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As Mexican Officials Tout Drug-Courts Innovation, Drug-War Opponents See Window Dressing

By: María Gabriela Díaz - May 14, 2014, 12:37 pm

Español Drug courts may not be new in the United States, but they are certainly a novelty in the Mexican criminal justice system. On Monday in Morelos state, Mexican officials inaugurated the nation’s second Court for Treatment of Addictions.

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.

Xiuh Tenorio Drug Courts
Xiuh Tenorio, director of the government secretariat for citizen participation and crime prevention. Source: Ultra.

“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,” Tenorio says.

The goal of this new system is to reduce the 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.

Graco Ramírez, 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.

Mexico Drug Court Morelos
The Supreme Court of Justice for the state of Morelos announces the creation of the state’s first drug court. Source: El Imparcial.

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 in consideration the results that this model has provided in the United States, Naidoo is skeptical when it comes 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.

Mexican prison inmates
Crime rates haven’t decreased in Monterrey, the city with Mexico’s first drug court. Source: Unomasuno.

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 a 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 context.

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. But the results, however, 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.

María Gabriela Díaz María Gabriela Díaz

María Gabriela Díaz reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and led the PanAm Post internship program. She has a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a focus in international affairs.