Article excerpt

The steady process of change in judicial organizations in Mexico, which began in the mid- 1990s, was given a major boost in the past few years with four constitutional amendments.

The most significant is a 2008 amendment requiring that all state and federal judicial systems transition from a written-based inquisitorial system to an oral-based accusatorial one by 2016. This will bring greater transparency while better protecting the rights of the accused and allowing for the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

Halfway into the transition phase, though, the processes' slow implementation poses a risk that states won't meet the 2016 deadline.

Only 18 of Mexico's 32 states (including the federal district) have seen changes in their criminal justice systems. Chihuahua, Estado de México and Morelos have completed the transition to the accusatory model, while Baja California, Durango, Oaxaca, and Zacatecas have made substantial progress. Other states are still in the process of passing legislation or implementing and conducting oral trials, including the federal district, Chiapas, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Jalisco, Nuevo León, Puebla, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa, Tabasco, Tamaulipas, and Yucatán. One holdup is that reform at the federal level is still in its early stages. This has reduced the pressure on the states to quickly implement changes in anticipation of the deadline.

The enabling legislation embodied in the Codigo de Procedimientos Penales (Criminal Procedures Code) defines how the reforms will be adopted but is still stuck in Congress. In March, the Senate started holding public hearings to receive comments on the draftproject, though the hope is still to secure its passage by spring.

So far, states that have implemented the reform see it as helping to achieve a better allocation of criminal justice resources. Rather than going to trial, there is an increase in the use of alternative dispute resolution where the focus is on solving victims' problems rather than imprisoning the accused. In Chihuahua, for example, statistics show that most of the caseload is processed before trial or in abbreviated trials.

But to fully benefit from the reform, a number of other sweeping changes need to be effected. Lawyers, judges and judicial officials will need significant training in the accusatorial system.

In addition, serious challenges remain to improve the quality of criminal investigations. In these cases, the federal government and states cannot wait until the last hour to implement reforms and assume that the system can instantaneously switch over.

Beyond the larger judicial reform, three other recent constitutional amendments are helping to improve the judicial system: the introduction of class action lawsuits (2010); new procedures to improve access to the writ of amparo (2011); and acceptance of internationally recognized human rights as constitutionally guaranteed individual rights protected under the Mexican system (2011).

The first, the introduction of class action lawsuits, permits groups of individuals to collectively file suit to defend their environmental, cultural, educational, health, or consumer interests- a right that is often used in countries such as Brazil, Chile and the United States. While this new provision has seldom been used thus far to protect individuals, the Procuraduria Federal del Consumidor (Federal Attorney's Office of the Consumer-profeco) has filed actions on behalf of telecommunications and airline consumers.

In February 2013, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which profeco is suing Nextel on behalf of its consumers in response to complaints over a deterioration in the quality of service in 2010. …