Some say that even before the Conquest, the ruling class in the place we now call Mexico used corruption as a way to govern.
But the Conquest is when it all came together: the ‘conversion’ of kickbacks and graft into loyalty and servitude. The colonial Spaniards re-engineered extortion and influence peddling into mainstays of social stability, part of an elaborate pact that sustained their political structure, their labor unions, political parties, alliances and bureaucracies.
In a word, corruption became a building block of a huge edifice built on patronage. Power and influence, rather than law, became the modus operandi of the nation’s political class. Not just the so-called grease that oils the wheels (as Americans or Europeans would see it) but the very pillars of society.
No sector was off-limits, from sports to journalism to religion. Even today, there is a common attitude, a certain pattern of behavior among Mexicans that is not aligned in any way with Western morals. For corruption is regarded here not as a moral or human failing but a failing of society, an aberration of law.
The reasons why are complex, but they all begin with the fact that economic crimes in Mexico “do not carry the same weight as human or spiritual offenses”. Most Mexicans view corruption not as a moral failing but as a “structural defect”, which means that those who bribe a cop, judge or official, consider themselves victims rather than perpetrators. They act not because they are personally corrupt (at least not in the same way most Americans or Europeans see it) but because the laws they must follow are often misguided and unfair.
At some point corruption became a refuge for Mexicans, a way to step outside the imposing legal and bureaucratic structures that alienated them and so rarely supported them. Corruption contained a logic that placed ordinary humans above abstract laws, that allowed individuals to bridge the gap between arbitrary unworkable rules and the daily struggles of life.
The journalist and Mexico observer Alan Riding once noted that the problem with understanding corruption in Mexico starts with the very word “corruption”, which inserts a “moral context” that many Mexicans “do not recognize”.
As Riding said, in Mexico corruption is “political rather than moral… the system has in fact never lived without corruption and would disintegrate or change beyond recognition if it ever tried to do so”.
These realities – the political, economic and social elements of corruption – remain as relevant today as they were 30 years ago.