Corruption allegations and revelations cover Mexico’s front pages. Public officials’ penchant for expensive watches, use of government helicopters for personal errands, and a string of expensive houses facilitated by preferred private contractors have incensed not only Mexico’s chattering classes but also the broader public. 2014 opinion polls conducted by the Pew Research Center show corruption ranks second only to crime in citizen concerns.
The challenge of corruption goes beyond just a few bad seeds. A 2013 survey found that one third of Mexicans paid a bribe for a public service. Think tank Mexico ¿cómo vamos? estimates corruption reduces gross domestic product by 2 percent. Due to rampant corruption among judges and police (as well as weak investigation and adjudication systems), the World Justice Project’s international rule of law index ranks Mexico seventy-ninth out of ninety-nine countries, comparable to Egypt and Russia.
Things may be poised to finally begin changing. After dragging its feet for nearly three years (anti-corruption promises were part of the original Pact for Mexico signed in December 2012), Congress recently passed constitutional reforms that will provide stronger tools to prevent, investigate, and sanction government corruption.
The new National Anti-Corruption System targets the political system, requiring more public officials to report their assets and any potential conflicts of interest, strengthening the hand of federal auditors, expanding asset forfeiture laws, and creating a new independent anti-corruption prosecutor.
Transparency International’s Mexico chapter has welcomed the reform, and others, including local think tank Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad, see it as a step in the right direction.
Shifts are already underway at the local level, led by Mexico City. Current mayor Miguel Angel Mancera announced an anti-corruption plan in early 2013 with five main aims: (1) professionalize public servants through training and evaluation; (2) strengthen internal controls; (3) simplify administrative processes; (4) engage citizens; and (5) create an anti-corruption website. Since then, the capital has appointed hundreds of new auditors and nearly doubled the number of investigations. It has suspended over 900 public officials and recovered roughly $9 million in illicit funds. The 21 million person megalopolis now has a citizen advisory council to supervise anti-corruption efforts, made up of business and non-profit executives, academics, and lawyers. And it “names and shames” sanctioned officials and disqualified suppliers through publicly available lists. In New York last week, Mancera signed on with the NGO Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) to become their first city partner to create an online portal opening up the capital city’s public contracts to citizen scrutiny.
In their infancy, these reforms have yet to prove themselves, and if they can change the status quo. Mexico City’s nascent trial shows some promise. If Mancera can show visible anti-graft results in the capital city, it could prove a savvy political platform for the 2018 presidential election.
Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.