Legal System in Mexico

Legal System in Mexico

Expectation If Arrested in Mexico

United States citizens traveling or visiting in Mexico are susceptible to being charged with a crime, found guilty of negligence or held until damages are paid in the event of an accident and incarcerated for a lengthy period of time.

More American citizens are incarcerated in Mexico than in any other country in the world. Granted, there are probably more visitors to Mexico from the United States due to its proximity. Also, reportedly; there are 600,000 to 1,000,000 Americans living in Mexico.

Regardless, if you are going to Mexico be aware of the many differences between the laws in the United States versus Mexican law.

Legal System

Mexico is a “civil law” country while the U.S. is a “common law” country. This means that Mexico follows the Napoleonic Code and Roman law and relies on interpreting the text of the written law creating a very narrow path between guilt and innocence.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

In Mexico, you are guilty until proven innocent and are treated as a felon until it is decided you are innocent.

American law is fundamentally different in that it is up to prosecutors prove you guilty. Both the defense and prosecutorial teams rely more on legal precedent than on the strict letter of the law, creating a broader path between guilt and innocence. This results in many important considerations for the accused person.

Key Differences and Consequences

In Mexico, bail is not allowed on personal recognizance and may not be available if the crime typically demands a long sentence. The laws are different in Mexico and many, many things that are not serious in the U.S. can land you in jail for an indefinite period of time in Mexico.

Judges wield broad power and ultimately decide guilt and punishment, or innocence.

Arrested In Mexico

You have the right to contact the U.S. Consulate and the Mexican authorities should advise you of this right and provide the means and opportunity. The consulate will assist you by providing:

  1. An overview of Mexican law. This is useless without a competent Mexican attorney to interpret it.
  2. A listing of contacts for Mexican attorneys.
  3. At your request, contacting friends or relatives to alert them to your situation.
  4. Contact with the U.S. State Department for possible transfer to an American prison.
  5. Ongoing visits with you while in jail.

This is the full and total extent of what the consulate can and will do. The consulate cannot intercede on your behalf or interfere at all with Mexican law.

Once Arrested

You are now in the Mexican legal system and basically the judge who draws your case has 72 hours to determine your guilt or innocence and whether you will be held in custody, allowed bail or released.

If the judge decides a trial is in order he has from four months to several years to decide when adequate evidence is gathered to present at trial and you are held in jail for that period of time.

Trial Process

You need a competent Mexican attorney to guide you through the intricacies of a Mexican trial.


Expect a nightmare.

  1. Make immediate arrangements with friends or relatives for the following:
    • Food and beverages
    • Medicines
    • Money
    • Toilet paper, toothpaste and brush
    • Clothing
    • Bedding
  2. Be prepared to:
    • Pay rent on your cell
    • Pay incentives to guards and inmates for a variety of “favors”
    • Provide your own dental and medical care
  3. Survive by:
    • Pay attention immediately to what is happening around you, learn the unwritten rules of the guards and the inmates
    • Study the inmates and guards to determine how best to interact with them and get along with conflict
    • Work hard to learn Spanish from the moment you are in the system, regardless of how short a time you expect to remain there
    • Make friends where possible
    • Take prison jobs when possible simply to stay busy and out of trouble
    • Mexican prisons are extremely unhealthy, eat as well as possible and exercise to stay healthy. Treat a cold or minor infection before it becomes debilitative

Consult with a Mexican attorney before traveling or visiting in Mexico and get a general idea of do’s and don’ts. Set up a network of friends and relatives with a bank account available to contact in case you are arrested.