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Wednesday, June 5, 2024 | Back issues
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Inter-American Court: Mexico’s mandatory pretrial detention violates human rights

The ruling makes constitutional change incumbent upon Mexican lawmakers and requires judges to reinterpret criminal law in order for Mexico to comply with an international human rights treaty that the country has ratified.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Mexico’s mandatory pretrial detention system violates human rights, according to a ruling issued Friday by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. 

“Mexico is responsible for violating the personal liberty and the presumption of innocence due to the application of investigatory injunction and mandatory pretrial detention,” the court said in a press release following the ruling.

The case Tzompaxtle Tecpile et al. v. Mexico stemmed from the arrests of three men in the state of Veracruz in January 2006 after their car broke down on the highway. Officers of the now defunct Federal Preventative Police searched their vehicle and found items they claimed potentially linked the men to organized crime in the state.

They were interrogated and held incommunicado for two days, then held for three months on an investigatory injunction order known as “arraigo” (referring to the “rooting” of a suspect in custody), then placed in mandatory pretrial detention for about two and a half years.

The constitutionally mandated mechanism allows for a suspect to be held in prison without a conviction for up to two years. 

Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled on a case attempting to eliminate mandatory pretrial detention this past September, but the initiative spearheaded by Justice Luis María Aguilar Morales failed to receive enough votes to rule it unconstitutional. A second initiative by Aguilar to reform the mechanism in October likewise failed.

Human rights groups in Mexico have denounced the mandatory pretrial detention system as inhumane. Data reveal that it disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in Mexican society: the poorest of the poor who lack the resources to access quality legal representation. 

The feminist human rights organization Intersecta, which filed an amicus brief in the first case, estimated that as many as 90,000 people were incarcerated without convictions in June 2022, many of those for much longer than the two-year limit. 

Former Supreme Court Justice Arturo Zaldívar visited a women’s prison in May of last year and reportedly spoke to women who said they had been locked up on mandatory pretrial detention for as long as 15 years. He vowed to reform the mechanism during a press conference following the visit.

Zaldívar’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the rights court's ruling.

The rights court also ruled that the arraigo injunction and the search of the victims’ vehicle violated their human rights as defined in the American Convention on Human Rights, a treaty that Mexico ratified in 1981, as well as two additional protocols in subsequent decades.

The court said the arraigo injunction used in the case “violated per se the rights to personal liberty and the presumption of innocence of the person under arrest” and that the search “violated their right to privacy.”

The ruling has what legal scholar Javier Martín Reyes called “clear consequences” for the Mexican state, particularly its legislative and judicial branches. In order to comply with the treaty the country itself ratified, Mexico’s Congress must reform the country’s constitution. 

The ruling was a “very strong blow” to Mexico’s Supreme Court, Reyes said, adding that it mandates that Mexican judges interpret the laws stipulating these detention mechanisms accordingly. 

“They’ll either have to make interpretations that align Mexico’s criminal code with the American Convention on Human Rights, or flat out, if there is a general law, whether it be constitutional or legal, that is contrary to the interpretations of the IACHR, Mexican judges are obligated to give them preference,” he said. 

However, as is the nature of international treaties such as the American Convention on Human Rights, the ruling is not binding, and there will likely be obstacles or outright opposition to compliance. 

“In terms of teeth, of faculties for enforcement or asserting its decision, the court obviously has its complications,” Reyes said, adding that Mexico does run the risk of damaging its international reputation if it fails to comply.

The rights court noted Mexico has at least partially recognized its responsibility in a report submitted to the court and that the country signed an act of understanding with the victims’ legal representation.

The current political climate in Mexico, however, does not bode well for change. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has vehemently opposed any reforms to mandatory pretrial detention, claiming such a move would foment corruption in the courts. Critics accuse him of using it as a tool for political intimidation.

Located in San José, Costa Rica, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is composed of seven judges from several Latin American countries, including Mexico. The judge from Mexico, Eduardo Ferrer Mac-Gregor Poisot, recused himself from the case according to court protocol. 

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Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal, International

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