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CWAG Supports Mexico's Transition to an Oral Adversarial Criminal Justice

Karen White,  Executive Director, Conference of Western Attorneys General

Building a successful prosecution depends on each member of the investigative and prosecutorial team, starting with the first response to the scene of the crime, and continuing until a conviction is obtained.

That is the message Al Lama, National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) chief of staff and National Attorneys General Training and Research Institute (NAGTRI) senior program counsel, and fellow instructors shared with Mexican state attorneys general personnel during a March team training held by the Conference of Western Attorneys General (CWAG) in Mexico City.

As Mexico transitions from an inquisitorial justice system inherited from Spain and France, to its new oral, adversarial criminal justice system, its actors require new skills. Through the CWAG Alliance Partnership, CWAG has organized volunteers from state attorneys general offices in the United States to work with their Mexican counterparts for more than seven years, to help their personnel acquire the skills necessary to success in the new system. As the June 18 deadline for the constitutional reforms looms, the pace of implementation of the reforms is frantic.

The CWAG Alliance Partnership is a cooperative program involving CWAG, NAAG, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), and other public and private entities aimed at strengthening international relationships with state attorneys generals offices in the United States, by supporting rule of law projects such as reinforcing judicial systems with greater efficiency and transparency; offering training programs that promote effective investigation and prosecution of transnational crime; and promoting collaboration among attorneys general from participating countries. Additionally, the CWAG Alliance Partnership Exchanges seek to bring together industry and public sector officials to foster increased international collaboration on issues such as human trafficking, cybercrimes, and intellectual property rights.

Since 2008, the CWAG Alliance Partnership has held more than 200 exchanges and events for law enforcement in Mexico, bringing together public and private sector experts and resources to reach more than 26,000 prosecutors, investigators, forensic scientists, judges and other members of the legal community in order to strengthen the rule of law in both countries.

During this latest training, Al Lama and his fellow instructors explored the dynamic of working as a team to investigate and bring a case to trial with a group of 23 Mexican state prosecutors, investigators, and forensics experts from areas as diverse as San Luis Potosí, Tabasco and Puebla as well as Mexico City. In most of Mexico, criminal investigators and forensics experts are part of the each state’s Attorney General’s Office, which has the primary responsibility for criminal prosecutions.

While transparency and efficiency are shared aims, Mexico’s new criminal justice system is not a copy of the U.S. system. The Mexican system has no citizen juries; cases are presented to a panel of three judges. The victim’s right to independent legal representation and to full financial restitution is enshrined in the constitution. The suspect can only be interrogated by a prosecutor and is not required to submit to cross-examination even if he chooses to make a statement during trial. The prosecutor has constitutionally-mandated principal responsibility for directing criminal investigations.

With these differences in mind, CWAG focuses on the transferable skills that will be needed in the new system. Working together as a team is a fundamental requirement for success. From the first response to the crime scene and throughout the investigation, prosecutors, police investigators, and forensics experts must coordinate the preservation and processing of evidence, the development of the theory of the case, and the preparation of witnesses and exhibits for trial.

Police investigators and forensics scientists will become polished public speakers and credible expert witnesses in their respective fields. Clear and concise opening statements, organized direct examinations, effective use of evidentiary exhibits, incisive cross-examinations, and persuasive closings will all be part of the repertoire of successful prosecutors. These skills and abilities are prerequisites in any adaptation of an oral, accusatorial criminal justice system.

Closing out the week of sharing experiences and advice, Al and the other instructors led the participants through a simulated oral trial, complete with witnesses and evidence. At the closing ceremonies, Al wished them much success, “We hope you find these new skills useful, and take them with you to your respective agencies and incorporate them into your new roles.”

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