We do know, however, that in Mexico, perpetrators of violent crimes are rarely held to account, despite efforts to reform the criminal justice system in recent years.
Here are factors that may play a role in whether those who committed Monday’s attacks will be brought to justice.
Mexico has a sky-high crime rate but a tiny number of prosecutions
The number of homicides in Mexico rose to 33,341 last year, while 40,000 people were reported missing. A 2019 report by the group Justice in Mexico, based at the University of San Diego, attributed a “third to a half” of the violence “to the presence of organized crime groups, particularly drug trafficking organizations.”
Yet roughly 98 percent of violent crimes, including homicides, go unsolved in Mexico. That rate, based on various academic studies, has generally held steady for roughly 15 years, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, who researches drug and crime policy as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based think tank.
“The weak rule of law is really the crux of the problem,” said Arturo Sarukhán, former Mexican ambassador to the United States. “It’s one of Mexico’s Achilles’ heels.”
U.S.-backed reforms haven’t brought justice to average Mexicans, experts say
The U.S. government has contributed more than $300 million since 2008 to a project to overhaul Mexico’s justice system, as The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow reported in 2017.
“It is hard to overstate the significance of the restructuring,” Partlow wrote. “It seeks to turn the notoriously ineffective police into professional investigators. It strengthens the independence of judges. It provides more rights to defendants in a country where authorities have been known to demand bribes, extract confessions under torture and doctor evidence.”
U.S. funds went toward equipping courthouses with cameras and new technology and training police and legal personnel.
The changes were badly needed. Mexico’s opaque judicial system was a remnant of the country’s authoritarian, one-party rule throughout much of the 20th century.
“Police were often seen as an instrument of control — not investigation,” Partlow reported. “Judicial appointees, meanwhile, were expected to be loyal to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. Judges rarely disagreed with the written cases put together by prosecutors.” Detained people could languish in prison on minor charges or be tortured to make certain confessions.
The system was indeed broken. But the reforms didn’t necessarily fix it.
The reasons are complex. But as Partlow found, one important factor is that, along with the corruption, the limited capabilities of law enforcement remained a major issue constraining the judicial system. “The exacting new procedures have been grafted onto feeble, corruption-plagued institutions created decades ago by an authoritarian state. Judges are demanding the kind of legal precision found in Washington or London, from police who sometimes can barely read and live in places that can feel like war zones,” he reported.
For the past decade, Mexico’s drug war has also been shaped by U.S. policies that prioritized top-down law enforcement tactics.
“Since Mexico’s [now-former] President Felipe Calderón declared the start of the Drug War in 2006, both the U.S. and Mexico’s security forces have aggressively pursued what is referred to as the kingpin strategy: they go after the ‘head’ with the intent of weakening the ‘body,’ " Gladys McCormick, an expert in Mexico’s political violence at Syracuse University, told The Post’s Adam Taylor earlier this year. “After a decade of this approach, policy experts concur that it has failed and, if anything, has worsened the Drug War.”
This helps explain why Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador successfully campaigned with a slogan of “hugs, not bullets” last year. He has pledged to focus on long-term socioeconomic causes of Mexico’s drug cartel crisis, such as unemployment that leads people to leave school for criminal work, rather than relying exclusively on law enforcement and security tactics to stem the violent tide.
López Obrador’s policies have so far received mixed reviews: Many Mexicans don’t want law enforcement swarming the streets, but some worry that the government now isn’t being hard enough on the cartels.
The killing of the Mormon women and children is a high-profile case with international implications
Far more often than not, victims of violent crimes in Mexico don’t have powerful connections that could make their cases a priority for law enforcement. The victims of Monday’s attack, in contrast, have advocates at the highest levels in U.S. government.
Mexico will want to find out who killed the nine members of the fundamentalist breakaway Latter-day Saints group in part to protect its international image and tourism industry, which is a vital part of the country’s economy. (Mexico is expected to host more than 44 million tourists this year.)
But the Mexico-U.S. relationship will be “an additional factor,” said Sarukhán, the former ambassador.
“Ideally, it would not have to make any difference whether they are American or Mexican or dual national: The rule of law should be strong enough despite what passport people are carrying,” he said. “But given the current context, this will put additional pressure to bear on Mexican authorities."
The context, Sarukhán clarified, was political, and is informed by such factors as how President Trump has made immigration and border security with Mexico a major political issue.
It’s very dangerous for Mexicans to pursue cases involving violent crimes and drug cartels
So far this year, 193 federal, state and local police have been killed in Mexico, according to David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego and the director of Justice in Mexico, a U.S.-based research and policy initiative. (Justice in Mexico is supported in part by U.S. government grants.) That number is also spiking, compared with 59 police officers killed last year.
“There’s just no comparison to the U.S.," Shirk said. “There’s not that same sense of intolerance for threatening or targeting police."
Law enforcement officers aren’t the only ones at high risk from violent criminals. Last year, Mexican journalists were three times as likely to be murdered as the general population, and Mexican mayors were nine times as likely, according to a study by Justice in Mexico. Drug cartels and other criminals are keen to suppress good governance and accountability — and therefore make it very dangerous for anyone trying to challenge their control.
But Shirk said police are a particularly frequent target because “police agencies are much more likely to be subject to pressure from criminal organizations to either turn a blind eye to their activities or to actively participate in their activities.”
“They are more susceptible to corruption,” he added, “and more likely to be targeted and pressured.”
Shirk attributed this year’s spike in killings, in part, to López Obrador’s efforts to limit the military’s role in fighting organized crime, putting the police front and center in the fight against violence.
Shirk was skeptical that the perpetrators of Monday’s attack will be caught, given the limited “material clues” — such as no cameras in the remote area where the ambush took place — and the absence of any witness protection programs in Mexico.
“Ultimately, because police and criminal investigators are not really well trained or well equipped, many people can commit crimes with impunity and basically get away with murder,” he said.
Last month, López Obrador came under fire following a botched attempt by police to arrest the son of former drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. On Wednesday, a police officer reportedly involved in that operation was shot more than 150 times and killed.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to David Shirk as an associate professor at the University of San Diego. The article has been updated to reflect that he is a full professor.