The emergency taught us that all countries should invest more in information technologies and in guaranteeing Internet access.*

*Interview with journalist Diana Lastiri published by Mexico’s El Universal newspaper on November 12, 2020.

Latin American justice systems were completely paralyzed for several days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mexico was no exception, and the situation has taught its judicial branches several lessons according to Justice Studies Center of the Americas (JSCA) Executive Director Jaime Arellano Quintana.

In an interview with El Universal, Arellano shared his concerns regarding what the new normal demands of the countries of the region. In the case of Mexico, his concern is focused on ensuring that there is a functional prosecution service and that judicial branches privilege transparency in cases of public interest without using the pandemic as an excuse to close their doors.

He stated that COVID-19 has taught us that all countries must invest more in information technologies and guarantee Internet access given that socio-economic inequalities deepened during the health emergency.

How did Latin American justice systems act during the pandemic?

-Quickly, judicial branches decided to maintain essential services, in general, for hearings in which a ruling had to be issued regarding review of precautionary measures, arrest and detention procedure oversight and freedoms. Another aspect had to do with domestic violence and relationships between children and their parents. However, we believe that their role remained unchanged because in practice there were various circumstances that did not allow them to fully implement it.

Very strong disparities were produced in countries like Peru, Mexico and Argentina. In many cases, local judicial officials began to make decisions on their own, and the general rule of priority services was applied differently in different regions of each country. There were even judges who began to issue very disparate rulings in regard to what should be considered a priority.

What will be the impact of the suspension of procedural deadlines at the beginning of the pandemic?

-Practically every country suspended their procedural deadlines in non-essential areas like civil, commercial or mercantile justice. This meant that the vast majority of countries had an accumulation of cases that had not yet been initiated.

In the case of Mexico, most people were going to judicial buildings with a certain level of distancing. Priority was given to oversight of the legality of detentions and orders to be held in custody. The prosecutor’s office started to engage in more strategic decision-making because in some cases the terms for complementary investigation started to be applied and officials started to hold back decisions to lay charges unless they were forced to do so due to constitutional guarantees.

Reporting on the hearings held for Emilio Lozoya, who was implicated in the Odebrecht corruption case, was handled via WhatsApp. Is that an ideal platform?

-I don’t think the pandemic should be used as an excuse. On the contrary, it should be an even more powerful reason to ensure the transparency and public nature of judicial activity in general and criminal matters in particular.

I don’t think that the pandemic is an excuse not to hold public hearings regarding matters of public interest. There may be technical difficulties that justify it- that’s possible. But in general, aside from that technical impediment, videoconferencing using electronic platforms allows many more people to be aware that a hearing is held than normally would be.

If you can’t broadcast a hearing to the entire world, the media should at least have a signal that allows them to watch what is happening live. That would allow representatives of the “fourth estate” to inform us what is happening with a lot of teaching about what occurred in the respective hearing.

During a state of exception or emergency like a pandemic, there must be just as much or even more transparency as long as the technical conditions and case allow it. This is a way to show the public that the system is continuing to function normally and that odd things are not occurring.

How did Mexico handle cases of domestic violence and family law?

-Domestic violence increased in Mexico due to confinement just as it did in the rest of Latin America. There were major delays in solving this type of family situation in the justice systems. In other countries, systems were created to allow a person to pretend to order a pizza when they needed help. The person on the other end of the line would be trained to understand that the victim was calling for help but had a victimizer in their presence. In some cases, people created subtle signs that could be used during videoconferences to indicate that a person was the victim of violence. But that didn’t happen in Mexico. The pandemic has to teach us all to move forward with certain protocols in cases of crisis.

What will the new normal in the courts look like?

-We are going to return to a new normal or semi-normal state because the pandemic is not over and is predicted to last at least through fall 2021. This means that the courts will have to continue to operate in a hybrid mode.

Read the full interview here: