Gustavo Baz, ex-governor of the State of Mexico and one-time business partner of Carlos Hank González, the most successful and corrupt politician/businessman in the nation’s history, once said that ending corruption in Mexico would be like “sawing off one leg of the system”, that its survival would be impossible unless some new support were found.
Mr Baz’s words described not just life in Mexico under the PRI but life since pre-Hispanic times, when patronage was so pervasive that Montezuma, who at first believed that Hernan Cortes might be the god Quetzalcoatl, reportedly tried to bribe him with gifts and precious metals so that he would leave. Of course, this only fueled the Spaniards’ greed for gold.
Whatever you may call it, it was already deep in Aztec soil, and in the early 20th century, the PRI seized upon it. Their offer to the rank-and-file was simple: you follow the rules, we cover your back. Privileges, resources and favors were granted in exchange for loyalty, discipline and discretion. The PRI ran Mexico as a one-party state in which politicians bribed and extorted their supporters in exchange for something of perceived value.
This system worked until the oil crisis of the late 1970s, when the PRI’s authoritarian grip began to falter. When this happened, corruption itself became corrupt. A political system that never worked smoothly without corruption stopped working smoothly because of unchecked corruption.
The never-ending fight against graft
The ruling party’s “pyramid of patronage” was so pervasive – and its slippery approach to law so enveloping – that it colored every niche of society, i.e., journalism, academia, sports, religion and culture, to name just a few.
In towns across the nation, rule-breaking became more than just civil disobedience… it became a parallel set of operating rules, a way for ordinary people to survive and sometimes thrive in a hostile system. Corruption became (and remains) both an act of rebellion and a way to get ahead.
In this way, Mexicans who bribe bureaucrats to speed up a permit application or secure a business license do so not because they are personally “corrupt” (at least not as outsiders define the term) but because they have no choice, because unjust or impractical laws give them little option.
Who wouldn’t make payment – if they could – to receive a fair shake? In this way, everybody is corrupt, or would be, under the right circumstances.
For this reason, Mexicans who condemn corruption usually express empathy for the corrupt. They denounce corruption and swear by the ‘rule of law’… then retreat several steps. They point out that corruption is bad for society, but then fail to make a convincing case for being honest. The result is a particularly virulent form of hypocrisy: breaking the law is condemned yet – at the same time – tacitly (and widely) accepted.
Over time, this virulent hypocrisy has become self-reinforcing. Unsurprisingly, most Mexicans still regard successful officials and business people with suspicion, sure that everyone else is cheating on taxes, or lying about their property, or paying off inspectors.
In this way, corruption (and its cousin, impunity) link both the top and bottom of Mexican society, driving a peculiar dynamic that has been around in different guises for centuries.