Corruption and impunity seems to be on the rise everywhere in Mexico. Cartel leaders are routinely released by judges. Powerful and blatantly corrupt political insiders are rarely if ever investigated much less prosecuted. ‘Justice’ is something applied to the lower classes, not those in power.
As you may recall, “the Missing 43” are still missing: forty-three working-class students from the state of Guerrero who were kidnapped en mass one afternoon in November 2014 by gangsters working in cahoots with corrupt military and police. So far, the case remains unresolved. The foreign experts hired to investigate were all kicked out of the country.
The Odebrecht scandal is another example. After a string of prosecutions across Latin America – in Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Panama, Argentina, Brazil – there hasn’t yet been a single official investigation in Mexico.
Luis Pérez de Acha, a lawyer and member of a prominent anti-corruption committee, claims that the way the Oldebrecht case is being handled in Mexico “reflects the nation’s deeply-embedded impunity. It’s a no-go topic.”
And these are just two in a litany of no-go topics involving fleeing governors, illegal campaign financing, dodgy appointments of election officials, and a general sense of lawlessness in precincts, party headquarters and union offices throughout the country.
Can politicians reverse corruption?
It’s hard for politicians anywhere to give up their unjust rewards – at least not without an existential struggle. This is particularly true in Mexico, where entitlement runs sky-high and public officials are among the highest paid in the world. And with 500 federal legislators, the Aztec nation has about as many federal lawmakers as the US, nearly three times its size.
What Mexican officials earn, in fact, would make their counterparts elsewhere jealous: exorbitant salaries, benefits, retirement packages and access to “black boxes” (slush accounts) that often amount to thousands of non-accountable dollars per day. This doesn’t even include the dodgy dealings considered perks by the Mexican political class.
In a nation famous for class-ism, upper crust Mexicans learn to act – and feel entitled to act – above the law. For this reason, no Mexican is surprised that officials devote more time and effort covering up for each other than cracking down on kickbacks.
“There is an enormous resistance in the political class,” said Juan E Pardinas, director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a think tank. “Many Mexican politicians can’t imagine being politicians without using mechanisms associated with corruption. It’s the very heart of the political system.”
This is the template that Mexicans assimilate as ‘normal’. And because that’s how it has always been, few people can argue that duty, principles or civic values can (or even should) override family or self-interest. Their leaders and law enforcement officials are living proof.
Is deception baked-in?
Of all the skills valued by the Mexican ruling class, skillful deception is at the top.
Ilán Semo, historian at the Iberoamerican University, claims that the PRI’s historic use of legalisms and formality demonstrates a “double discourse,” deployed as a proxy and used by the party (rather effectively) to govern.
“The PRI is overly formal, but in no way is it serious,” he said. “It’s one thing to insist on formality, with discourse typical of a country where the law is selectively applied. It’s another to be serious.”
Only about 12 percent of Mexicans, for example, approve of the performance of President Enrique Peña Nieto, the lowest recorded approval rating ever for a Mexican president. Yet Mr. Peña Nieto’s administration has spent more taxpayer money on extolling its achievements than any other in history. Newspapers, radio stations, TV channels, Facebook pages, news sites – many owned by party insiders – are now more dependent than ever on the public till. Most Mexican newspapers wouldn’t even exist – and many authors would go unpublished – if not for the government spin machine.
In this way (among so many) corruption breeds and feeds on corruption. Even the un-corrupt are tainted- by implied complicity, if nothing more.
Money breeds contempt
Just like in Russia, Venezuela and other highly resource dependent states, when the money spigot flows, people rarely question its source. This is partly due to human nature. But there are other factors, such as respect for the rule of law, property rights and public trust. On these counts, Mexico falls way down the scale
Sometimes I wonder why so little attention is paid to non-material factors like the time and effort needed to cope with corruption, or the psychological costs associated with having to deal with unlawfulness. I know there are many correlations, but the bottom line is that a nation’s development depends in large part on its psychological, social and cultural idiosyncrasies.
These idiosyncrasies are what continue to hold Mexico back. Despite the nation’s growing role on the world stage (and its supposed adoption of international standards), Mexican politicians are still as corrupt as ever. Some officials (e.g., ex-governors Javier Duarte, Roberto Borge and Cesar Duarte, to name just three) have out-brazened their most brazen predecessors.
Does prosperity breed corruption?
In 1994, when NAFTA went into effect, Mexico’s economy was about the size of Ohio’s. Now it is the world’s 15th largest in nominal terms, and number 11 in purchasing power parity.
Over this time, bribery, graft, fraud, kickbacks and extortion have all spiked – not just in absolute terms but relative to other nations.
On Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, for example, Mexico continued its slow but steady downward slide. With a score of 29, it fell to 135th place among 180 countries, remaining within the ranks of the world’s most corrupt countries.
Compared with the rest of Latin America, Mexico also ranks near bottom, on par with Honduras and Paraguay, and just above Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela. And in both the G20 and OECD corruption indices, Mexico remains in last place, ranking well below its nearest commercial competitors, China, India and Brazil.
Will there be a reckoning?
In January, former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. Jorge Castañeda published a NYT op-ed piece called “A perfect storm is coming to Mexico“. The torment, he writes, will be a triple whammy caused by the weakening of NAFTA; falling foreign investment; and the probable election of a left-wing anti-free trade populist for president. If these forces converge, says Castañeda, the impact will pose “multiple perils and few opportunities”.
Although this is not good news for Mexicans, maybe a perfect storm is what the country needs to shake off centuries of graft and impunity.
For as the economy thrives, corruption will also thrive. We’re still so early in the game that laws, ‘initiatives’ and even constitutional reforms like the National Anti-Corruption System passed last year (political theater a la PRI) can only nudge the process along – if at all.
In the meantime, expect the same old dodgy routines in shiny new outfits – especially while the good times last. For the old trainers are still up to their old tricks. As the 2018 presidential elections near, keep in mind the old Mexican adage: for a few extra pesos even the dogs will dance.