Mexico’s Criminal Justice System Is Failing. It’s Time for a New Vision of Reform
By Christian De Vos
The larger-than-life portrait by Mexican artist Miguel Aragón is dark and haunting, a magnified depiction of a woman’s deep moment of grief. The piece is made from hand-drilled paper, its monotones recalling a da Vinci drawing. But the subject is painfully contemporary.
Aragón’s La Matanza del Centro Aliviane (the Slaughter of Aliviane) was developed from news photographs of grieving relatives taken after a drug gang slaughtered 18 young people at a government drug treatment center in the artist's home city of Cuidad Juarez in 2009.
Aragón’s work is on display this week in Mexico City, along with 27 other artists from Mexico and around the world. They are participants in a unique temporary pop-up exhibition and cultural event—the Museum of Drug Policy—which includes three days of debate and performance, aimed at expanding the global debate about how drug policy shapes the way communities live, and what they endure. Supported by the Open Society Foundations, the museum event calls on people to question assumptions and to reach beyond their current constraints.
Mexicans know the moment of grief and horror captured in Aragon’s work all too well. Since President Felipe Calderon decided to deploy Mexico’s armed forces against the country’s powerful drug cartels over a decade ago, the country has faced wave after wave of violence, perpetrated by both competing drug cartels and also by agents of the state. In certain instances, the scale and organization of this violence likely constitutes crimes against humanity.
This violence shows no signs of abating. In 2017, Mexico recorded over 25,000 homicides, the highest number for two decades. Attacks on journalists and human rights defenders have increased sharply across the country, while more than half of Mexico’s disappeared were reported missing in the past six years alone. Torture in Mexico, the UN has repeatedly stated, remains a routine and “generalized” practice at both the state and federal level.
But amid the grim statistics, and with a presidential election on the horizon, Mexican and international civil society groups continue to look for a way forward. This week sees the launch of Corruption That Kills: Why Mexico Needs an International Mechanism to Combat Impunity, a report by my colleagues at the Open Society Justice Initiative, together with eight Mexican human rights and anticorruption groups, that examines credible evidence of collusion between certain public officials and members of the Zetas drug cartel between 2009 and 2012.
The report looks in detail at two of the most brutal episodes perpetrated during this period: the killing of approximately 300 men, women, and children in the municipality of Allende and nearby towns; and the disappearance and murder of an estimated 150 persons within the Piedras Negras prison. It highlights the failure of authorities to properly investigate and prosecute these crimes and concludes that this failure is intimately connected to endemic corruption.
This is unlikely to surprise many Mexicans—the well-publicized disappearance of 43 young students from Ayotzinapa Teaching College in 2014 has similarly been attributed to collusion between local officials and the regional drug cartel, while the investigation at both a federal and local level was subsequently thoroughly botched. Similar stories are widespread across Mexico, from Veracruz to Tamaulipas, from Guerrero to Chihuahua.
The detailed examination in the Corruption that Kills report of what happened in Coahuila leads to a conclusion that requires Mexicans—both those in power and those who elect them—to think beyond the limits that have defined the policy debates for over a decade.
In 2016, the Justice Initiative joined with five leading Mexican human rights organizations to call for the creation of an internationalized mechanism to combat impunity. Based inside Mexico, and staffed by both national and international experts, the mechanism would be empowered to independently investigate—and, when necessary, prosecute—atrocity crimes and related cases of corruption.
In the past two years, a growing number of Mexican civil society organizations have joined the demand for such a mechanism; these groups are now united as part of the Platform against Impunity and Corruption (Plataforma contra la impunidad y la corrupción). To date, the government has rejected this recommendation for an internationalized mechanism in its entirety. Corruption that Kills renews this call, with more detailed proposals for what such an international mechanism would look like.
Mexico, it argues, “needs an international justice mechanism in order to help solve cases, fight corruption, empower those within the current system who genuinely want to make it work properly, and restore public trust in the idea that justice for complex and politically difficult cases is possible.”
This is an idea that requires new ways of thinking. But the grim themes of drug related violence explored by Mexican artists at the Museum of Drug Policy remind us that the old ways of thinking have cost—are costing—too many lives.
Until November 2021, Christian De Vos was a managing advocacy officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative.