In many regions of Mexico, life has become a sort of graphic encyclopedia of violence. Every year, members of organized crime (and disorganized crime as well) murder tens of thousands, rob and extort millions and place a heavy burden of pain, uncertainty, and impunity on families. Chronic insecurity represents up to 12% of the gross domestic product (GDP).

The figures are so absurd that they are even comical. Last year in Mexico, people and authorities filed approximately 1.78 million accusations and prosecutions, of which only 13,873 were resolved as a result of an abbreviated criminal process or an oral trial. In other words, only 1 out of every 129 accusations or prosecutions resulted in a resolved process (a.k.a. a sentence).

Still, people defend themselves as best they can, in a desperate attempt to protect themselves from the constant criminal attacks. On December 9th, in Tláhuac, a passenger pulled out her gun and shot her assailant inside a bus. When they investigated who he was, it turned out that the little angel was more than a career criminal and had been jailed four times, without either rehabilitation or punishment; because in Mexico, even when there are arrests, impunity prevails.

And we must still add the unreported crimes, which easily exceeds 90% even in the most optimistic estimates. In general, citizens have learned that denouncing a crime is a waste of time. In many cases, they only do so for insurance purposes or as a requisite to replace their passport or other official documents.

When we examine the complete landscape of the nation’s justice system, the result is a bleak picture: out of every 1,666 crimes committed in Mexico, only 1 results in a sentence, while another 6 are dealt with through “alternative mechanisms” or “alternative solutions”.

Here it is again: 1 crime sentenced for every 1,666 committed.

It is, quite simply, a culture of impunity. The criminal knows that he will normally get away with it. And, even if he is arrested, he’ll have many opportunities to derail the process, either taking advantage of one of the many mistakes of the prosecution or claiming some violation of his “human rights.”

The problem in Mexico did not start with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but it is not being corrected. (Flickr)

The “new system” made things worse

Mexico’s justice system has been an example of corruption, incompetence, and complicity for decades. That is why improving it is on the promises’ menu of all parties and stripes.

It seemed that these promises would finally become a reality with the creation of the “new criminal justice system” that theoretically would modernize the law, update the institutional design, and increase government officials’ training. The hope was to achieve results similar to those of the first world.

Spoiler alert: it did not happen.

The creation of the new system implied a multi-million dollar waste of taxpayers’ resources. Between 2008 and 2016, the Technical Secretariat of the Coordinating Council for the Implementation of the Criminal Justice System, better known as SETEC, “invested” more than US$261 million (4,881 million pesos), which was spent mainly on “training” (41%) and advertising (17%).

To this bag, we must add more than US$588 million (11,000 million pesos) destined for infrastructure and equipment at the state level; the US$73 million (1,365 million pesos) that the Federal Judiciary Council spent, also in infrastructure; and the other US$56 million (1,044 million pesos) used by the Attorney General’s Office.

Even the taxpayers of the United States paid part of the tab, since a good part of the $2.8 billion that the U.S. gave Mexico through the Merida Initiative were used to equip more than 120 courts, train 9,000 officials and give more than 100 federal judges a vacati… I mean, training, in Puerto Rico.

With all this investment, it was expected that the system would be fully operational by 2016. Four and a half years later, the results could not be worse, because, despite the mountains of money, the data from Mexico Evalua shows that 22 of the 32 states in the country have not yet reached the level expected of them by 2016, and none is even close to matching the level expected by 2018.

And the results? The number of homicides continues to break records every year, and the previously cited “black figure” of unreported crimes has increased from 92% in 2010 to 93.4% in 2019.

Why? Because nobody really believes in the “new criminal process.” The people’s confidence in the criminal authorities is worse now (-8.6 %) than in 2015, the year before the new system started. It’s not a surprise: the police’s incompetence (or the judges’ complicity) is so out of control that in 2019 27.9% of the arrests were qualified as illegal by the Control Judge.

Impunity based on “nonsense”

This cloak of impunity is woven with threads of corruption, threads of ineptitude, and a system of justice that simply does not work. The “criminal” lawyers and academics defend a useless method with an arrogance that borders on the absurd; they talk about “theories” of criminal law as if they were talking about theories of physics. However, if a physical or chemical approach had a failure rate of over 99% (as is the case in criminal law), no one would take it seriously.

In any case, Mexican criminal law is closer to astrology than science, and it is not that the authorities are entirely blind; suddenly it seems they see a glimpse of the problem: a few months ago, the Secretary of State, Olga Sánchez, declared that “twice, the head of the Tepito cartel was arrested and twice went out of a revolving door, despite impeccable Navy intelligence operations, etc. What do you think happened? The police report was wrong about the entrance; it was in the ‘entrance H’ of the building, and they wrote ‘entrance G’, some nonsense of this nature”.

This “nonsense” releases one criminal after another, without either the government, the opposition, the “experts,” or the universities offering a serious alternative to correct the underlying problems. The proposals to reform the system are mostly about aesthetic change, something akin to hanging a new set of dice on the mirror of a car whose engine is not working.

No solution in sight

At the beginning of the year, the Attorney General announced that he would present a series of reforms to the Code of Criminal Procedures and the Law of the Attorney General’s Office, supposedly to turn around this rancid stew. However, his proposal aroused the anger of the technocrats in the opposition and the activists in the left-wing of the government, so President López Obrador ordered him to cancel it.

Almost a whole year has passed, and neither the reform nor its lights are on. But even the adjustments proposed by the A.G. do not resolve anything. They would merely take us back to the previous system, whose results were almost as disastrous as the current one.

Mexico has a severe crime problem, which engulfs the entire country, nullifying the advances that would otherwise reduce poverty and condemning millions to live under a permanent sentence of uncertainty and violence.

On the other side of the law, criminals sleep peacefully. They know that even if they are detected, they will not be denounced; even if they are denounced, they will not be arrested; even if they are arrested, they will not be sentenced, and even if they are sentenced, they will continue to commit crimes right from the prison floor.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, dear Mexican politicians of all shapes and colors, understand: “it’s the impunity, stupid.”