Information For American Crime Victims About The Criminal Justice Process In Mexico
This information on Mexico’s legal system is a general description of the criminal justice in Mexico. Some items of information below may not be relevant or precise with regard to a particular case. Questions involving interpretation of Mexican law should be addressed to legal counsel licensed to practice in Mexico.
Crime Victims And The Criminal Justice Process In Mexico
Being the victim of a crime in a foreign country can be a devastating and traumatic experience. While no one can undo the emotional trauma, physical injury, or financial loss you may have experienced, the Consular Citizen Services (CCS) units at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and U.S. Consulates and Consular Agencies throughout Mexico stand ready to help. We are very concerned about crimes committed against U.S. citizens in Mexico. This office, the CCS unit in Mexico, or other Consular Agencies in Mexico will provide you with pertinent victims’ assistance information. We will assist you in managing the practical consequences of being a crime victim and provide you with information about accessing the criminal justice system, as well as other resources for crime victims in Mexico and the United States, to the best of our ability.
Initial Decisions: Filing a Police Report and Seeking Prosecution
If you decide to pursue a criminal prosecution, you have a choice as to which type of police report you want to file. The type of report you choose to file is based on the type of crime committed and what you hope to accomplish.
- If you intend to pursue criminal charges, the suspect has already been caught, or an arrest is likely, you may file a complaint, or “denuncia”, with the judicial police. The filing of this complaint formally starts the investigation with the objective of charging a suspect and going forward to trial. For law enforcement to act as quickly as possible, this complaint should be filed in the judicial district where the crime took place. Nonetheless, the process of filing a complaint may take several hours. Many police stations will not have an English-speaking officer available to assist you. Although consular personnel may assist you with informal interpretation, they cannot act as official translators. They can assist you in finding an English speaking attorney.You may refer to these lists of attorneys in Mexico City (PDF, 173K) and elsewhere in the Mexico City consular district (PDF, 156K).
- If you want to trigger an investigation, but pursuit of a criminal trial is not likely, you may still file a report called an “Averiguación Previa” or “Reporte de Hechos,” with the judicial police. You may need this type of report to pursue an insurance claim or for other purposes. Filing this type of complaint usually takes several hours as well.
If you will only be in Mexico for a short stay but still want to file a complaint, please contact the Office of Citizens Consular Services at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City or at the U.S. Consulate nearest the location of the incident.
If you do decide to file a report or a denuncia, please provide a copy to the U.S. Embassy or closest U.S. Consulate in Mexico accompanied by your address, telephone number, and email address in the event we need to communicate with you. While we are not authorized to act as your legal representative, prosecutor or investigator, our office can help you track the progress of your case and advise you of any developments.
At your request, our office can also provide additional information regarding ministerios públicos (equivalent to the office of the public prosecutor or district attorney in the U.S.) in Mexico, including those near the U.S. Embassy or Consulates that have English translators available. Ministerios públicos are required to take your report regardless of where in Mexico the crime occurred and regardless of your nationality or residency. Again, it is best to file your report in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred, if possible. If for any reason you have difficulties filing your police report with a Mexican official, please notify the embassy immediately.
Mexican Legal Procedures
The information which follows is not a substitute for competent legal advice from an attorney licensed to practice law in Mexico who is also familiar with your case. (Click for a list of attorneys in Mexico City (PDF, 173K) or elsewhere in the Mexico City consular district (PDF, 156K)).
Stage one: Taking the suspect into custody
If the judicial police decide that a criminal offense has been committed and have probable cause to believe that a particular person committed the offense, they will attempt to arrest the suspect and turn him or her over to the agente of the ministerio público. Like in the U.S., the police may encounter obstacles locating perpetrators of crime, because they flee the scene or hide from officials.
The ministerio público should inform you in writing when a suspect has been arrested. In actual practice, written notification, when made at all, may be delayed and can take several months. For this reason, it is highly recommended that you hire an attorney to represent you. Once you hire an attorney, please provide us with contact information so that we can help you to track your case.
Stage two: Deciding whether the case will go to trial
Once the suspect is in custody, the agente or district attorney, conducts a preliminary investigation to determine whether the case should be prosecuted. If the agente decides there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, the case will be turned over to a judge. In most, but not all cases, if a suspect is being held in jail, the police and the agente have between 48 and 72 hours, from the time of arrest, to make this determination. If they do not make such a determination in that time frame, the suspect is released.
After a suspect is taken into custody, the victim may be asked to identify the suspect in person and a process called a “careo” may be conducted. The careo takes place at the penal courts in the jail where the suspect is being detained. A penal judge, a ministerio público, the victim’s attorney and the defense attorney are present for the careo. During the careo, the victim is asked to confront the suspect and may be questioned directly by the suspect. This process will take place in Spanish.
From the time the agente makes his determination that prosecution should occur, the judge has between 48 and 72 hours, excluding Mexican holidays and weekends, , in which to begin a hearing to determine “probable responsibility.” This hearing is equivalent to a “probable cause” hearing in the United States. At the hearing the accused is brought forward and confronted with evidence against him or her, including your detailed written, signed and witnessed denuncia describing the facts of the crime. Your personal appearance is not required.
After the hearing, the judge has up to an additional 72 hours within which to make a finding of probable responsibility or release the detained subject. Depending on the crime, a person for whom probable responsibility has been established will either be held for trial or released on bond. There is no bond for those accused of committing violent crimes. In effect, the finding of probable responsibility begins the trial process.
Stage three: Going to trial
Trials in Mexico are slow moving and very different from those in the United States. Attorneys, however, have an ability to influence the how quickly a case goes forward. Official proceedings will take place in Spanish. Other distinctive characteristics include:
- Many hearings. The trial does not occur in one or two sittings. Rather, it is split into many segments divided over a long period of time.
- No live testimony. Witness testimony (including testimony of the victim) is presented to the judge in the form of written statements and depositions.
- No live argument. Attorneys for the two opposing sides present their arguments to the judge in writing.
- No jury. The judge determines guilt or innocence based on the briefs presented to him/her and imposes the sentence.
- Time limits for completion of trial. When the maximum possible sentence is less than two years, the judge normally has up to four months to reach a verdict. When the maximum possible sentence is more than two years, the judge normally has up to one year to reach a verdict. However, verdicts may be delayed longer than the law allows in some cases.
- Generally, a verdict is handed down by the judge 15 working days after the accused has been brought before the court for a final hearing. If the verdict results in a prison sentence, the time the accused has spent in prison prior to the verdict counts toward the fulfillment of the sentence.
Hiring a Mexican Attorney
Although the agente of the ministerio público or district attorney is responsible for prosecuting your case, at any point during the criminal investigation or prosecution process you may want to consider hiring a Mexican attorney to pursue your interests. An attorney can promote your interests with the ministerio público and the court. While our office cannot recommend specific attorneys, you can click on the following links to find lists of attorneys in Mexico City (PDF, 173k) and elsewhere in the Mexico City consular district (PDF, 156K) who have expressed interest in representing U.S. citizens. Please note that, while we can provide you with information about an attorney’s professional and educational background, we cannot vouch for the accuracy of the background material provided by the lawyer, nor can we vouch for his/her integrity and competence. You may wish to select an attorney who speaks English.
When you engage an attorney, you should agree upon a written contract specifying exactly what your attorney is expected to do and how much he or she is to be paid for services rendered. Be cautious of those who promise prosecution in a short period of time in exchange for a large sum of money. Such a promise may indicate that these large sums are for bribes which are illegal. Make certain that you receive a receipt for all payments made, and try to arrange the contract so that full payment is not expected until the entire contract has been fulfilled. It is also helpful to document all oral and written communications for your records.
Resources for Victims of Crime
As of this writing, the Mexican government does not provide monetary compensation to crime victims. Unlike the system in the United States, where compensation payments and victim assistance services are made possible through public funds, in Mexico only the perpetrator has a legal obligation to pay for damages. Programs in some Mexican states provide victims with psychological, legal, and medical assistance, but this varies across Mexico.
Whether or not you decide to pursue your case through the Mexican judicial system, you may access victim compensation and assistance resources in the United States. Nearly half of the state crime victims’ compensation programs cover certain out-of-pocket expenses such as medical, funeral, counseling, and lost wages for eligible residents of the state who become victims of crime outside the U.S. The specific requirements and services vary from state to state. Information can be obtained through the state crime victims program in your state of residence. Contact information for all state compensation programs can be found at the web site of the National Association of Crime Victim Compensation Boards, www.ncvc.org.
Crime victim assistance may also be available in your community, such as rape crisis programs, shelters for battered women, victim support groups, and other resources for victims. Information about these programs is also available on the Internet. We can provide you with a brochure with these Internet sites. We can also provide you with a referral for a victim assistance program in your state.