The Earthquake to Come in Mexico

With a wave of corruption scandals sweeping out Latin American governments, is Mexico's next to fall?

Rescue teams work amid the ruins of Colegio Enrique Rébsamen in Mexico City on Sept. 20. (Jose Garcia/AFP/Getty Images)T
Rescue teams work amid the ruins of Colegio Enrique Rébsamen in Mexico City on Sept. 20. (Jose Garcia/AFP/Getty Images)T

Among the countless personal tragedies wrought by Central Mexico’s deadly earthquake in September, the Colegio Enrique Rébsamen, a private school in the south of the capital where dozens of children were buried beneath rubble, became the emotional ground-zero. For days, the nation held its breath as emergency services and volunteers pored through the ruins of the collapsed three-storey building, looking for survivors. The 7.1-magnitude tremor, which took 369 lives across Mexico City and surrounding states, produced a sense of national unity rare in a country known for its economic and cultural divisions, as tens of thousands of citizens donated time, effort, and supplies.

Yet as the dust began to settle, both heroes and villains emerged.

Mónica García Villegas, the owner and director of the school, was charged with illegally falsifying a construction permit to expand the premises and potentially contributing to its vulnerability to the quake. Similar scandals played out across the affected area. In total, hundreds of complaints were filed in Mexico City regarding the violation of the building codes brought into law after a previous 8.0-magnitude earthquake took thousands of lives in 1985. Public officials visiting one site were attacked by residents, and Graco Ramírez, the governor of Morelos State, was accused by opponents of utilizing aid supplies for political purposes.

The earthquake and its fallout capped off a turbulent year for Mexico, in which drug-related crime again began to rise and delicate talks with the Trump administration over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement — the pillar of the country’s export-driven manufacturing economy — continue. Yet as September’s tragedy illustrated, the key theme ahead of a crucial July 2018 election is quickly becoming a topic closer to home: corruption.

If lessons from Mexico’s neighbors hold true, this reckoning could lead to the country’s largest political shakeup in 20 years.

Recent crackdowns on corruption elsewhere in Latin America, notably in Brazil and Guatemala, caused major political earthquakes, as reputations and careers were destroyed overnight and economic uncertainty bloomed. There is no reason to believe the effects of a clean-up in Mexico would be any less drastic.

“Mexico is a competitive democracy now, but the quality and strength of public institutions has yet to catch up with these advances, and corruption is deeply rooted in the political culture,” said Alberto Fernández, a political analyst at the New School.

Corruption, along with the debate over its impact on economic performance and quality of governance, has arguably been the dominant theme in 21st-century Latin American politics. Yet while the consolidation of the rule of law has come somewhat more easily to smaller, relatively prosperous nations such as Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, and others have embarked on sweeping crackdowns, Mexico has often appeared to lag behind.

Intentionally or no, Mexico has made a trade-off, enjoying enviable political stability in the form of frequent alternation of power and consistent economic growth, at the expense of a political system captured by entrenched elites. It has thereby, at least up until now, avoided the chaos that has wracked Brazil since the so-called “Car Wash” scandal broke in 2014. While Brazil has seen countless politicians placed under investigation, including former and current presidents, Mexico’s elite has watched on in awe and fear, knowing that its moment is still to come.

“My impression is that there is no political will, that there are so many [informal] arrangements among candidates and public officials that the implementation of the rule of law often seems impossible,” said Valeria Moy, an economist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

Mexico may not yet have had its moment of reckoning — but the issue has risen to the forefront of public discourse. If the administration of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, was dominated by Mexico’s controversial war on drugs, the six years under President Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have been dogged by a seemingly endless series of scandals, from the notorious Casa Blanca case to the 14 former state governors who have been arrested or placed under investigation in separate incidents involving the misuse or appropriation of public resources. A report published in October by Transparency International revealed that more than half of Mexicans perceive corruption as on the rise; 72 percent consider it a serious issue.

Yet, while the media focuses on individual cases of illicit wealth, Mexico’s structural struggle to achieve rule of law has pervaded almost every element of recent administrations, from the drug war to the implementation of crucial economic reforms. Attempts by the current administration to reform the country’s woefully dysfunctional education system have been tainted by violent protests by labor unions in southern states. Kidnapping and extortion by drug gangs in cahoots with corrupt police stave away private investment in many regions. A 2015 report by the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness determined that 60 percent of businesspeople consider graft as a normal part of the playing field.

“The impact on the economy is likely significant, although the reality is we have no way of knowing how much stronger growth would be if the law was enforced,” Moy said.

Unsurprisingly, among a slew of reforms approved by the Mexican congress since 2013 — including landmark changes to the energy, telecoms, finance, and education sectors — plans for a National Anticorruption System have been the most contentious, as lawmakers have clashed over the appointment of an independent prosecutor to head the commission. The relative neutrality of Mexico’s attorney general has also been called into question ahead of a landmark reform to take effect in 2018 to grant the office greater autonomy.

“These reforms are written into law and there is no turning back, but naturally there is a fear that investigations may become politicized and that has been at the heart of the debate,” Héctor Villarreal, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Mexico, told FP.

In the latest national corruption scandal, on October 20, Mexico’s electoral crimes prosecutor, Santiago Nieto, was fired by President Peña Nieto (no relation) days after he announced an investigation into the role of Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht into the president’s victorious 2012 campaign. Notably, while bribery scandals involving the firm in Brazil, Peru, and Colombia have led to arrests and prosecutions, Mexican officials have thus far gone unscathed, and a subsequent decision by the PRI and its allies in the Senate not to reinstate Nieto could well leave Mexico without an operational electoral crimes unit ahead of next year’s elections.

Mexico’s 2018 presidential race is likely to be competitive. While Peña Nieto is unable to run because of term limits, his party’s reputation is on the floor thanks to the aforementioned scandals and verbal attacks by U.S. President Donald Trump. The key challenges to the PRI will come from a centrist alliance made up of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), and left-wing outlier the National Regeneration Movement, headed by former Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Both factions are likely to run on an anti-corruption platform, but López Obrador and the national chairpersons of the PAN and PRD have been tainted by scandals of their own.

“All the major parties have been exposed as abusing the system or looking the other way,” said Villarreal.

In addition to the corruption it unearthed, the aftermath to Mexico’s September earthquake was notable for a phenomenon: the enthusiastic participation of citizens in recovery efforts and rebuilding. This same trend has also been a welcome development in the fight against graft. In 2016, a group of lawyers and academics used a social media campaign to pressure lawmakers to include a grassroots transparency initiative — the so-called Three-out-of-Three Law — in Mexico’s anticorruption bill, garnering over half a million signatures in support of the initiative. While lawmakers sought to water down the initiative, the fact that they had no option but to debate its content and include many of the recommendations in the new National Anticorruption System showed a political class under pressure.

“There’s a growing sense of urgency from civil society regarding accountability, and the political class are no longer able to ignore it,” said Alberto Fernández. “The debate will continue past 2018, regardless of who wins.”

Paul Imison is a Mexico City-based journalist covering politics, economics, and crime. Twitter: @paulimison

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