The effect of the ‘war on organised crime’ on the Mexican federal judiciary: a comparative case study of judicial decision-making

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Using a comparative case study design, this thesis explores the impact on the Mexican federal judiciary of steep rises in violent crime, proliferation of armed organised crime groups, greater involvement of the military in crime control activities and the government’s ‘war on organised crime’. The thesis develops ‘enemy penology’ as a theoretical framework based on the observation that the Mexican government has increasingly conceptualised offenders as enemies and called for an explicitly militarised criminal justice response. Drawing on this theoretical framework, the thesis analyses qualitative data from two different sites –a ‘crime control as warfare’ scenario (highly militarised state) and an unchanged context (less militarised state). Findings are examined within the enemy penology framework and also drawing on theories of judicial behaviour and judicial roles in order to explain the overarching finding that judges seem to have insulated themselves from the ‘enemy penology’ promulgated by the government.
Analysis of 40 written judgements in drug cases and 28 semi-structured interviews with judges (drawn from a total of 56 interviews achieved during the fieldwork) indicated that decision making, guilt determination and sentencing were almost identical in the two locations despite stark differences in context. In both locations, the study observed an inclination to privilege police evidence, high conviction rates despite poor prosecutorial performance and insufficient evidence, and a tendency to impose minimum sentences. Interviewees discussed these issues as well as the impact of armed criminality, military involvement in crime control and judicial independence.
Overall, the Federal judiciary appeared to be not influenced by the enemy penology paradigm reproduced by public officials and criminal policies. Mexican judicial behaviour was found to be strongly shaped by a formalistic and legalistic understanding of judicial duties where accuracy in law interpretation is expected, disregarding other goals, including politics and policy considerations. This understanding is enhanced by the judiciary through strict observance of precedents, reversals and enhancing law-interpreter and ritualist judicial roles. Nonetheless, the empirical data also showed that judges’ views and opinions are informed by strategic goals, attitudes, motives, managerial needs and the pursuit of self-respect and recognition. In sum, examining court judgements and judges’ views about deciding cases in the light of the prevalent ‘enemy penology’ provided a rich understanding of the way decision-making in criminal matters is constructed by judges as well as the complex and often contradictory layers that comprise the image and role of the Mexican federal judge.
Date of Award2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorBenjamin Bowling (Supervisor) & Penelope Green (Supervisor)

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