UPDATE: Researching the Law of Latin America

By Julienne E. Grant

Julienne E. Grant currently serves as Instructor & Reference Librarian at the Louis L. Biro Law Library at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. She previously spent almost eighteen years as the Foreign & International Research Specialist at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law. Ms. Grant has contributed to published guides on Mexican and Cuban law, and she recently co-authored a chapter (with Teresa M. Miguel-Stearns) in Latin American Collection Concepts: Essays on Libraries, Collaborations and New Approaches (McFarland, 2019). She is a member of the FCIL-SIS of the American Association of Law Libraries and has served as Chair of its Latin American Law Interest Group. Ms. Grant earned a B.A. magna cum laude in Spanish from Middlebury College, an M.A. in Ibero-American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an M.A.L.S. from Rosary College (now Dominican University), and a J.D. cum laude from DePaul University. Ms. Grant also received a Certificate in Editing from the Graham School at the University of Chicago, and she is a freelance editor, writer, and translator.

Published November/December 2022

(Previously updated by Teresa M. Miguel-Stearns in May/June 2014 and by Julienne E. Grant in January 2018)

See the Archive Version

1. Introduction

The goal of this article is to provide a roadmap for researching the general topic of Latin American law as well as the law of individual nations in that region. The term “Latin America” here refers to the 20 original members of the Organization of American States (OAS) (excluding the U.S.).[1] These nations share a civil law heritage, which is based on Roman law, and which generally rejects the principle of stare decisis. In civil law jurisdictions, the most important primary legal materials are the laws themselves, which appear in comprehensive codes that provide the frameworks for private, commercial, penal, and other areas of law.

Although adhering to the civil law tradition, it should be noted that each Latin American nation’s legal regime is unique, with its own judicial system, set of primary laws, and legal nomenclature. Each country also has its own body of secondary legal literature, which may include dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, treatises, and journals. Secondary legal scholarship, or doctrine (doctrina, in Spanish), is generally highly valued and is the “main source for interpretation of code provisions.”[2]

As indicated above, the scope of the article’s coverage is resources on Latin American law in a broad sense as well as those that collectively provide information on individual Latin American legal systems. Both print and digital sources are listed, but electronic resources are emphasized. Secondary sources chosen for inclusion are primarily in English, although some Spanish-language materials are also mentioned. The related topic of the Inter-American System is not treated in detail here, as it is the subject of the GlobaLex contribution, “The Inter-American System of Human Rights: A Research Guide” (Aug./Sept. 2010, updated July/Aug. 2016).

An *asterisk* indicates a subscription database.

2. Introductory Materials

The following are recent publications (2017–2022) that provide overviews of the civil law tradition and various aspects of Latin American law.

3. Electronic Research Guides

The research guides listed below, hosted on two academic law library sites, cover Latin America as a region. The annual Guide to International Legal Research (George Washington International Law Review, LexisNexis) contains a lengthy chapter on Latin America and is available on Lexis (and in print). For guides on individual countries, see GlobaLex, the Foreign Law Guide*, and individual law library sites. Examples of the latter include the Law Library of Congress’s Guide to Law Online: Nations and the Country Research Guide, compiled by librarians at Yale’s Lillian Goldman Law Library.

4. Primary Sources of Law and Court Decisions

Constitutions, legislation, codes, administrative regulations, and treaties are all part of the corpus of Latin American law. The first four types of primary law are covered below in section 4.1. International treaties and agreements are discussed in section 8.1 under the general heading of “Latin America in the Global Arena.” Addressed in section 4.2 below are national and regional court opinions, which are generally not considered binding precedent in civil law jurisdictions.[3]

4.1. Constitutions, Legislation, Codes, and Administrative Law

The current texts of Latin American constitutions, legislation, codes, and administrative rules are usually not difficult to locate in the vernacular. Most governments in the region now have transparency laws in place requiring that national norms be published on the Web.[4] Online access to legislation is thus often available through various government portals, and daily government gazettes are likewise posted on the Web. Links to these sites are provided in the Guide to Law Online: Nations entries under the “Legislative” category. Numerous Latin American government ministries also post sector-specific administrative regulations on their websites.

The hierarchies and nomenclatures of the various legal instruments of Latin American jurisdictions, however, can be unwieldy. Individual GlobaLex articles are often a good source for unraveling these. Although published over 40 years ago, the following title is also a useful resource in this regard.

A number of IGOs and NGOs have created subject-specific databases for national legislation, which include that of Latin American countries. Examples are NATLEX (labor laws, International Labour Organization); WIPO Lex (intellectual property laws, World Intellectual Property Organization); Investment Laws Navigator (foreign investment laws, UNCTAD); and ECOLEX (environmental laws, jointly administered by IUCN, UNEP, and FAO).

English-language translations of Latin American primary legal materials are relatively scarce, and locating them can often be challenging—the exception being constitutions. For a list of Latin American codes available in English, check the website of Lawrence Publishing Company (Baton Rouge, Louisiana). Lawrence has published English-language translations of several Latin American nations’ codes, including the civil codes of Brazil (4th ed., 2019), Chile (2017), Colombia (3rd ed., 2019), Ecuador (2017), and Mexico (2nd ed., 2021).

The following Web resources can help locate the major primary sources of Latin American law in the vernacular and in English-language translation, if available.

4.2. National and Regional Court Decisions

Latin American countries each have their own judicial system and publishing protocol for court opinions. See international legal research platforms such as GlobaLex and the Foreign Law Guide* for specific information on sources for domestic court decisions. Databases such as vLex* and those listed in section 8.2 below also provide access to Latin American national judicial opinions. Note that the majority of Latin American countries follow the European model in that they have established autonomous constitutional courts or chambers for constitutional review purposes.[5] Some Latin American countries have also created courts with highly specialized jurisdictional competences, such as the Guatemalan Courts for High-Risk Crimes (Tribunales de Mayor Riesgo) and Chile’s Environmental Courts (Tribunales Ambientales). In general, Latin American jurisprudence is not translated into English.

The Due Process of Law Foundation (Washington, D.C.) has produced several digests in digital format of Latin American national court opinions. The subjects of these are: Rights of Victims (2015, available in English); International Crimes (2 vols., 2010, 2013, available in English); and Indigenous People’s Rights (2013, available in Spanish only).

There are four regional courts that are operative in Latin America. Listed below are those with functioning websites that include access to case decisions. As of this writing, the Central American Court of Justice (Corte Centroamericana de Justicia), located in Managua, does not have an operating website.

5. Secondary Sources

When researching the law of any foreign jurisdiction or region, it is often advantageous to start with a secondary source. Some secondary sources treat Latin American law collectively; others lead to information on individual countries. A useful tool for identifying works that include discussions on Latin American nations separately is HeinOnline’s Multinational Sources Compared: A Subject and Jurisdiction Index*, now in its 2nd edition. This compilation will lead researchers to sources that are international in scope but treat a country or countries of interest within.

London-based Global Legal Group provides free online access to its International Comparative Legal Guides. The 40+ Guides cover topics ranging from copyright to family law—often including chapters on individual Latin American jurisdictions. Similarly, Law Business Research, also based in London, provides complimentary access to its collection of law reviews on almost 90 topics that include individual national reports.

To identify titles of legal secondary sources published locally, in a specific Latin American country, see research guides, such as the “Research Guide to Mexican Law” (Legal Reference Services Quarterly 35.1 [2016]: 18-76), and the “Guide to Cuban Law and Legal Research” (International Journal of Legal Information 45.2 [2017]: 76-188). Note that vLex* has a full-text collection of Latin American secondary sources as does the free platform Biblioteca Jurídica Virtual. The latter is part of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas website.

Other secondary sources on Latin American law topics can be identified by utilizing the useful Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS). Edited by the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress, the Handbook is an interdisciplinary bibliography of works pertaining to Latin America. It is an excellent tool for identifying relevant published works on both Latin American law and politics. HLAS Web includes content from the 1970s forward, and HLAS Online is a legacy site with content from the mid-1930s forward.

5.1. Encyclopedias & Compendiums

In some Latin American countries, there are topical encyclopedic sets available that focus on domestic law. Check legal research guides and articles for individual countries to identify these. The following resources include Latin American jurisdictions in their scope:

5.2. Books

Searching on the following Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) in online library catalogs will yield books related to the general topic of Latin American law. To locate books on individual countries, substitute "Latin America" with the country name (e.g., Law--Chile).

5.3. Journals and Periodical Indexes

Academic law reviews are published throughout Latin America, including some in English (e.g., Mexican Law Review). There are also several law journals dedicated to the topic of Latin America that are published outside the region, including the University of Miami Inter-American Law Review. Latin Lawyer (Law Business Research), which is aimed at practitioners, is published in London and focuses on business law developments in the region.

Interdisciplinary academic journals that concentrate on Latin America can also be useful for researching the region’s law. Examples of such publications in English are the Latin American Research Review (Latin American Studies Association, Cambridge University Press) and the Journal of Latin American Studies (Cambridge University Press). These types of publications are often available in subscription databases, such as JSTOR.

There are also several open-access scholarship initiatives that include Latin American content. Latindex collects bibliographic information for Latin American and Iberian serials. SciELO is a publishing platform for scholarly publications, primarily in the sciences (but with some legal content). RedALyC is another indexing and publishing platform for Latin American and Iberian academic output. CLACSO (Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, Latin American Council of Social Sciences), based in Buenos Aires, has a network of virtual open-access libraries that collect Latin American scholarship. Dialnet is an open-access scholarship repository based in Spain that also covers Latin America. Finally, Elsevier’s SSRN is an excellent resource for locating open-access working drafts and published pieces on Latin American legal topics.

The following online journal databases and indexes can also help identify and locate relevant articles.

5.4. Theses and Dissertations

Often overlooked by legal researchers, theses and dissertations contain exhaustive research and extensive bibliographies and can be useful sources of information on Latin American law. Along with the Web platforms listed below, many universities post digital copies of their own students’ theses and dissertations.

6. Current Awareness: News Sources and Blogs

Newspaper and news websites, as well as blogs, can be excellent sources for information on Latin American legal developments. Lists of Latin American newspapers are posted on various websites, such as onlinenewspapers.com. English-language newspapers, including the New York Times and the United Kingdom’s Guardian, cover Latin American events extensively. There are a limited number of English-language newspapers published in Latin America, including the LatinAmerican Post, produced in Bogotá, and the Buenos Aires Times .

The following is a list of selected news sources and blogs that cover Latin American law and politics. Note that a comprehensive collection of links for legal-related blogs is available on JUSTIA’s BlawgSearch; the lists there are organized by practice area, geographic focus, and law school sponsorship.

7. Human Rights

The OAS’s Inter-American System is the main human rights mechanism in force among the OAS member states.[6] The System’s two entities are the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. As noted above in section 1, there is an extensive GlobaLex article about the System. See the following list for additional sources for researching human rights in Latin America.

8. Latin America in the Global Arena

Most Latin American countries achieved independence from their European colonizers in the early 19th century. Since that time, independent nations in the region have entered into binding treaties, have had disputes with nations outside their borders, and have been engaged in trade and commerce with the rest of the world. The resources listed below are recommended for researching Latin American law in a global context, specifically in the areas of treaties and agreements; international courts and tribunals; and business, investment, and trade. For a collection of scholarly articles on public international law developments in Latin America, see the Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law*, which is described above in section 5.1.

8.1. Treaties and Agreements

Bilateral and multinational treaties and agreements form part of the corpus of Latin American law. To locate the texts of these documents, there are a number of Web-based collections that can be searched. These include the United Nations Treaty Collection and UNCTAD’s International Investment Agreements Navigator. The Web source below provides access exclusively to the texts of inter-American treaties and agreements.

8.2. International Courts and Tribunals

Latin American countries have been involved in a number of disputes submitted to international courts and tribunals, including the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). ICJ and ITLOS judgments are posted on the courts’ own websites. The following resources also contain decisions of international courts and tribunals.

8.3. Business, Investment, and Trade

Many Latin American nations are heavily immersed in regional and international commerce, and some actively promote foreign investment at the domestic and regional levels. Latin American countries are members of the World Trade Organization, and there are also several regional initiatives that promote trade and economic cooperation. The Andean Community (Comunidad Andina), based in Lima, comprises Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru. MERCOSUR (Mercado Común del Sur), headquartered in Montevideo, is a trade bloc consisting of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay (Venezuela’s membership was suspended in 2016). The Pacific Alliance (Alianza del Pacífico) is a trade bloc involving Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. The Latin American Integration Association (Asociación Latinoamericana de Integración), composed of 13 nations, promotes economic integration in the region and is working towards the creation of a Latin American common market. There is also a Central American Integration System (Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana), and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) has economic integration as one of its four main organizational pillars.

Library research guides on international trade and business can be helpful when researching these areas in the Latin American context. Similarly, there are GlobaLex articles on the associated topics of international commercial and investment arbitration (see “UPDATE: International Commercial Arbitration” (April 2017) and “UPDATE: International Arbitration Between Foreign Investors and Host States (Investor-State Arbitration)” (Mar./April 2022).

The following Web portals are specifically recommended for researching topics related to Latin American business, investment, and trade. There are also numerous books published on these topics that can be identified by searches in WorldCat. See also Law Business Research’s “Getting the Deal Through” series (via the Lexology* platform), which is available by separate subscription, or in Bloomberg Law*.

9. International, Regional, and National Organizations

The websites of various international, regional, and national organizations can be useful for locating information on Latin American legal developments and for accessing research and policy papers. All of the websites of the organizations listed below include virtual collections of materials.

10. Digital Archives and Historical Materials

The following resources are useful for conducting historical research on Latin American law as well as identifying more contemporary sources. Several of the listed sites are well-known digital repositories with multiple contributing institutions—some located in Latin America.

11. U.S. Libraries with Noteworthy Collections

The following U.S. libraries have significant Latin American collections, many that include current and historical legal materials. Some of these items are digitized and available directly on library websites. For general information on Latin American library resources, see the website of SALALM (Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials).

[1] These were Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. See Charter of the Organization of American States, April 30, 1948, 2 U.S.T. 2394, 119 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force December 13, 1951), http://www.oas.org/dil/treaties_A-41_Charter_of_the_Organization_of_American_States.htm.

[2] M.C. Mirow, Latin American Law: A History of Private Law and Institutions in Spanish America 197 (2004).

[3] For a discussion of the status of judicial precedent in Latin America, see Teresa M. Miguel-Stearns, “Judicial Power in Latin America: a Short Survey,” Librarian Scholarship Series, Paper 32 (2015), http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/ylss/32/.

[4] See Bill Orme, “Access to Information: Lessons from Latin America” Cuadernos de Discusión de Comunicación e Información 8, UNESCO, 2017. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000249837/PDF/249837eng.pdf.multi.

[5] Ángel R. Oquendo, Latin American Law. 3rd ed. 224 (2017).

[6] However, there are varying levels of commitment to human rights in the region. See Francisco A. Avalos, “UPDATE: The Inter-American System of Human Rights: A Research Guide,” GlobaLex (July/Aug. 2016), http://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex/Inter_American_Human_Rights1.html.