Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk is spending the week in Mexico. But this is not a vacation; it is a working trip. The prosecutor is volunteering her time as a teacher to instruct Mexican counterparts, a subject for which she is expertly qualified.
Polk recalls that she spent a high school year in Mexico as a foreign exchange student. She says she is a little rusty but was once fluent in Spanish, but not enough to train legal theory. "I use Spanish as much as I can and am conversant in the street and restaurants, but I don't have the legal vocabulary. We will have interpreters."
We all see the news reports that are rife with headlines about crime and Mexican law enforcement, especially linked to drug cartels and killings. But in recent years, perhaps the under-reported fact is that Mexico is totally overhauling its justice system from the ground up, beginning with law enforcement through the highest Mexican court.
If we haven't watched it on TV or read about it in the news, we take for granted a U.S. system in which a defendant has certain rights and the opportunity to defend himself in court against a prosecution, all overseen by a judge and, many times, a jury.
Unlike the United States, most trials in Mexico take place in closed proceedings where judges aren't present nor even meet the defendant. Attorneys and witnesses gather in a cubicle where a clerk takes notes and prepares a file, later sent to the judge for a decision. There are no juries.
A frightening reality is that only about a quarter of the crimes in Mexico are even reported, and then, only about 1 to 2 percent see justice.
With the production of more and more illegal drugs in Mexico and their export to the United States, the growth of violent crime has risen rapidly and the movement within the government to overhaul the law enforcement and justice system has grown after 2000. The United States also clearly has an interest in better law enforcement and justice there.
It is not the first time Mexico has changed its legal procedures. During the past 150 years, Mexico has adopted criminal codes from both France and then Spain.
In recent years, numerous U.S. agencies and public officials in the fields have spent volunteer hours training their counterparts across the border. The result is that now tens of thousands of police, prosecutors and judges have been trained in a system common to the United States.
In 2008, Mexico's congress approved a change to have trials be conducted orally - with attorneys arguing in an open courtroom before a judge - with a complete rollout by 2016. The overhaul is hoped to boost conviction rates and guarantee fair trials.
The Yavapai County Attorney is volunteering in the training program for the second time. Last year, she was in Santa Fe, N.M., where numerous Mexican prosecutors traveled, some by bus, from Mexico for the four and a half days of training.
While about 13 of the 32 Mexican states have already transitioned to "oral trials," other states have not made the switch.
"Our students are just complete beginners," says Polk. "They are all professionals and already prosecutors but under a very different system. They have to learn mid-career, how to prosecute a case. They have not done oral trials before."
Six trainers, including Polk will train students during the week using a make-believe case as an example.
"One trainer will talk about opening statements and opening theory of a case."
"I will instruct on direct examination," says Polk. "Another trainer will instruct on using the rules of evidence, how to get evidence in and making objections.
"A trainer will talk about prosecutorial ethics, cross examinations, impeachment of evidence and closing arguments. Between the training sessions, they will have actual practice sessions."
CWAG says "Oral trials" are no magic bullet for Mexico's ailing judicial system. The core problems of the Mexican justice sector stem from corruption and weakness of judicial institutions.
The program is funded and organized by the Conference of Western Attorneys General. The CWAG Alliance Partnership with Mexico is a cooperative program involving CWAG, Council of State Governments, National Association of Attorneys General, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the United States Agency for International Development and other public and private entities aimed at strengthening the legal systems of both the United States and Mexico.
In addition to Sheila Polk of Yavapai County, there is a trainer from Pinal County, one from APAC, two from the Utah Attorney General's Office and one from the New Mexico AGs office.
The Merida Initiative, the United States' $1.9 billion assistance program to Mexico, began mostly as a means to buy military hardware like Black Hawk helicopters for Mexico. But over the past two years, it has entered a new phase, in which purchases for the Mexican military are taking a back seat to measures to mend the branches of Mexico's civilian government.
Officials in both countries increasingly believe the root of Mexico's problem lies in creating an honest police force, professional judges and a prison system comparable with that in the United States.