By Lauren Villagran, 1/11/2013

This law is more than a year in the making, the product of a joint effort by academics, victims’ advocates, as well as victims themselves aligned with the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity. Its publication this week in the official government gazette marks a major win for the movement led by the poet Javier Sicilia, whose son Juan Francisco was killed in violence in March 2011.

Victims of crime in Mexico and the “indirect” victims who suffer for them face daunting obstacles. In a country where fewer than four percent of crimes are resolved, victims face the “double” victimization of a justice system that doesn’t do its job. México Evalúa, a Mexico City-based research center, estimates the state has the capacity to investigate 4,350 homicide cases annually in a country where there are more than 20,000 homicides per year.

Investigations are left hanging. Perpetrators enjoy nearly endless impunity. Meanwhile victims—especially those without the financial means to realize private investigations, as has happened in several high-profile kidnapping cases—endure the frustration and impotence of too few answers. For many, justice is rare.

Yet the victims’ law has created a rift among victims themselves. While the Movement for Peace sponsored the legislation, two other prominent advocacy groups, México S.O.S. and Alto Al Secuestro (Stop the Kidnapping), have criticized the law as violating tenets of the constitution. Further, the organizations maintain, the law doesn’t specify who can claim victimhood; it provides for financial reparations without establishing funding; and it also creates additional, un-funded bureaucracy.

Indeed, the law provides for the creation of a National System of Attention to Victims—which sounds on paper much like the Províctima organization created last year by the previous administration. It’s unclear what will become of that agency. The law also seeks to create a national registry of victims.

Alejandro Martí and Isabel Miranda de Wallace, respective leaders of México S.O.S. and Alto al Secuestro, backed former President Felipe Calderón when he put a stop to the law last year. Calderón remitted the law to the Supreme Court, claiming a constitutional controversy. He proposed a separate victims’ law of his own design.

Yet earlier last year, the Movement for Peace had exacted a promise from then-presidential candidate Peña Nieto to make the General Law of Victims a reality. Despite deep divisions among victims groups—and deeper skepticism among victims themselves that the law will truly inspire change in the system—both the Movement for Peace and the new president can, for the moment, tout their successes.

Sicilia called the law “a first step toward justice” in an official ceremony celebrating the law’s enactment. But, he added, “like any first step, it’s not enough.” Without action by congress and the new administration to make the law effective, “the General Law of Victims will be only dead letter.”

Lauren Villagran is a journalist based in Mexico City. She has covered wide-ranging topics including Mexico’s struggle with an ongoing drug war, the emergence of the middle class, and the evolution of civil society.

This post reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.