March 23, 2015
The Rule of Law in Mexico and the Mérida Initiative
Mexico’s Rule of Law Reforms
Mexico, a top U.S. trade partner and political ally, has
struggled to address violence and human rights abuses
perpetrated by criminal groups and corrupt officials.
Mexico’s problems have been exacerbated by the weakness
of many of its criminal justice institutions. Homicides have
decreased from record levels recorded in 2011, but
kidnappings, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings
persist. On average, more than 90% of reported crimes in
Mexico go unpunished. Recent cases have drawn attention
to the particular problem of impunity for human rights
abuses. Reducing impunity in Mexico is a key goal of U.S.
and Mexican efforts under the Mérida Initiative, a bilateral
initiative for which Congress has appropriated $2.5 billion.
In response to criticisms of his handling of these
incidents, in November 2014, Mexican President
Enrique Peña Nieto proposed 10 actions to improve the
rule of law. One of those actions was the mando único
(unified command), a constitutional reform that would
remove the command of police forces from municipalities
and place it at the state level. This plan aims to reduce
police corruption and improve coordination with federal
forces. However, some experts question the notion that state
forces are any less corrupt and maintain that this change
will not prevent abuses or strengthen accountability. No
constitutional reform has been passed; however, several
states have begun implementation of that police model.
Little progress has been made on the other proposals, such
as establishing a national emergency hotline.
In October 2014, Mexico’s National Human Rights
Commission (CNDH) issued a report concluding that at
least 12 people had been killed execution-style by the
Mexican military in Tlatlaya, Mexico on July 1, 2014.
The military originally claimed that the victims were
criminals killed in a confrontation with soldiers. This case
has resulted in criticism of not only the military and state
prosecutors but federal prosecutors who originally failed to
investigate these allegations of extrajudicial killings. The
CNDH also documented claims of torture of two witnesses
to the killings by the military and prosecutors from the state
of Mexico. A December 2014 report by the U.N. Special
Rapporteur on Torture revealed that the use of torture is
“generalized” in Mexico and has been used to coerce
confessions. Seven soldiers and one lieutenant have since
been arrested for their involvement.
The still unresolved case of 43 missing students who
disappeared in Iguala, Guerrero, in September 2014 has
also drawn attention to the issues of extrajudicial killings,
enforced disappearances, and impunity. The disappearance
and likely killing of the students—which involved the local
police, the Iguala mayor, and his wife—galvanized large
protests in Mexico and around the world against corruption
and impunity. The U.N. Committee on Enforced
Disappearances released a report in February 2015 stating
that enforced disappearances such as these are common in
Mexico and have at times involved authorities. It also
identified the “near inexistence” of convictions for such
According to figures released by Mexico’s attorney
general’s office in January 2015, more than 23,270 people
have disappeared in Mexico since 2007.
President Peña Nieto also replaced Attorney General
Jesus Murillo Karam with former Senator Arely Gomez
in February 2015. Attorney General Gomez has stated that
there are still pending issues in the Iguala case and is
working with experts from the Inter-American Commission
on Human Rights (IAHCR) on the investigation. IAHCR
also intends to help the Mexican government develop
search plans for missing persons and improve services for
In February 2015, the Chamber of Deputies passed
several constitutional changes to create an anticorruption system, but Senate approval of the system is
pending. The reform creates special courts to hear cases of
corruption and an independent federal audit office for
administrative offenses. That office and a special prosecutor
can investigate members of government and independent
According to the World Economic Forum, corruption
costs up to 9% of Mexico’s GDP every year.
Judicial Reform. As per constitutional reforms enacted in
2008, Mexico has until June 2016 to move from a closeddoor judicial system based on written arguments presented
to a judge to an adversarial public trial system with oral
arguments and the presumption of innocence. These
changes aim to make Mexico’s system more transparent
and impartial. Through alternative dispute resolution, the
system can also become more flexible and efficient,
ensuring that trials are reserved for serious crimes. With
only four states fully operating under the new system
and 24 partially operating under the new system,
significant work remains to be done.
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The Rule of Law in Mexico and the Mérida Initiative
The Mérida Initiative
The Obama Administration considers its relationship
with Mexico to be among its most important. The
development and implementation of the Mérida Initiative
has resulted in a significant increase in U.S.-Mexican
security and rule of law (ROL) cooperation.
prosecutorial efficiency, strengthened analytical and quality
control capacity of justice sector institutions, and increased
access to justice and improved victim’s assistance. USAID
also supports training for private lawyers, professors, and
bar associations to modify curricula and technical standards
to be consistent with the new system.
Human Rights. USAID has provided some $5 million for
prevention, protection, prosecution, and advocacy efforts,
particularly for journalists and human rights defenders. The
agency is working with the Mexican government to
strengthen its Protection Mechanism for Journalists and
Human Rights Defenders, which has been criticized as
weak and insufficient. USAID also works with civil society
on issues such as the prevention of torture.
Most ROL programs have been implemented by the State
Department, along with the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID). The Department of Justice’s (DOJ)
Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance
and Training (OPDAT) and International Criminal
Investigative Assistance Training Program are also
supporting Mexico’s transition to a new justice system.
Police Training. The State Department has supported
police training at both the federal and state levels. Capacity
building for law enforcement has been provided in a wide
range of basic and specialized topics such officer safety,
crime scene preservation, investigation techniques, and
intelligence-gathering. The State Department is also
supporting Mexican efforts to professionalize law
enforcement by improving police recruitment, training, and
professional career path development. DOJ has provided
training to agents of the PGR’s Criminal Investigations
Agency to better prepare them for their role in carrying out
investigations in an accusatorial system.
Judicial Sector Training (Federal and State). OPDAT
efforts have focused on preparing prosecutors, judges, and
other justice sector actors for the new accusatorial system.
Specialized training programs in anti-money laundering,
trafficking in persons, and anti-kidnapping within the new
system are also being developed. The State Department is
also providing equipment and technical assistance to
prepare courtrooms in a number of states to host oral trials.
USAID has invested an estimated $76 million in assistance
of judicial reform implementation at both the federal and
state levels. This assistance includes promotion of increased
Congress has expressed ongoing concerns about human
rights conditions and the rule of law in Mexico. Congress
has continued monitoring adherence to vetting
requirements, conditioned U.S. assistance to the Mexican
military and police on compliance with certain human
rights standards, and provided funding to support human
rights training for security forces and to protect groups
vulnerable to human rights abuses. Congress has also
periodically withheld aid pending concerns about human
rights. The Obama Administration has requested $119
million for the Mérida Initiative for FY2016. As Congress
considers that request and oversees the Mérida Initiative,
questions for oversight might include:
• How is Mexico complying with the human rights
conditions on Mérida Initiative funds that prohibit
torture and require action to find missing persons?
• Should additional conditions be added?
• Federal police have been vetted and trained by the State
Department yet continue to have problems with
corruption. How can Mérida aid be used to strengthen
ongoing internal and external accountability
mechanisms for federal, state, and municipal police?
• How are OPDAT and USAID coordinating and
measuring the effectiveness of their training programs?
• Is U.S. training reaching all of the actors that need to be
trained in order for the new oral system to function
(such as forensic experts, defense attorneys, and
• Are USAID’s human rights programs effective? If so,
should they receive additional funding?
For more information, see CRS Report R41349, U.S.Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and
Ingrid Schulz, Research Associate, contributed to this
Clare Ribando Seelke, email@example.com, 7-5229
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