On December 22, 1997 forty five persons from an indigenous community in Chiapas (a state of southern Mexico) were killed while they were praying early in the morning. The horrendous crime was followed by another one: under a lot of pressure the prosecutors captured and imprisoned fifty seven persons but several of them on false testimonies and fabricated evidence simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. More than ten years later, and after a Kafkian labyrinth of procedural hurdles, the Mexican Supreme Court mandated last Wednesday the immediate liberation of more than half of the accused on grounds of serious violations of their due process rights.
The decision is noteworthy for several reasons. First and foremost, at least some justice has been done by liberating several persons whose culpability had not been duly demonstrated. Second, it takes place in the context of the first phase of the reform of the Mexican criminal justice system, that is being transformed from an inquisitorial into an adversarial system. Mexico is a late comer in the Latin American region regarding this transformation, which has taken place in Chile and Peru among other countries. The reform will take about seven years to be completed, and from the beginning it has been facing important opposition for different groups in Mexico; one of them is the criminal lawyers who don’t want to change a system that they know how to handle. The reform has two main goals, improving efficiency and professionalizing the prosecution, which is the Achilles’ heel of the Mexican criminal justice system. Thus, with its decision in this politically charged case, the Mexican Supreme Court has made clear not only its support for the reform but more importantly it has taken the lead in the effort to build a professional prosecutorial corps whose guide should be the due process rights when investigating crimes.
Last but by all means not least, the case of the indigenous prisoners was litigated by professors and students of CIDE’s law school, a public research center in Mexico City. Jose Antonio Caballero, the head of the law school, set up a clinic of public interest litigation and they have started with the right foot. This is an important effort in the building of a “support structure” (Epp 1998) for rights litigation, that is being strengthened considerably in Mexico and also in other Latin American countries.