Until the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero state, which forced Peña Nieto to shift attention away from the economy and his legislative coups in order to address serious security challenges, these reforms were his defining successes.

“It is the axis on which the other reforms will turn,” said María Novoa, director of the Collective Justice project at CIDAC, a research group in Mexico, referring to the judicial reform.

The Mexican government has gotten outside support for the judicial reform, including from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has invested nearly $75 million. The cash came from the Mérida Initiative, a $2.3 billion program to combat drugs in Mexico, and has gone toward training state-level judicial operators, developing law school curriculum, supporting bar associations, and spreading information about the new system, said Nick Stokes, senior rule of law adviser at USAID’s Justice and Citizen Security Office.

The Mexican Congress has assigned twice that amount to Mexico’s 31 states and the federal district to support their efforts.

The new building for the Centro de Justicia Penal Federal (Center for Federal Penal Justice), still under construction but already in use, in Durango, Mexico.
Photograph by Adriana Zehbrauskas for BuzzFeed News

The new building for the Centro de Justicia Penal Federal (Center for Federal Penal Justice), still under construction but already in use, in Durango, Mexico.

In Durango, the system appears to be functioning well. During a recent hearing at the building housing oral trials, Carlos Muñoz listened intently as the prosecutor, sitting across the aisle from him, read a list of requests to the judge, including a restraining order and a $520 reparation fee for her client, who Muñoz was accused of having physically and verbally assaulted five days earlier.

“There is no opposition on the part of the defense,” said Muñoz’s lawyer, addressing the judge. “We just ask for three days so my client can come up with the money.”

Still, the culture of secrecy remains an obstacle. Security personnel in Durango denied BuzzFeed News access to a federal hearing for nearly 20 minutes while they requested permission from high-level authorities in the building — contrary to one of the basic tenets of the new system.

But other states are lagging further behind.

In Sonora state, which shares a border with Arizona, the state congress has yet to declare a date when the new system will begin functioning, for example. A source at the commission in charge of implementing the overhaul in the state, who requested anonymity because he was not allowed to give out details to press, told BuzzFeed News that not specifying a date is only an “exercise in caution and responsibility,” and added that prosecutors and judges are being trained and basic infrastructure to accommodate the oncoming changes is being built.

“If a person is corrupt in an antiquated system, he will also be corrupt in a new system,”

In Mexico City, there have been a handful of public hearings but the first oral trial is not expected until at least June.

Proyecto Justicia, a CIDAC-created website that tracks how well prepared states are to implement the new system successfully, reveals that the best performing state, Chihuahua, recently scored 672 out of 1,000 in terms of progress. The lowest scoring, Baja California Sur state, scored 197.5. Some of the issues the states are judged on include the amount of financial resources allotted to them and whether they had set a timetable for the transition and met it.

Only two states — Durango and Puebla, in central Mexico — are operating under the new system at the federal level, where crimes like human trafficking, kidnapping, and organized crime are prosecuted.

But the biggest problem, legal experts agree, will be tackling corruption within the judicial system. In 2011, Esiquio Martínez Hernández, a district court clerk in Mexico City, was sent to prison for illicit enrichment after authorities found that made a transaction for more than $32 million. The following year, magistrate Jesús Luna Altamirano was suspended for ordering bank transactions believed to be associated with organized crime.

In 2012, 10 judges and magistrates were suspended or dismissed for corruption-related acts, according to CNN Mexico. Between that year and 2014, 70 Federal Judicial Council employees’ personal assets raised red flags, according to the Supreme Court’s 2014 annual report.

“If a person is corrupt in an antiquated system, he will also be corrupt in a new system,” said Carlos Daza, law professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. For the overhaul to be successful, he said, investigators, prosecutors, and judges will need to be selected more carefully, given higher salaries, and their psychological and financial situations monitored carefully and regularly.

Durango's Chief Justice Apolonio Betancourt Ruiz in Durango's Superior Court.
Photograph by Adriana Zehbrauskas for BuzzFeed News

Durango's Chief Justice Apolonio Betancourt Ruiz in Durango's Superior Court.

Apolonio Betancourt Ruíz, president magistrate of Durango’s High Court of Justice, agreed. “It’s about changing forms. It’s a culture,” he said. Betancourt added that other challenges in the state, which started operating under the new system in 2009, include aging technology in the courtrooms and unfinished infrastructure.

While most lawyers consulted by BuzzFeed News said the new system was a step in the right direction, they also voiced concerns about how it could lead to abuses. Many mentioned one emblematic case, which litigators described as a case study about the weaknesses in the new system.

Shortly after the new system was implemented in 2008, a particular case captivated national attention. Sergio Rafael Barraza Bocanegra had confessed to four different police agents that he had killed his underage girlfriend, Rubi Marisol Frayre. When he refused to testify during trial, the previous confessions became inadmissible. The three judges in charge of the case found Barraza not guilty, saying that the forensic doctor could not determine how Frayre had died, and that investigators did not find traces of blood at Barraza's house.

"This is reduced to one source only: the statement of Sergio Rafael Barraza Bocanegra," said one of the judges. However, he continued, his admission was insufficient because Frayre's mother, during her testimony, had called Barraza a liar with a flair for showing off.

The case showed that prosecutors were still stuck in the past, largely unable to bring a strong counterargument, and judges were incapable of moving beyond the traditional requirement of direct proof, said Pablo Héctor González, magistrate at the Chihuahua State Supreme Court. The publicity the case got, however, was new. Parts of the trial were broadcast and allowed judicial errors to be publicized on national TV.

“There had been thousands of Rubi cases but no one was really aware,” said González.

As states scramble to get their police forces, prosecutors, and judges ready in time for the 2016 deadline, trainings continue and video cameras are being nailed onto newly constructed courtroom walls across the country. While the law does not establish a punishment for states that do not meet the deadline, people processed under the old system after June 18 could appeal the decision, legal experts say, adding that the country will most likely be operating under the new system by then, at least on paper — the political cost of not doing so is too high.

The real challenge, they say, will come afterward.

“It’s not about thinking whether the deadline will be met,” said Novoa, of CIDAC. “The problem is how to generate the minimum foundation to continue operating after June 2016.”

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