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 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 high-level capos left with whom politicians can make deals.
What was once the exclusive domain of the PRI elite – making “peace pacts” with narcos like Señor de los Cielos or Chapo Guzmán – no longer works for any one political party. The result has been a “localization” of corruption in the form of payouts to the leaders of many of Mexico’s 2,438 municipalities. The people with whom to deal are now on a local level.
The feds of course have taken notice. And their message to local pols is clear: give up a cut or risk losing federal funds. In Mexico City, federal lawmakers regularly accuse each other of shaking down mayors, councilmen and other municipal officials for kickbacks in exchange for federal 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 geographically 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“; make crooked deals (silver) or lose their life (lead). But if they make deals and for whatever reason fail to hand over an adequate cut to the feds, they risk political suicide.
Maybe the only hope lies in the twisted logic of corruption: if the feds skim enough money from the locals, they may eventually provide more federal funds and equipment for regional security.
For local police officials and mayors, this would be protection money well-spent.