Mexico's justice system battles its own reputation to build trust

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Police in Mexico have long failed to inspire trust. The vast majority of crimes are never solved. Often, a signed confession is enough to put somebody in jail, even if the evidence is sketchy.

But with U.S. assistance, Mexico has been attempting to improve its judicial system — and the northern state of Chihuahua, which borders Texas and New Mexico, is considered one of the pioneers.

On the Friday night before Christmas, a team of forensic cops in Chihuahua city, the state capital, jumped in a police truck and drove toward a crime scene. The driver, Freddy Lopez, sped through traffic flashing his brights. He made a stop at a Days Inn near the historic city center to fetch the on-call anthropologist, who happened to be at holiday party.

The anthropologist climbed aboard the truck wearing a two-piece suit and a morose expression.

"We know there's a dead body when we gotta bring this guy," Lopez said.

Back on the road, they headed south toward a hillside barrio packed tightly with multicolored homes. At an abandoned house, the team was briefed by the lead officer with the state homicide unit.

Indeed there was a body. It was stuffed in a refrigerator, buried in the dirt floor of the house. Police suspected a serial killer at work. It was the third body they'd found in less than a month bearing similar wounds. A protected witness tipped them off to this particular spot.

The forensics team zipped themselves into marshmallow-like body suits and pulled on latex gloves. Inside the house, they covered the victim's hands in plastic bags to protect any biological matter under his nails. They bagged nearby beer cans and cigarette butts and photographed everything. Outside, officers made sure the cordoned-off scene stayed secure.

Even this basic police work is something to marvel at in Mexico, where a recent study by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that 98 percent of crimes "fail to result [in] convictions." Judicial reform, which started in 2008, is meant to attack Mexico's high rate of impunity.

"The fundamental feature of Mexico's new criminal justice system is that it inserts accountability into the process," says David Shirk, an expert in Mexican criminal justice at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. "It allows the state's evidence to be questioned and challenged. It means that police have to do their job well."

Under the new system, the accused has more rights and is presumed innocent until the state can prove his or her guilt before a judge.

"These reforms are going to be the key to making it clear that the work has to be done, otherwise criminals are going to walk free," Shirk says.

The U.S. has poured millions into this reform effort via the Merida Initiative. Most of the money has gone to train Mexican judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. A smaller amount has gone to train police, a critical part of reform that's far behind schedule.

Mexico's congress approved a constitutional amendment mandating judicial reform in 2008. They set a deadline of June 2016 for full implementation. All states are currently operating under the new judicial system, but some are further along than others.

While Chihuahua had serious problems with botched police investigations at the onset of reform, it's now making a concerted effort to improve. Its officers have received training in U.S. cities like Santa Fe, El Paso and Chicago. [[

Still, Mexican police have a major perception problem to combat.

"When we think of police in Mexico we think of human rights violations and tortured confessions," says Claudia Rodriguez, a former prosecutor and now director of Chihuahua's state police academy. "Our job is to replace that image with one of a well-trained, professional cop."

The academy mandates courses on human rights for its cadets, some with a special focus on women and the LGBT community. They're working on perfecting basic skills, such as shooting a gun and handcuffing a suspect. Cadets are also trained on how to take the evidence they gather in the field and present it in court — something they weren't expected to do before.

"The work we do makes a big difference in whether an innocent person ends up in jail or a guilty person goes free," says forensics officer Miguel Wilchis de la Vega, who has attended training in the U.S.

It helps that they have the right tools. Wilchis de la Vega says technicians in the morgue used to cut open cadavers with steak knives and handsaws; now they have specialized instruments.

Chihuahua now has two in-state DNA identification labs, whereas 15 years ago it had none.

Working cops also have the chance to go back to school and get a college degree.

"The change is enormous," Rodriguez says. "It fills me with pride now to see an officer defend himself in court, able to stand by his work and show he has nothing to hide."

The pride that comes with a job well done is palpable among the officers interviewed for this story. It's a pride that experts like Shirk say will make them less likely to succumb to corruption from political pressure or organized crime — a serious problem that continues to plague the Mexican justice system.

"We have to keep in mind that this is a long-term game," said Shirk. "It will be at least another decade, maybe two decades, before we see some of its effects fully come to bloom."

Aaron Ramos, a state police commander in Chihuahua who's survived two attempts on his life, agrees there's hope in the next generation.

"What gives me the greatest pride," he says, "is when my 9-year-old son asks me to visit his school wearing my police uniform."

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