Criminal procedure reform and the impact on homicide: evidence from Mexico

Abstract

While significant efforts have been made to reform the criminal justice system across Latin America, we do not know the conditions under which reform effectively deters homicide, one of many goals of the reform. Drawing on a novel sub-national design in Mexico, I find that criminal procedure reforms aimed at improving due process are not sufficient for deterring homicide in places where non-state actors (i.e. drug cartels) effectively challenge the state’s monopoly of violence. I argue that in these settings, citizens are less willing to cooperate with the formal system of justice - despite reform efforts. Without society cooperation, the prosecution is less equipped to investigate, prosecute, and solve crime, resulting in impunity and little deterrence. Importantly, where the state maintains its monopoly of violence, reform is associated with less homicide. In selecting remedies to combat violent crime, therefore, different communities need to pursue different strategies, suggesting that the State can deter violence through fairness.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In Mexico, there are two main jurisdictional levels — federal (fuero federal) and state (fuero comun). I do not distinguish my argument based on which jurisdictional level is responsible for investigation. Regardless of what entity is responsible for investigating crime, I argue that the relationship between legal authorities of all kind and society is fractured in settings where non-state actors challenge the state.

  2. 2.

    In 2016, SETEC was dissolved. It was created to help with implementation during the rollout phase. After 2016, its responsibilities and resources were dispersed to the state governments who are now each in charge of administering the NCJS. See Ingram (2013) for date of implementation, which I used to validate my coding.

  3. 3.

    In the state of Oaxaca, SETEC lists 285 municipalities where the NCJS “is currently operational,” but I cannot determine in what year those municipalities first implemented the reform. I refer, therefore, to a report by Ingram (2013) that identifies the year the reform was implemented across the eight regions of Oaxaca. As of 2012 - the last year of evaluation in the report - the reform had been implemented in four regions, covering the 285 municipalities listed on the SETEC website. I cannot confirm when the other four regions implemented the reform, so the remaining 315 municipalities in Oaxaca have missing values for the reform.

  4. 4.

    The third component of the index could be said to speak more to state capacity/presence than cartel conflict. To this charge, I remind readers that my theory is based on threats or challenges to the state and its ability to maintain a monopoly of violence. Therefore, if the state is having to conduct confrontational and often brutal attacks against kingpins, this is clearly a context in which there exist challengers to the state and is precisely what I hope to measure.

  5. 5.

    In future research, I intend to extend the analysis to the municipal level using other proxies/measures of cartel presence as they become available. Certainly, there are important differences between municipalities in terms of violence, criminal activity, and inter-cartel conflict within one state. It is likely that citizens guide their attitudes about the judiciary and police more so by what happens at the local (municipal) level than at the state level. Still, I argue that, given the saliency of violent crime manifested by the media (Shirk 2010) and the frequency in which cartels move to nearby locations (Dell 2015), evaluating the impact of reform at the state level still has merit.

  6. 6.

    It is important to acknowledge the fact that conviction rates are very high in Mexico. Judges tend to convict most of those that reach them for a number of reasons including poor investigation, informal quotas, and public pressure (I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for identifying these “perverse incentives.”). Of course, a bigger problem here is that a majority of cases never reach a judge to begin with (Zepeda-Lecuona 2004) so many crimes go unpunished because they are not investigated or fail to reach a judge. Thus, a small percentage of crimes in Mexico are actually punished. As problematic as this is for the criminal justice in Mexico, using the conviction rate - albeit a high conviction rate - to measure the likelihood of punishment and, consequently, its effect on deterring crime can still be valid. Since conviction is highly probable should a suspect reach a judge, individuals should, in theory, be deterred from criminal activity. I make the assumption here that individuals cannot be entirely sure that they will not be sent to a judge.

  7. 7.

    Theoretically, if the reform is causally related to more homicide in Chihuahua (instead of a null relationship), it could be the case that implementing the reform in a context of extreme violence creates too much uncertainty. That is, when the institutions of law are changed too rapidly in such settings, it creates an unstable situation where powerful non-state actors, can take advantage of the instability by further consolidating their own power. This is consistent with my theory, but perhaps suggests that there is a threshold in which reform or changes to legal processes may be harmful rather than just ineffective. Further qualitative research is needed to evaluate the relationship between homicide and criminal procedure reform in Chihuahua.

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Correspondence to Erin Terese Huebert.

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Huebert, E.T. Criminal procedure reform and the impact on homicide: evidence from Mexico. Trends Organ Crim 24, 42–69 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12117-019-09362-x

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Keywords

  • Criminal procedure reform
  • Drug cartels in Mexico
  • Law and society
  • Due process
  • Monopoly of violence