Dispatch

Can This Election Straighten Crooked Mexico?

After years of kickbacks and backroom deals with drug traffickers, Mexicans are finally talking about corruption.

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MEXICO CITY — Five months ago Armando Ríos Piter seemed like a shoo-in to be the next governor of Guerrero, Mexico’s poorest state. Polls at the time gave the senator from the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) 8.2 percent of the vote, compared to just 1.2 percent for his closest competitor.

At 42, Ríos Piter, who goes by the nickname “Jaguar” after the large cat native to Guerrero, has earned his political stripes. His 18-year career has run the gamut of local and federal politics, including a stint as advisor to a former finance minister, a term in each of the houses of congress, and heading up the department of rural development in his home state. There, Ríos Piter was the driving force behind important poverty reduction schemes targeting poor communities in the mountainous farmlands -- best known for their production of poppy for the lucrative heroin trade -- which gained him admiration from the state’s mostly rural population. When, at the start of the year, PRD leadership nominated Ríos Piter for the governorship, it seemed a lifelong political ambition was well within reach.

Then, on Jan. 12, he withdrew his candidacy.

MEXICO CITY — Five months ago Armando Ríos Piter seemed like a shoo-in to be the next governor of Guerrero, Mexico’s poorest state. Polls at the time gave the senator from the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) 8.2 percent of the vote, compared to just 1.2 percent for his closest competitor.

At 42, Ríos Piter, who goes by the nickname “Jaguar” after the large cat native to Guerrero, has earned his political stripes. His 18-year career has run the gamut of local and federal politics, including a stint as advisor to a former finance minister, a term in each of the houses of congress, and heading up the department of rural development in his home state. There, Ríos Piter was the driving force behind important poverty reduction schemes targeting poor communities in the mountainous farmlands — best known for their production of poppy for the lucrative heroin trade — which gained him admiration from the state’s mostly rural population. When, at the start of the year, PRD leadership nominated Ríos Piter for the governorship, it seemed a lifelong political ambition was well within reach.

Then, on Jan. 12, he withdrew his candidacy.

“It was not an easy decision,” Ríos Piter told me recently on the sidelines of a political conference in Mexico City. But when Guerrero grabbed national headlines last fall after its mayor — a crooked PRD party member — ordered the murder of 43 local students, Ríos Piter realized the governorship was a poisoned chalice.

“I decided not to run in the elections because I knew it was impossible to avoid a similar crisis from happening again,” he said of the student disappearances. “Guerrero is important if you want to analyze what’s happening in Mexico — we are trying to move toward economic growth, but corruption and impunity have spread like a cancer.”

On June 7, Mexicans in 16 states and the federal district will vote in the country’s biggest midterm election in history, selecting 500 representatives of the lower house of congress, nine governors, more than 300 mayors, and thousands more local office holders.

Recent opinion polls compiled by Mexican pollster Consulta Mitofsky indicate that the legislative contest will return the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power with about one-third of the vote nationally. This would allow the party to maintain its current majority in congress, enabling it to pass legislation easily with the help of smaller, allied parties. The right-wing National Action Party (PAN), Mexico’s main opposition, which held power for the past two presidential terms, is expected to come in second with a quarter of the vote. And the PRD, the biggest leftist faction and Ríos Piter’s party, comes in third with 14 percent.

But if the projected results seem to mirror the status quo, the political conversation ahead of the election hasn’t. For the first time in a national election, the issue driving the debate is the perception of widespread corruption within the political establishment. “The main topics in Mexican elections tend to be the economy and security,” says Francisco Abundis, director of the polling firm Parametría in Mexico City. “But we’ve never before seen the issue of political corruption feature so prominently.”

This has been reflected in a number of very tense gubernatorial contests. In violence-racked Michoacán and Guerrero in central Mexico and in the wealthier northern states of Nuevo León and Sonora, incumbents from the established parties are struggling to maintain their positions amid allegations of corruption, cronyism, and conflicts of interest.

According to a poll conducted between April 24 and 27, security and justice were the second biggest concerns for voters after the economy, including the linked problems of insecurity, corruption, narco-trafficking, and drug addiction. Sixty-five percent of Mexicans surveyed by the newspaper Reforma in December last year disapproved of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s handling of political corruption, the highest percentage in a decade and a worse rating than his two predecessors from the PAN.

These issues have been bubbling under the surface since late last year, when public anger was stoked with the disappearance of the Guerrero students in September and a subsequent chain of conflict-of-interest revelations in November taking aim at the presidency. Yet society’s ire has been directed not only at the government but also the opposition, which itself has been the focus of recent scandals, including receiving payoffs related to public works contracts, embezzling federal funds, and allegedly having links to narco-traffickers.

“Corruption is a chronic condition in Mexico that has afflicted all of the main parties, it is a structural issue that isn’t being addressed,” Ríos Piter said. Which in the end is exactly why he decided to drop out of the race instead of trying to fix things from the inside out. Having stayed in the contest would have meant “brushing over” the issue of endemic corruption or worse, accepting it as the status quo, he argued. “Until things are done differently, not only in Guerrero but the whole country, running in these elections just makes you part of the problem.”

Candidates in elections across the country have taken strong anti-corruption positions and tried to smear their rivals with allegations of impropriety and cronyism. But such tactics have only piled on the dirt for the already polluted parties, while no clear (or clean) winner has emerged.

In the northern state of Sonora, for instance, the two leading gubernatorial contenders face equally incriminating claims. Each has accused the other of misappropriating funds to pay for aircraft used during campaigning, among other allegations that would make even FIFA officials do a double take.

Javier Gándara, the incumbent Sonora governor and a PAN member, faces claims of of tax evasion linked to his alleged ownership of nine homes in the United States, including a mansion in San Diego. He is under federal investigation over the disappearance of millions of pesos of public funds.

But the other side of the ballot is hardly more inspiring. PRI Sen. Claudia Pavlovich Arellano, who is neck-and-neck with Gándara in the race, has been accused by PAN members of embezzlement, extortion, and bribery in the campaign. She has also been lambasted for “renting” a plane with taxpayers’ money to go shopping in Las Vegas. Yet the most insidious accusation from her rivals says she colluded in the alleged embezzlement of government funds at a nursery school in the Sonora municipality of Hermosillo during her time as a local deputy there. Critics say this was responsible for a blaze that left 49 children dead in 2009, although there have been no official charges of wrongdoing against Pavlovich. “You could say that since both candidates have mutual accusations, it is a draw,” says Abundis. The two candidates are currently tied in the polls.

Mexico’s broadcast media has been the battleground for much of this mudslinging. In the two-month campaign period leading up to the vote, 12.5 million political advertisements have been aired on Mexican television and radio, a 70 percent rise over the last legislative election in 2009. One PAN advertisement insinuates that the president misspent taxpayers’ money by taking a delegation of some 200 employees on his March state visit to Britain. Another ad accuses the government of maintaining high fuel costs — in spite of low international oil prices — in order to enrich PRI chiefs.

The PRI has hit back, accusing the PAN of double standards. Ads reference recent bribery cases, such as last year’s moches, or “kickbacks,” scandal in which a PAN legislator allegedly extorted a Mexico City mayor. The dirt has also flown at the PRD, which stands accused of using illicit campaign money to transport candidates in helicopters to attend political rallies.

Some of these advertisements have been banned by Mexico’s government-run elections watchdog for slander. But that has not stopped the incendiary onslaught on social media, with censured political advertisements going viral on YouTube. In one video, a man in a business suit is asked what he thinks about a PRI party leader wearing a watch that costs more than 2 million pesos ($130,000). The enraged pedestrian curses. The ad then zooms in on a woman sweeping her porch. She has similar comments for PRI politicians who own million-dollar homes — at taxpayers’ expense, the ad insinuates. Meanwhile, photos of public servants boarding helicopters and politicians’ spouses going shopping, which have been taken as a sign of political excess, have been posted on Twitter and Facebook.

But even as corruption has become a mainstay issue of the election, many people remain skeptical of politicians’ promises. A lack of legislation in Mexico to tackle corruption and weak enforcement of existing laws has allowed a climate of impunity. According to a May study by the Mexico Institute for Competitiveness and the Mexico City-based Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, only four out of 41 governors accused of political wrongdoing between 2001 and 2013 were detained, compared to all nine U.S. governors who faced allegations of corruption over the same period.

In April, Mexico’s congress enacted new legislation that strengthens the Federal Audit Office and the Public Administration Ministry, and creates specialized courts focused on corruption-related issues. But the new law does not require government employees to make their finances public, and the president and other elected officials are immune from investigation and prosecution in cases of corruption. Critics question whether the measures will go far enough, or if there is the political will to carry them out.

“Mexico’s problem is not corruption or crime, narcos or violence,” says Luis Rubio, a political analyst at the Center of Research for Development in Mexico City. “It is a lack of governance, effective police, and an independent judiciary … everything else is a symptom and a consequence.”

Ríos Piter believes that the solution is greater institutional capacity to deal with corruption. “The fact is that there are good and honest people in all of the parties, and there are bad people,” he said when we met last week. “But pointing the finger of blame will not get us anywhere. We need a new institutional arrangement to deal with it.”

From the quiet garden table where we spoke, Ríos Piter looked restless. The ambitious senator is determined to pass new legislation to improve transparency in Mexican politics and push for measures that will apply greater scrutiny to politicians’ finances. “After June 7,” he said, “that is when the real change begins.”

Photo credit: YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @amystillman

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