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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8


  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.


  1. Aguirre J, Amador Herrera H (2013) Institutional weakness and organized crime in Mexico: the case of Michoacán. Trends in Organized Crime 16(2):221–238

    Google Scholar 

  2. Azaola Elena, Marcelo Bergman (2007) “De mal en peor: las condiciones de vida en las creceles mexicanas." Nueva Sociedad 208

  3. Bayley DH, Perito RM (2010) The police in war. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder

    Google Scholar 

  4. Becker GS (1968) Crime and punishment: an economic approach. J Polit Econ 76:169–217

    Google Scholar 

  5. Beetham D (1991) The legitimation of power. MacMillan, London

    Google Scholar 

  6. Benesh SC (2006) Understanding public confidence in American courts. J Polit 68:697–707

    Google Scholar 

  7. Bergman M, Whitehead L (2009) Criminality, public security, and the challenge to democracy in Latin America. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame

    Google Scholar 

  8. Blume, Laura (2016) “The Old Rules No Longer Apply: Narco Violence against Politicians in Mexico." Prepared for MPSA, Chicago, IL 2016

  9. Bunker RJ (2013) Introduction: the Mexican cartels—organized crime vs. criminal insurgency. Trends in Organized Crime 16(2):129–137

    Google Scholar 

  10. Calleros JC (2009) The unfinished transition to democracy in Latin America. Routledge, New York

    Google Scholar 

  11. Casas-Zamora, Kevin (2013) “The besieged polis: citizen insecurity and democracy in Latin America.” Latin America Initiative at Brookings

  12. Corcoran, Patrick (June 27, 2011) “A survey of Mexico's trafficking networks." InSight crime: investigation and analysis of organized crime

  13. Cruz, Jose Miguel and Gema Santamaria. 2014. “Crime and support for extralegal violence in Latin America." Prepared for APSA Washington D.C.

  14. Currie, Elliott. 2013. Crime and punishment in America. Picador

  15. Davila, Ana (April 26, 2016) “Mexican drug cartels and the art of political puppetry." The Huffington post

  16. Davis DE (2006) Undermining the rule of law: democratization and the dark side of police reform in Mexico. Latin American Politics and Society 48(1):55–86

    Google Scholar 

  17. DeBoef S, Keele L (2008) Taking time seriously. Am J Polit Sci 52(1):184–200

    Google Scholar 

  18. Decker S, Wright R, Logie R (1993) Perceptual deterrence among active residential burglars: a research note. Criminology 31(1):135–147

    Google Scholar 

  19. Dell M (2015) Trafficking networks and the Mexican drug war. Am Econ Rev 105(6):1738–1779

    Google Scholar 

  20. Economist, The (2015) “Captured capos."

  21. Economist, The (2016) “Longer jail sentences do deter crime, but only up to a point."

  22. Ehrlich I (1973) Participation in illegitimate activities: a theoretical and empirical investigation. J Polit Econ 81:521–565

    Google Scholar 

  23. Grasmick HG, Bryjak GJ (1980) The deterrent effect of perceived severity of punishment. Social Forces 59(2):471–491

    Google Scholar 

  24. Guerrero Gutierrez E (2010) Security, Drugs, and Violence in Mexico: A Survey. Lantia Consultores, S.C, Washington D.C.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Gujarati DN, Porter DC (2008) Basic econometrics, 5th edn. McGraw Hill Education, New York

    Google Scholar 

  26. Harbaugh, William T., Naci Mocan, Michael S. Visser (2013) Theft and Deterrence. Discussion Paper Series 5813 The Institute for the Study of Labor

  27. Harcourt BE (2001) The illusion of order: the false promise of broken windows policing. Harvard University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  28. Hirschi T, Gottfredson M (1983) Age and the explanation of crime. Am J Sociol 89:552–584

    Google Scholar 

  29. Hodgson J (2015) Legitimacy and state responses to terrorism: the UK and France. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  30. Ingram, Matthew C (2013) “Criminal procedure reform in Mexico: where things stand now.” Technical report Wilson Center

  31. Karstedt S (2001) Comparing cultures, comparing crime: challenges, prospects and problems for global criminology. Crime Law Soc Chang 36:285–308

    Google Scholar 

  32. Karstedt S (2015) Does democracy matter? Comparative perspectives on violence and democratic institutions. Eur J Criminol 12(4):457–481

    Google Scholar 

  33. Kelling GL, Coles CM (1996) Fixing broken windows. Touchstone, New York

    Google Scholar 

  34. LaFree G (1998) Losing Legitimacy: Street Crime and the Decline of Social Institutions in America. Westview, Boulder

    Google Scholar 

  35. Langer M (2007) Revolution in Latin American criminal procedure: diffusion of legal ideas from the periphery. American Journal of Comparative Law 55:617–676

    Google Scholar 

  36. Ley S (2018) To vote or not to vote: how criminal violence shapes electoral participation. J Confl Resolut 62(9):1963–1990

    Google Scholar 

  37. Ley S, Trejo G (Forthcoming) “High-profile criminal violence: why drug cartels murder government officials and party candidates in Mexico.” British Journal of Political Science

  38. McArdle A, Erzen TT (2001) Zero tolerance: quality of life and the new police brutality in new York City. New York University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  39. Messner SF, Raffalovich LE, Sutton GM (2010) Poverty, infant mortality, and homicide rates in cross-national perspective: assessments of criterion and construct validity. Criminology 48:509–537

    Google Scholar 

  40. Migdal J (1988) Strong societies and weak states. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  41. Morris SD (2012) Corruption, drug trafficking, and Violence in Mexico. Brown Journal of World Affairs 18(2):29–43

    Google Scholar 

  42. Nivette AE (2011) Cross-national predictors of crime: a meta-analysis. Homicide Stud 15:103–131

    Google Scholar 

  43. O’Donnell GA (1993) On the state, democratization and some conceptual problems: a Latin American view with glances at some postcommunist countries. World Dev 21(8):1355–1369

    Google Scholar 

  44. O'Donnell, Guillermo A (1998) Polyarchies and the (un)rule of law in Latin America. Technical report 254. The Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies

  45. Osorio, Javier, Livia I. Schubiger and Michael Weintraub. (2016) “Vigilante Mobilization and Local Order: Evidence from Mexico." Prepared for MPSA Chicago, IL 2016

  46. Pasara L (2009) Criminality, public security, and the challenge to democracy in Latin America. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame

    Google Scholar 

  47. Pratt TC, Cullen FT (2005) Assessing macro-level predictors and theories of crime: a meta-analysis. Crime Justice 32:373–450

    Google Scholar 

  48. Pridemore WA, Trent CLS (2010) Do the invariant findings of land, McCall, and Cohen generalize to cross-national studies of social structure and homicide? Homicide Stud 14:296–335

    Google Scholar 

  49. Pruitt D, Peirce RS, McGillicuddy NB, Welton GL, Castrianno LM (1993) Long-term success in mediation. Law Hum Behav 17:313–330

    Google Scholar 

  50. Rios, Viridiana (2016) “The impact of crime and violence on economic sector diversity.” The Wilson Center

  51. Rios V, Shirk DA (2011) Drug violence in Mexico: data and analysis through 2010. Trans-Border Institute, San Diego

    Google Scholar 

  52. Rodriguez Ferreira Octavio, David Shirk (2015) Criminal Procedure Reform in Mexico, 2008–2016: The Final Countdown for Implementation. Technical report, Justice in Mexico, University of San Diego

  53. Shirk, David A (2010) Judicial Reform in Mexico: Change and Challenges in the Justice Sector. Technical report, Justice in Mexico

  54. Silverman EB (1999) NYPD Battles Crime: Innovative Strategies in Policing. Northwestern University Press, Evanston

    Google Scholar 

  55. Skocpol Theda (1985) Bringing the State Back in. Cambridge University Press

  56. Snyder R, Duran-Martinez A (2009) Does illegality breed violence? Drug trafficking and state-sponsored protection rackets. Crime Law Soc Chang 52(3):253–273

    Google Scholar 

  57. Sparks JR, Bottoms A, Hay W (1996) Prisons and the problem of order. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  58. Sunshine J, Tyler TR (2003) The role of procedural justice and legitimacy in shaping public support for policing. Law Soc Rev 37(3):513–547

    Google Scholar 

  59. Teevan J (1976) Subjective perception of deterrence (continued). J Res Crime Delinq:155–164

  60. Trelles A, Carreras M (2012) Bullets and votes: violence and electoral participation in Mexico. Journal of Politics in Latin America (2):89–123

  61. Tulchin, Joseph S. and Meg Ruthenburg (2006) Toward a society under law: citizens and their police in Latin America. Johns Hopkins Press

  62. Tyler TR (1990) Why people obey the law. Yale University Press, New Haven

    Google Scholar 

  63. Tyler TR (2006) Psychological perspectives on legitimacy and legitimation. Annu Rev Psychol 57:375–400

    Google Scholar 

  64. Tyler TR, Blader SL (2000) Cooperation in groups. Psychology Press, Philadelphia

    Google Scholar 

  65. Tyler TR, Huo YJ (2002) Trust in the law: encouraging public cooperation with the police and courts. Russell-Sage, New York

    Google Scholar 

  66. Tyler TR, Lind EA (1992) A relational model of authority in groups. Adv Exp Soc Psychol 25:115–191

    Google Scholar 

  67. Tyler TR, Rasinski K (1991) Procedural justice, institutional legitimacy, and the acceptance of unpopular U.S. Supreme Court decisions: a reply to Gibson. Law Soc Rev 25(3):621–630

    Google Scholar 

  68. Tyler TR, Boeckmann RJ, Smith HJ, Huo YJ (1997) Social justice in a diverse society. Westview Press, Boulder

    Google Scholar 

  69. Uldriks N (2009) Police reform, security, and human rights in Latin America: an introduction. Lexington Books, Lanham

    Google Scholar 

  70. United Nations Development Report (2013) Citizen Security with a Human Face: Evidence and Proposals for Latin America. Technical report New York: United Nations Development Programme

  71. UNODC (2013) Global study on homicide. Technical report. New York: United Nations Development Programme

  72. Woody, Christopher (March 19, 2016) “How an overlooked impact of Mexico's drug violence is holding back its economy.” Business Insider

  73. Zepeda-Lecuona, Guillermo (2004) Crimen sin castigo: procuracion de justicia penal y ministerio publico en Mexico. Centro de Investigacion para el Desarrollo

  74. Zepeda-Lecuona, Guillermo (2010) Los mitos de la prision preventiva en Mexico. Technical report. Washington, D.C.: Open Society Justice Initiative

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Erin Terese Huebert.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

I declare that I have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Huebert, E.T. Criminal procedure reform and the impact on homicide: evidence from Mexico. Trends Organ Crim 24, 42–69 (2021).

Download citation


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