Corruption in Mexico

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Supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, runner up in Mexico's recent presidential election, come together to form the word FRAUD as part of the "Expo Fraud" at Zocalo square in Mexico City, August 12, 2012 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, runner up in Mexico’s recent presidential election, come together to form the word FRAUD as part of the “Expo Fraud” at Zocalo square in Mexico City, August 12, 2012 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Follow Mexico’s headlines and you will see an uptick in high-level corruption cases. In this piece for Huffington Post, I discuss how Mexico has gotten better at exposing corruption but also why it still falls short in prosecuting the accused and convicting perpetrators of these types of crimes.

To read Mexico’s papers recently has been a study in corruption. The exposés involve every political party and level of government. Governors—including those from the states of Tabasco, Coahuila, Aguascalientes, Tamaulipas, Baja California Sur, Chiapas, and Quintana Roo—have been some of the most covered offenders, with allegations involving missing public funds (reaching the hundreds of millions of dollars), collaboration with drug traffickers, murder, and money laundering. Public figures once considered untouchable, such as the former head of Mexico’s Teachers Union, Elba Esther Gordillo, were publicly pilloried (as well as arrested).

Corruption in Mexico is of course nothing new, but it is hard to remember a time when there were so many cases unveiled in such close temporal proximity. The influx has led many casual observers to bemoan an increase in corruption, and indeed Mexico’s perceived corruption ranking by Transparency International fell from 57 in 2002 to 105 in 2012). But look beyond the headlines, and it would be hard to argue that Mexico is that much more corrupt today than in decades past. The more likely explanation is that what has changed is Mexico’s ability to expose bad behavior.

One of the biggest changes has occurred in the press. During the PRI years the major media outlets were largely propaganda arms for the ruling party, and if displeased with reporting, the government could literally stop the presses (since it held the monopoly on newsprint). Since then, Mexico’s press has come a long way. Led by publications such as El Universal, Reforma, and La Jornada, it has become fiercely independent and dedicated to holding Mexico’s leaders accountable.

Also important for exposing corruption are the tools this now free press can brandish. One of the most important has been the 2002 Transparency Act (which enables reporters and citizens more generally to petition the government for information on public affairs), helping interested parties obtain documents revealing misbehavior. And alongside reporters are an increasing number of watchdog and other civil society groups pushing for transparency.

The alternation of power at all governmental levels has also helped expose corruption. In the past, new (always PRI) officials would cover for their predecessors and expect those coming after to do the same. But with fierce electoral competition, incoming governments, especially those from opposing political parties, have a strong incentive to publicize the misdeeds (and particularly the overspending) of previous administrations.

Technological changes too have made revelations of corruption and abuse of power more common. Social media has jumped in—providing many corrupt officials with their own mocking hashtags. For instance Andrea Benítez (the daughter of Humberto Benítez, the head of Mexico’s Office for Consumer Protection) became #LadyProfeco when she threatened to shut down a trendy bistro in Mexico City, after being denied her preferred table. Diners filmed and live tweeted the arrival of Consumer Protection officials, forcing the government to eventually fire her father and suspend several other officials.

Perhaps Mexico’s biggest challenge is the follow through on these revelations. Mexico’s Attorney General’s office has won few convictions on corruption charges. And in some of the highest profile cases, such as that against Tijuana’s former mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, the prosecutor’s bungling achieved something many thought hard to do—making the PRI scion look like a victim.

Until Mexico is able to do more than name and shame corrupt public officials, the incentives for them to desist from favoring their friends and lining their pockets remain limited. The current government and Attorney General’s office now have numerous potential cases from which to choose—all opportunities to set an example and begin changing the current dynamic by holding elected officials accountable.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.