Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

A noteworthy decision by the Mexican Supreme Court

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.



3 responses to “A noteworthy decision by the Mexican Supreme Court”

  1. David Fontana Avatar
    David Fontana

    Julio, very interesting. What were the due process reasons why they released them? Was there a political reaction to the decision?

  2. Julio Rios-Figueroa Avatar

    Many of the prisoners were captured for being on a “list of suspects” that was written by a supposedly witness of the crime, and there was also made-up evidence. Basically judges convicted the accused because of the political pressure to “do something” given the public outcry at the crime. And also because that kind of political justice was unfortunately not uncommun under the authoritarian rule of the PRI – the party that governed in Mexico for seven decades.
    So far, the political actors have basically welcomed the decision, although there are some criticisms from groups in the left of the political spectrum saying that this decision validates the theory according to which the killing was mainly the product of conflicts among indigenous communities rather than their preferred theory that points to the state government and their para-military forces for explaining the crime. But even they acknowledge the gross mistakes made by the prosecution back in 1997.

  3. David Fontana Avatar
    David Fontana

    This poses an interesting question: Under what situations do countries switch from inquisitorial into adversarial systems? In Italy, for instance, I know it had much to do with the changing dynamics between the political parties, among other factors. What is happening in Mexico?

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