Wanted: Justice in Mexico
Project seeks to solve issue of judicial reform in Mexico
by Ryan T. Blystone
David Shirkphoto by Marshall Williams

Vicente Fox’s elevation to president of Mexico in 2000 had all the makings of a Hollywood movie, complete with a happy ending for the candidate’s National Action Party. Putting a halt to more than seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party was viewed as a major move forward for the country. While Fox’s victory may have looked like it wiped the slate clean, it didn’t erase Mexico’s past problems, particularly when it comes to reform.

David Shirk, director of USD’s Trans-Border Institute, has done extensive research and reporting for the institute’s signature task, the Justice in Mexico Project. “We started this project six years ago. The idea of seeing the reform package we see now wasn’t unimaginable, but the climate was totally different,” Shirk says. “There weren’t a large number of Mexican scholars mobilized around this issue, actively promoting or advocating reform.”

Fox’s six-year term ended in 2006. In 2004, he submitted an ambitious judicial reform plan for Mexico that included consolidating the nation’s police forces and giving officers more power to investigate criminal activities and holding public, oral trials. It didn’t pass.

Mexico’s “public insecurity,” as Shirk termed it in a 2007 Web log entry, “is significantly related to Mexico’s recent political transformation … In addition to concerns about providing economic stability and reducing levels of poverty and inequality, the Fox administration was met by a growing public frustration and alarm about the proliferation of crime, corruption and violence.”

Felipe Calderón succeeded Fox as president in late 2006 and once again, progress in judicial reform is gaining steam. In March, Mexico’s Senate voted 71-25 to approve a series of judicial reforms, including public, oral trials and to guarantee defendants a presumption of innocence. The constitutional amendment still needs the approval of at least 17 of Mexico’s 31 states before it officially becomes law.

Shirk optimistically calls it a “breakthrough.” If it becomes law, it will be an overdue reward for Shirk and his staff at the Justice in Mexico Project. Shirk took ownership of the project in September 2005 from Wayne Cornelius, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.

“Wayne asked me to make contact with scholars who were working on justice issues in Mexico,” recalls Shirk. “We pulled together groups already doing research. Many were dealing with their issues, but they weren’t talking to each other. Criminologists weren’t talking to public security officials. Sociologists studying prisons weren’t connected to people dealing with judicial reform.”

The project focuses on the rule of law through three components: regulation of individual behavior within society under the law; accountability of the state and its representatives under the law; and access to justice through the law. The project’s staff is making big strides. “It’s been very encouraging,” says project coordinator Robert Donnelly. “We’ve had a good turnout for our events in Mexico. We bring together researchers, academics, students and judicial actors — lawyers and judges — to discuss and debate criminal justice reform and its effective implementation at the state level in Mexico.”

Funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Tinker Foundation, the Justice in Mexico Project boosts the university’s profile. “It has brought in capacity and resources to USD and helped convene people and bring people into the discussion,” Shirk says. “We have the best law program in San Diego and, by working in Mexico on rule of law issues, we’re establishing connections with institutions, students and practitioners that promote the reputation and prestige of (USD) in Mexico.”

The School of Law co-sponsors TBI’s law-focused events and provides continuing legal education credits for members of the bar who attend. Mexican Legal Spanish is new to its Fall 2008 curriculum. Administrators will go to Mexico City to discuss potential partnerships with leading law schools, says School of Law Dean Kevin Cole.

Conferences associated with the project have been held at USD and in several Mexican states. The most recent one at USD, on April 21, examined national and local initiatives and, in the wake of recent developments, the conversation should be valuable. “(The reforms) will fundamentally overhaul the administration of justice in Mexico in very significant ways over the next eight years,” Shirk says. “Many reforms have already been implemented in states we’ve been studying. We’ll benefit from a better understanding of what’s going on at the federal level and how states throughout Mexico have experimented with components of the reform package.”

The project’s collection of information, available online, is crucial. It has produced books, a monograph series, monthly news reports and scholarly research papers on rule of law issues in Mexico. In short, Mexico’s leadership has information available to help its country thrive.

“You can’t really have a functioning democracy without the rule of law or vice versa,” Shirk says. “I really think the people we’re talking to on the ground, especially students, will experience an incredible transformation in the next 20 years. It’s a great honor for us to be part of the discussions, to work with people who 100 years from now will be looked back on as having made a major change in Mexico.”

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