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Guest post: What is behind Mexico’s low conviction rate?

July 15, 2014

The early release of Guadalajara Cartel kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero last year highlighted the weakness of Mexico’s criminal justice system.

And now for something completely different: a guest post by freelance writer and legal expert Daphne Holmes.

Mexico continues to make daily headlines due to the rising violence and social unrest present in the country. Drug cartels rule certain regions with an iron fist, leading to corruption, extortion and over-the-top violence tied to drug trafficking. And the lucrative trade targets U.S. markets, so border issues continue to simmer as many Mexicans take flight to the United States to avoid the most dangerous border territories.

At the same time, Mexico is emerging as an economic force in North America, having partnered with the United States and Canada in a bid to further prosperity in the region. With competitive wage structures and growing production capabilities, Mexico is well-positioned for growth in manufacturing and other economic sectors.  Unfortunately, lingering social mismanagement stands in the way of progress, including Mexico’s dysfunctional criminal justice system.

Historically characterized by corruption and tainted leadership, Mexico’s law enforcement agencies and justice system continue to deliver incredibly low conviction rates, when compared to other systems found across the globe.

During the past few decades, the Mexican economy has undergone major transformation, including the privatization of many former state-owned resources under former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. His reforms limited state involvement in industries the government once controlled, like mining, communications and banking. Shedding public jobs and empowering trade through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has bolstered the state’s middle class, yet longstanding obstacles continue to thwart progress.

Corruption and organized crime run rampant across Mexican society, flourishing in a country known for low conviction rates for criminals. And while progressive social change bodes well for its citizens, Mexico is among the worst performers in the world when it comes to providing security and justice for its residents.  During Felipe Calderon’s term, for example, Mexico’s war on drugs claimed about 80,000 casualties, with thousands of citizens also reported missing during the same period.

Mexican cartels dominate drug trafficking from South America to the United States, cashing in on an industry that gives them almost unlimited power within Mexico. Aside from drug trafficking, the cartels also engage in smuggling of black-market goods, extortion, prostitution and kidnapping for ransom.  The widespread influence of the competing cartels and the violent acts they commit make offenders hard to prosecute. Their deep pockets enable them to bribe officials at every level of government and justice, and they are not afraid to kill those attempting to hold them accountable.

Some estimates calculate the number of murder convictions at around 20 percent, while various sources identify overall criminal convictions between two and ten percent of those charged with crimes.  As a result, profiting from criminal enterprise carries very little risk of incarceration – even for those who are caught red-handed.

Even if the optimistic numbers put-forth by the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (PGR) are correct, placing the number of convictions for drug crimes at closer to 30%, it is still a stark contrast to U.S. justice, which convicts 90% of drug offenders.

In addition to corruption and other obstacles to effective prosecution in Mexico, only a relatively small number of crimes are even reported, further eroding the statistical efficacy of the state’s broken justice system.

A sweeping reform of Mexico’s judicial system was passed by the legislature in 2008 and continues to be implemented across the country. As a result of the changes to judicial process and prosecutorial methods, some regions report greater efficiency within the system (editor’s note: on the other hand, states such as Jalisco lag way behind schedule and in certain parts of the country criminals have found it easier to escape justice because prosecutors are insufficiently prepared for the new legal standards), which can only help increase the number of criminals held accountable for their misdeeds. Increased extradition to the United States for high-profile offenders is another approach proving effective for punishing criminals.

Low conviction rates in Mexico are symptomatic of a justice system ill-equipped to handle the influx of criminals in the country. In addition to ineffective justice infrastructure, law enforcement and judicial personnel are highly corrupt and easily influenced by bribes and intimidation. To make matters worse, the small percentage of crimes reported in Mexico further empowers criminal enterprises to conduct illicit business with impunity.

Daphne Holmes contributed this guest post. She is a writer from and you can reach her at

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 15, 2014 21:40

    Tijuana is as safe as any modern city in the world today. Increased industrial and manufacturing development coupled with the more than 150,000 people crossing the border every day counter the glorified news reports of crime in the region. Crime rates for the City of Tijuana are down and have been on a downward trend for the past several years. In early 2013, Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante announced that kidnappings have fallen 74% since 2010.

    If you like to get the latest information about Security in Mexico please go to

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