4 June 2020

"Institutionalized Police Brutality: Torture, the Militarization of Security and the Reform of Inquisitorial Justice in Mexico", (2020) American Political Science Review Vol 114, No.4.

By Beatriz Magaloni, Luis Rodríguez


Much of Latin America inherited inquisitorial criminal justice systems from the colonial period that were conducive to abuses of due process rights, though the region has recently undergone a wave of reforms. The paper raises the question of the effectiveness of formal institutional reforms in restraining abuse against accused criminals and provides a case of successful reforms to counteract the legacy of abusive colonial institutions by examining the reform in Mexico.



Torture remained a widespread problem in the judicial system well after Mexico's democratization and worsened with the militarization of security that was brought on by the Drug War. In 2008, a constitutional reform began the process of changing the criminal justice system to an accusatorial model, allowing defendants more rights and building protections against abuses into the legal system. Between 2014 and 2016, all states in Mexico had to replace their code of criminal procedure with a single, standardized code which imposed strict controls around the procedures for arresting individuals, created a new structure for the judiciary to hold police accountable, and led to strict standards for the quality of evidence admissible in court.



We use multi-method approach that included interviews with police officers on how they are adapting to the new reform as well statistical analysis of information gathered from a nationally representative survey of Mexican prisoners. We construct measures of different kinds of physical torture and threats derived from questions about abuses suffered during a prisoner's arrest and trial. This analysis includes a causal identification strategy which exploits the staggered implementation of the reform at the state level to compare reported levels of torture across Mexico as the reform is enters effect.



  • Despite a pervasive institutional legacy of police reliance on torture, our results show a sharp and immediate decline in torture that coincides with the implementation of this reform.
  • Police have struggled to adapt to the new system.



The inquisitorial system of criminal investigation as it existed across Latin America allowed pervasive violations of due process rights -- in Mexico's case, through torture. A reformed code of criminal procedure and the implementation of an accusatorial system led to a decline in torture by

  • Imposing accountability through the figure of an independent supervising judge who oversees the investigation
  • Strict rules regulating the quality of evidence that would be acceptable in a criminal proceeding

It suggests that institutional reforms, even in an environment with an active criminal threat against the state, can constrain abuses by state agents. Moreover, we find that police have struggled to adapt their work to the requirements of the new system and identify challenges in carrying out investigations that stem from reliance on confessions as evidence.



Magaloni, Beatriz and Rodriguez, Luis. (Forthcoming). “Institutionalized Police Brutality: Torture, the Militarization of Security and the Reform of Inquisitorial Justice in Mexico.” American Political Science Review