Is The Death Penalty Dead in Mexico?

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Mexico currently has no death penalty. However in the past few years the international press has reported that Mexico may reinstitute capital punishment in response to violent crimes committed by criminals engaged in drug trade. And several research studies indicate that among specific groups in Mexico, such as university students, a majority favor reinstating the death penalty. There are compelling reasons to believe that this will not happen.

Mexico has been an international leader in abolishing the use of the death penalty. Although the date of legislation formally outlawing capital punishment in all cases is quite recent – 2005 – the death penalty has not been imposed in Mexico in a civil case since the late 1930’s. Even in military cases, the last execution took place in 1961.

Nearly all countries in the western hemisphere have formally or de facto abolished the use of execution as a legal penalty. Only one “new world” country has executed anyone in recent years – the United States. Last year, the U.S. ranked fifth in the order of countries carrying out the death penalty, with 43 people put to death with lethal injections. Only the governments of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq executed a greater number of people.

One of the major differences between the US and the top four countries is the form of government responsible for executions – in the US the vast majority of death penalty cases are under the jurisdiction of individual States, not the federal government. And although, in 2010, 3,158 prisoners were sentenced to death in the US, fourteen states had no prisoners on death row, and four states accounted for more than 50% of the country’s death row inmates: California, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania.

Mexico’s stance on capital punishment versus specific U.S. States – especially border States – long has been a source of international complexity.

Extradition of alleged criminals from Mexico to the U.S. in capital cases was resolved by the Mexico Extradition Treaty with the United States, signed in 1978, which specifically permits refusal of extradition in capital cases “unless assurances are received that the death penalty will not be imposed, or if imposed, will not be executed, for an offense not punishable by death in the country from which extradition is requested.”

On the other hand, execution of Mexican nationals convicted of capital offenses in the U.S. has not been resolved. The federal government of Mexico has vigorously appealed to the U.S. Federal government to intervene in cases where convicted Mexican nationals are about to be executed without due process such as contacting the Mexican consulate at the time of arrest. But states’ rights are so strong in the U.S. that even when the U.S. Federal Government has voiced strong objections to carrying out such death penalties, states such as Texas have sometimes prevailed and executed Mexican nationals.

Even in the U.S, the use of capital punishment appears to be declining. In 1999, 98 prisoners were executed. By 2011, this had been reduced to 43 executions. These trends mirror the reduction of capital punishment around the world. And several factors appear to be at work in this decline.

Major international institutions have vigorously opposed the use of the death penalty. The United Nations has been challenging their member nations to outlaw capital punishment and has voted repeatedly to demand that countries where the penalty is still allowed should establish a moratorium on actually carrying out any executions. Amnesty International devotes major resources to publicizing executions and lobbying countries to join the growing number of counties finding more humane ways of dealing with people convicted of capital crimes. The Catholic Church is outspoken in its condemnation of the death penalty.

A large body of research on capital punishment suggests the futility of imposing death penalties. More specifically, the research shows that the death penalty does not deter other criminals from committing capital offenses such as murder or rape. Only an extremely small proportion of criminals who have committed capital crimes are psychopaths whose behavior is unlikely to change; most can be rehabilitated. And it is impossible to accurately predict which convicted prisoners would commit another heinous crime, and which would make a productive contribution to society if allowed to live. One justification often offered for capital punishment is to avenge victims, yet the fact is that a majority of family members of murder victims do not approve of the death penalty.

In recent years, a growing area of research reviews evidence in capital cases in light of the latest scientific knowledge and reveals the substantial number of cases where people have been convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death yet someone else committed the crime. Even where the contradictory evidence is unearthed before the sentenced person has been executed, the rigidity of the legal system sometimes does not allow any mechanism for halting the inevitable execution, accompanied by the heartbreaking spectacle of a vigil by ordinary citizens outside the prison protesting the unfairness of the legal process. Add to this the evidence that imposition of the death penalty is inexorably intertwined with race, ethnicity, poverty, gender, and geography, and you have a recipe for the increasing revulsion toward the death penalty around the world.

Given the history of the abolition of the death penalty in Mexico, the international trends in capital punishment and the knowledge that reinstating the death penalty is unlikely to have an effect on drug-trade related violence, it would be very surprising to see a reenactment of legal executions in Mexico.

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