May 26, 2014
State Drug-Courts in Mexico, Innovative or Window Dressing?
By Marcela Estrada
Drug courts may not
be new in the United States, but they are certainly a novelty in the Mexican criminal justice system. On [May 12] in
Morelos state, Mexican officials inaugurated the nation’s second Court for Treatment of Addictions. Source: El Imparcial
Even though the promised
results for the first one in Nuevo León state are yet to be seen, according to Xiuh Tenorio, director of the government
Secretariat for Citizen Participation and Crime Prevention, drug courts will become a benchmark for the federal government’s
new drug policy approach, and the first of many more in the nation.
“From the beginning of this administration, the federal government
has set forward an approach for the drug problem from the public health point of view. Today we materialize that notion into
this model. Morelos will contribute to the drug policy of our whole nation. This is why this court is so important,”
The goal of this new system is to reduce substance abuse as an alternative and achieve the social
reinsertion of those individuals who, under the influence of drugs, have committed for the first time a low-level offense.
Governor of Morelos, explains that 26 percent of the prosecutions for drug-related crimes are young people, and 50 percent
of the prison population are first-time offenders. Further, Ramírez emphasizes the financial benefits
drug courts bring to the table, since they can reduce public spending.
“Today we are spending 250,000 pesos annually for the imprisonment
of one person [US$19,360], while we can invest 25,060 annually in one person’s rehab. Rehab is better than to lock someone
up,” the governor asserts.
The drug courts offer a second opportunity to first-time delinquents who have committed a felony under
the influence. This new model not only allows the prisoners’ rehabilitation and reintegration, it takes off the pressure
from the justice system, and deters recidivism, according to María de los Ángeles Fromow, technical secretary
of the penal system.
However, not everyone agrees with the benefits this new policy could bring for Mexico’s society.
Theshia Naidoo, senior staff attorney from the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), analyzed Mexico’s new drug approach with the PanAm Post. Her organization
opposes the War on Drugs and advocates policies “grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.”
Taking into consideration
the results that this model has provided in the United States, Naidoo is skeptical when it comes to the Mexican case and the criminal
system’s intervention in the individual’s recovery.
“Given drug courts’ focus on low-level offenses, even
positive results for individual participants translate into little public safety benefit to the community. Treatment in the
community, whether voluntary or probation-supervised, often produces better results.”
Further, the DPA representative explains
that in the majority of cases, “the widespread use of incarceration — for failing a drug test, or missing an appointment
— means that some participants end up serving more time behind bars than if they had not entered drug court.
And some participants deemed ‘failures’ may actually face longer sentences than those who did not enter drug court
in the first place.”
Another detrimental consideration, she says, is the low level of success with drug-court treatment. “Some people
with serious drug problems respond to treatment in the drug court context; not the majority. The participants who stand the
best chance of succeeding in drug courts are those without a drug problem, while those struggling with compulsive drug use
are more likely to end up incarcerated.”
What the Mexican criminal justice system can do, according to the DPA, is work
toward removing criminal penalties for drug use to reduce mass drug arrests and incarceration.
The Association for a Fundamental Drug Policy (CUPIHD) also dismissed the initiative’s potential benefits, based on the experience
with Mexico’s first drug court — which has operated in Nuevo León state since 2009.
“In the case of
Monterrey city, there hasn’t been a significant decrease in the crime rate. From the first 103 people admitted [into the drug court], only 18 finished
their treatment, despite the strict admission criteria.”
If the problem is overpopulation in prisons, the organization asserts,
then it’s better to “avoid preventive prison, since the inmates who haven’t been sentenced are still half
of the total number of prisoners nationwide.”
Even though CUPIHD acknowledges it’s necessary to seek alternatives
to the current criminal justice system, they want to see new approaches adapted to the country’s conditions and social
For Marcelo Arteaga
Mata, coordinator of Students for Liberty (SFL) in Mexico, this new drug approach “won’t affect in a substantial
way the basic drug problem in Mexico.”
Regarding the effect of the hoped-for decrease to drug use on crime rates in Mexico,
Arteaga believes the impact will be very low. The majority of crimes committed in Mexico are related to drug trafficking,
he points out, not as a consequence of substance abuse.
Drug courts may work only with those who aren’t linked to organized
crime. However, the results won’t be the same with those who are involved with drug trafficking. In Mexico’s
social dynamic, “drug users fear retaliation from drug cartels if they quit using. The narco has a lot of
power over today’s society,” the SFL coordinator explains.
This commentary first
appeared on the PanAm Post (May 14, 2014), which along with its Canal blog is an online media outlet and source for news and analysis throughout the American continent.
Marcela Estrada reports from Caracas, Venezuela, and leads the PanAm Post internship program. She has a Bachelor
of Arts in political science with a focus in international affairs.