Being a “clean” politico in Mexico has never been easy. Things may be dirtier now than ever.
In many small and medium-sized Mexican towns, it’s often difficult to avoid corruption without either risking your life or losing your job. As the LA Times recently said, Mexican politics is “a Machiavellian game of three-dimensional chess… and drug cartels are often more powerful than local governments”.
For many Mexicans, especially mayors and local officials, corruption is not just an “immoral” act – as it is in the developed world – but a basic tool of survival.
Since the drug cartels began to fragment in the early 2000s, there have been fewer capos left with whom politicians can make deals.
What was once the exclusive domain of the PRI elite – making “peace” agreements with narcos like Señor de los Cielos or Chapo Guzmán – no longer works for any political party. The result has been a “localization” of corruption, i.e., payouts by mobsters to the leaders of Mexico’s 2,438 municipalities. The people to deal with now are on a local level.
The feds of course have taken notice. And their message to the locals is clear: give them a cut or risk losing federal funds. In Mexico City, lawmakers regularly accuse each other of shaking down mayors, councilmen and other municipal officials for kickbacks in exchange for federally-financed projects.
The complex and sinister strands pull in every direction.
Plata o plomo
Although efforts are now being made to implement the new National Anti-Corruption System on the state and municipal levels, this won’t take effect any time soon. As OECD Secretary General Ángel Gurría said: “the key to real change lies in implementation. This framework puts Mexico in line with OECD best practice, but we must now make it work.”
But before this happens, things will likely get worse. As markets and political power are decentralized, criminals have already started targeting strategic towns, putting increased pressure on local officials.
Given that local law enforcement has neither the armament, know-how or resources to defeat today’s heavily-armed cartels, this prospect is frightening. Over the last seven years, 44 Mexican mayors were assassinated and most local officials have been threatened.
Many on the front lines now face the existential dilemma of “plata o plomo” (silver or lead); if they don’t make crooked deals, they risk their lives. But if they make them and don’t hand over a cut to their federal overseers, they risk political suicide.
Perhaps the greatest hope lies in the twisted logic of corruption: if the Senators skim enough money from local officials, they may eventually allocate more federal funds and equipment to regional security.
From the locals’ perspective, this would be protection money well-spent.