Why you should care

Because rule of law is the foundation of any functioning society.

Imagine an old, musty concrete box plopped in the middle of the desert. Inside, the heat weighs heavy on your chest, the smell of Pine-Sol and B.O. mingle in nauseating fashion, and the scars on your neighbors are fresh. The scalding metal bunk beds don’t have mattresses, and if you want to sleep on one you’ll have to pay a tax to El Chapo. There’s no electricity or bathroom. But there are plenty of drugs, and maybe prostitutes, and even some conventional wisdom: Go in with a bachelor’s in marijuana and come out with a Ph.D. in organized crime.

Life for Mexico’s 250,000 prisoners is probably at least as hellish as you imagine. Just look at the recent news of over 50 people being killed after a prison riot in Monterrey. What’s surprising, though, is that the tide might be changing. The government has instituted a raft of reforms, ranging from easing prison crowding to overhauling the trial system to provide more due process for defendants. Another bill wending through the legislature — it will most likely be law by fall, says Mexico City advocate Miguel Sarre — would protect inmates’ rights and put into place standards that will make the prisons more like penal institutions and less like decrepit abysses where humanity goes to die.

For years, nearly every crime was punished with prison.

No, it’s not that Mexico has gone all soft on crime. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Authorities hope that overhauling the justice system will disrupt drug networks and, eventually, turn the tide in the drug war that has accounted for as many as 100,000 deaths in the past decade. That’s because more than 60 percent of Mexico’s prisons are run by gangs, according to experts, and gang influence is so pervasive inside prisons that they function as recruiting centers. Behind bars, the kingpins carry on with business as usual, ordering kidnappings and killings on the regular. “They get to run everything from the safety of inside prison,” says Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “It’s just another subculture of criminal activity in there.”

The reforms are hugely ambitious, and some — like a transition to an American-style criminal procedure — aren’t even fully rolled out. They can’t come fast enough for Claudia Medina, 35, who says that she and her husband were arrested three years ago on unfounded accusations of involvement with a powerful cartel, and that charges were never filed. She was released after about a month, but her husband remains in jail and has never seen a judge. Lawyers at the human rights organization that’s taken up Mr. Medinas’ case, Centro de Derechos Humanos Prodh, say the treatment is par for the course. The Mexican federal police did not respond to requests for comment.

The watch tower of the Social Rehabilitation Center of Santa Martha Acatitla is seen in Mexico City January 2, 2012.

The watch tower of the Social Rehabilitation Center of Santa Martha Acatitla in Mexico City.

Source Bernardo Montoya/Reuters

Yet there are a few early signs of progress. The undersecretary for Mexico City’s Penitentiary System recently announced overcrowding in its prisons has plummeted almost 70 percent since the start of the year, according to InSight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Latin America. (InSight Crime editor Elyssa Pachico says some skepticism is warranted but that she trusts the number is fairly accurate.) The main reason for the drop is that the government has reclassified some offenses, like domestic disputes and fights with only minor injuries. Instead of going to trial, they’re resolved by alternate sentencing — mediation, community service — and no jail time.

That alone is a sea change. For years, nearly every crime — from petty theft and marijuana possession all the way to mass murder — was punished with prison. In 2011, for example, 96 percent of convictions came with time served. As for sentence length, there is often little distinction according to the gravity of the crime. That’s one reason why 20 guys are crammed into a cell meant for eight.

Another is courts’ enormous backlog of cases, which means that about 40 percent of Mexican prisoners are languishing in pretrial detention, according to Olson. They might wait in prison for months for their case to be heard and years before a judge hands down a sentence, all the while bunking with some seriously dangerous people. “The process is incredibly inefficient and incredibly slow,” says Douglas Keillor, who founded Mexico City-based International Justice Consulting. Good things do not generally come to prisoners who wait; that “presumption of innocence” stuff seems not to apply. One report found that as many as 85 percent of Mexicans arrested for crimes are found guilty. Judges are supposed to gather evidence and investigate cases, but they’re so backlogged they manage to fully plumb only about 20 percent, according to a Wilson Center report.

Which is why advocates believe that Mexico’s shift to an adversarial justice system, where the lawyers do the digging and the judge is an impartial referee, will provide defendants better due process. Defense lawyers would play a more prominent role. The shift, which the federal government has ordered by the end of 2016, has been in the works since 2008.

Those working in the field, though, stress that the majority of prisons haven’t budged. Judicial integrity will be slow going, they warn, and might not flower until a new generation of judges, lawyers and police takes the helm. “It’s going to be a long, painful process,” Pachico says. At least it’s started.

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