The Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations
Twenty-Five Years of Latin American
Judicial Reforms: Achievements,
Disappointments, and Emerging Issues
by Linn Hammergren
n the democratic opening of the early 1980s, judicial reform appeared on the
policy agenda throughout Latin America. Although such efforts were not new to the
region, their virtually universal and nearly simultaneous adoption into policy was
novel, extending even to the few countries (Colombia, Costa Rica, and Venezuela)
without recent de facto regimes. The movement eventually incorporated the entire
justice sector (“sector”) rather than the courts alone.
The reforms were locally inspired, though they received financial and political
support from the donor community, and over time, other external inputs. Twenty-
five years later, regional (and donor) interest has not waned despite a failure to deliver
many promised improvements. Still, the sector’s organization, operations, and
political influence were altered substantially, and most of these changes appear
irreversible. Whether perceived as down payments on future progress or as a source
of new challenges, the changes suggest the project will not be abandoned soon. The
following explores these arguments in three parts: first a review of the movement’s
early history and the way new actors and circumstances broadened its agenda;
second, an examination of its accomplishments, failures, and the causes of each; and
finally, an exploration of issues that have emerged in recent years.
VERVIEW OF THE
Early Emergence, Actors, and Agendas
The early1980s saw a region-wide concern for re-democratizing Latin America’s
governance institutions. Somewhat surprisingly, given the many other candidates,
judicial reform was among the few areas with sufficient consensus on a plan of
action to allow immediate implementation.
The reasons are worth noting because of
their lasting effects.
is a Senior Public Sector Management Specialist (Latin America and the
Caribbean) at the World Bank. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and in no way
meant to represent the official position of the World Bank