Ernesto Canales uses his many years of experience working in criminal law and fighting for the defense of low-income citizens who have been unjustly accused as motivation to push for a reform of the criminal and judicial systems in Mexico.

This profile below was prepared when Ernesto Canales was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Ernesto Canales uses his many years of experience working in criminal law and fighting for the defense of low-income citizens who have been unjustly accused as motivation to push for a reform of the criminal and judicial systems in Mexico.


Ernesto works toward an integral reform of the criminal and judicial system in Mexico by promoting more transparent, efficient, and honest trials with the goal of preventing another generation of large-scale injustices and systematic corruption. In practice, the current Mexican legal system suffers from a severe disconnect between the intent of laws and their actual implementation. Renace looks for ways to correct this by refocusing on social conduct to come ever closer to the notion of justice, a more substantive basis for the laws, and applying these laws to further greater social welfare.

At the core is the implementation of oral trials nationwide, starting with a state-by-state strategy. Renace helps state governments understand the failures of their criminal system, based on the inquisitorial model, and modify their legislation by implementing oral trials, based on an agile, efficient, oral system that recognizes the most important rights of the victims and defendant. Renace has already managed to transform the legal system in the state of Nuevo León and is working to reproduce its success in other states. 

Ernesto’s position as a prestigious corporate lawyer has helped him to unite many key figures from different public, private and social sectors to discuss criminal reform. These meetings have been so effective that they have been able to construct a proposal for criminal reform that as of April 2012 was under discussion in the Senator’s Chamber. Ernesto also has participated actively in the planning and implementation of public policies focused on improving the judicial system at a local, national, and federal level. 

Renace also spearheaded the creation of the National Network of Civil Organizations in Support of Oral Trials and Due Process. More than 100 higher-level institutions have joined this network, which led to achieving approval of a constitutional reform of the criminal justice system in Mexico, incorporating the principles of oral trials in 2008. 


The structure of the Mexican criminal system frequently creates injustices because current laws give excessive discretional authority to the Public Ministry, the government agency responsible for criminal investigations. Judges remain separated from the investigation process and the presentation of evidence, and therefore they frequently lack key elements required to reach an informed verdict. Beyond this, the justice system is structured in a way that is often set up to fail. As a result, Mexican’s harbor severe mistrust of their judicial system. Only 15 percent of crime victims actually file reports with the authorities, which constitutes one of the main causes of impunity in Mexico. 

The Mexico legal model uses the inquisitorial model, in which the default verdict of the courts is a guilty sentence and oral trials—a foundation of the alternative adversarial model used in the U.S. for instance—are not performed. Judges do not participate in the majority of the previous trials of investigation and in the presentation of evidence. Therefore, they frequently select a guilty verdict because evidence could not be proven otherwise. Furthermore, judges never meet the defendants. As a result, only 5 percent of those accused are acquitted. Finally, criminal trials do not give the police incentives to carry out professional criminal investigations. The majority of the sentences are convictions based on the confession of the accused. 

The Public Ministry has more rights than the victim and the defendant in putting together the evidence for the preliminary investigation. The evidence prepared by the Public Ministry is generally taken as fact, without considering potential flaws in the process of gathering evidence. The law actually prohibits the presentation of contradictions or objections regarding the elements of evidence presented by the Public Ministry, which puts the defendant at a severe disadvantage in court.

Another frequent abuse of the current system is the excessive and indiscriminate use of preventive detention. This indefinite imprisonment deprives the accused of their freedom before they receive a trial and are determined innocent or guilty. As a result, jails are overcrowded and innocent prisoners can be incarcerated for indefinite lengths if they don’t have the economic resources to pay for private judicial services. 

Furthermore, suspects, defendants, and prisoners report a large amount of abuse and mistreatment by the authorities. This is illustrated by the high percentage of appeals against the country’s National Human Rights Commission that are related to injuries committed by the police, harassment from government agents, and human rights violations of the people who have had their freedom taken away.


Renace has two key elements to its strategy: (i) judicial services for innocent defenders and (ii) advocacy for oral trials in the Mexican legal system. Ernesto believes that the majority of the failures of the criminal system are structural, and not in the application of the laws. Therefore, he promotes the study and analysis of the failures of the current regimen among academic figures and law schools as a way to resolve the challenges and thus, create a better criminal justice system.

The first element provides judicial services to innocent defendants and prisoners as well as services for their reintegration into society. Renace offers judicial attention for these individuals so that they can be released from prison. The organization also provides physiological support, family care and community follow up with reintegration into society, work, and family by activating networks to prevent social marginalization. 

The judicial services consist of legal consultancy, granting bail payment so prisoners can obtain provisional freedom, and actual defense of their case. The psychological support consists of treatment, home visits, controlled interviews, and support from other partner organizations in areas such as human rights, human development, and public security. This legal and psychological assistance fulfills the obligations determined by legal authorities.

This model has permitted Renace to gather reliable statistics that have helped to identify structural problems within the criminal justice system. A study and analysis of more than 20,000 criminal cases handled by Renace in its first ten years in Nuevo León showed that in the Investigation Council, the majority of the injustices in cases were the result of mistakes made by legal authorities.

The second key element of Renace’s strategy is the promotion of criminal reform to change the current inquisitorial system in favor of an adversarial-accused system with oral trials. Renace lobbies at the local, state, and federal levels through campaigns, participation in distinct media outlets, and academic events. The goal is to achieve the passing of plural and exclusive laws at the state and federal level that would regulate the penal process. 

In addition, Renace organizes conferences and working groups with local judicial branches, through the Coordination Council for the Implementation of the Criminal Justice System and the Executive Commission for the Reform of the Criminal Justice System. In this way, Ernesto has been able to promote new codes of criminal procedures in Nuevo León and support the adequate implementation of the defense system at the local, national, and federal levels. In addition, he has participated in the approval process of the reform of the federal constitutional criminal system and campaigned for the approval of the new Federal Code of Executive Criminal Procedures. 

To gain support and allies from the civil society and academic sectors at the local, national, and federal level, Renace communicates the benefits of the accusatory system to other organizations. Renace uses forums, research, and conferences to explain the benefits of having a more transparent criminal justice system. To influence decision-makers, Ernesto frequently arranges meetings with legislators, judicial authorities, key figures in the criminal field, and the state and federal executive branches. 

Another strength of Renace is its media communication strategy. Documentaries including The Tunnel and Presumed Guilty explain the problems in the Mexican criminal system in an engaging way. Presumed Guilty reached a significant national and international audience, providing a further impulse for immediate legal reform. 

Renace is composed of eighteen full-time employees, more than thirty volunteers and an influential board. The organization has also developed operational processes and manuals that define and empower the institution. Renace is financed by diverse organizations including national and international foundations and donations from companies that have enabled the organization to be effective and expand. With Ernesto’s leadership and guidance, Renace has become a prestigious and respected organization in Mexico. 


Ernesto was born in the city of Monterrey, Nuevo León and grew up in a family where philanthropic activities played a fundamental role. His father was very involved on boards supporting educational and religious works, and his mother was constantly doing service work and helping those who needed it most. Ernesto studied law, which allowed him to reflect profoundly on the subject of justice and its relationship with the fulfillment of laws. 

Ernesto is convinced that hard work and effort are the basis of success for all projects, but only with congruency and continuity can one achieve standing above the rest. Worried about the injustices that the criminal system of Mexico generates, Ernesto formed a group of lawyers in 1994 that shared his concern and wanted to dedicate themselves to defending the thousands of people who had been victims of injustice and lacked the resources to defend themselves. One year later, Renace was founded to serve as a resource for wrongly accused individuals and to systematize the assistance and generate data on the injustices of the criminal system. 

In 2001 Ernesto realized that providing legal assistance was insufficient because the laws of the criminal system were creating injustices. He started a campaign to change the justice system in the state of Nuevo León. From the success obtained by accomplishing change in the criminal justice system of Nuevo León, Renace united with other COs to promote criminal reform throughout all of Mexico, creating the National Network of Civil Organizations in Support of Oral Trials and Due Process.

Ernesto’s mission is the creation of a Mexican criminal system that is just, transparent, and fair to everyone.