Corruption Is Mexico’s Original Sin

Personal enrichment has always been central to Mexico's political system — and only a revolution can change that.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at the National Palace in Mexico City on April 24, 2017. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at the National Palace in Mexico City on April 24, 2017. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

On Dec. 20, a political operative of Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Alejandro Gutiérrez, was arrested on charges of embezzlement and illegal use of public funds for his party. It was a relatively high-profile arrest, but one shouldn’t get carried away about its meaning. Mexico’s corruption problem has indeed become dysfunctional. But corruption remains an integral part of the country’s political system and, absent a political revolution, is unlikely to fade away anytime soon.

During the 20th century, corruption helped Mexico attain the political stability that allowed it to achieve long periods of economic growth. It also remains the glue that holds the country’s establishment together. The system is so entrenched that even when the longtime opposition party, the National Action Party (PAN), took power during the administrations of Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, it quickly fell into line.

Mexico’s corruption problem is not a product of chance. Mexico’s political system was created in the 1930s to consolidate the political power of the winners of the country’s 1910 revolution and to provide them with access to government posts and money. The resulting system was based on a simple transaction: loyalty to the president, across all political and judicial institutions, in exchange for access to wealth and political power.

Since then, government posts, both elective and by appointment, have been given out as part of an endless process of negotiations to maintain the political class’s control over the country and its spoils system. Functionaries have long seen their positions as opportunities to make money. Some office holders were provided with nonpublic information that allowed personal gain, while in other cases their appointments facilitated outright robbery. They were only prosecuted when they broke the golden rule — when they opposed the president or ceased to be perceived as loyal. There has been no distinction between political parties in these endeavors; the PRI, which was the only game in town for most of the 20th century, and the PAN have been equally implicated.

The current administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto has been a perfect case in point. Although Peña Nieto campaigned as a reformer, since taking power he has attempted to restore the country’s political system to the 1950s, a time when the federal government’s paramount goal was economic growth, which it achieved with an average growth rate of 7 percent. It was also a time when corruption served to secure loyalties throughout the political arena at virtually no cost in terms of popularity.

Over the past five years, Mexico has thus lived through two contrasting processes. On the one hand, Peña Nieto has overseen legislative approval of some major liberalizing reforms, particularly in energy, telecoms, and education. All of these reforms were accomplished through graft, with votes that were duly purchased, while allowing favored economic and political actors to profit from access to privileged information. At the same time, corruption suddenly became the raison d’être of the country’s activist community.

Both these processes went together. The economic reforms were approved through an arrangement among the three major political parties. That agreement resulted in both PAN and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the two major opposition parties, losing their credibility, as they ended up being perceived by the public, most likely correctly, as having sold their principles — and their legislative votes — in order to benefit from the ancestral corruption of the PRI system. All three parties are now seen to be one and the same, at least as far as corruption goes. It’s no wonder that the PRI is now fielding a presidential candidate, José Antonio Meade, in next year’s election with impeccable personal credentials who is not a member of the party.

Corruption has become the nodal leitmotif of Mexican politics, at least in rhetoric. It is the subject around which public discussion, electoral processes, decisions on savings and investment, and — however much they deny it — politicians’ calculations gyrate.

And so the political class did recently pass anti-corruption legislation to please activists. The new legislation creates the office of a special prosecutor for corruption charged with choosing and investigating cases of corruption. Thus, at least in appearance, the law provides an opportunity to prosecute cases of corruption. In this sense, the Mexican political establishment no longer enjoys absolute freedom to misbehave, as can be gleaned from the fact that several governors have been jailed or are being prosecuted.

Still, it’s easy to confuse facts with appearances. First, a special prosecutor has not yet been appointed. More broadly, the anti-corruption law mostly addresses the corruption epidemic’s symptoms, thus helping to preserve the status quo. It does not aim to eliminate the causes of corruption, starting with the arbitrary and unchecked powers that government functionaries, at all levels of government, use to extort the public. It also leaves too much power to decide what to investigate in the hands of appointed officials who are beholden to political bosses.

It’s important to remember that Mexico’s corrupt system hasn’t just included political institutions and parties but also the judicial system. The legal rules governing political institutions have always been defined in ambiguous and discretionary ways. This gives politicians and prosecutors the power to unmercifully punish perfectly legitimate and adequate actions when they find it convenient.

It also allows them to politicize corruption charges as they see fit. Charges of corruption have been used over the decades as a means to punish political enemies and maintain political discipline. Precisely because corruption is so rampant, it has always been the easiest way for those in power in Mexico to attack and undermine their political enemies.

The new fad in Mexico is for any political actor likely to be prosecuted to flee the country and then wait for a request for extradition; the extradition order is then negotiated so that the charges for which the extradited person can be prosecuted are minor. It thus appears that he or she is being subjected to the full weight of the law. But once the headlines shift to a different matter, the person leaves jail, and the entire matter blows away.

There is even plenty of evidence to suggest that many of the governors and other politicians who were recently convicted for corruption negotiated their indictments with prosecutors in order to secure a comfortable passage through the justice system, mostly without much jail time or a serious dent in their persona­l assets.

Mexican politicians know they can mostly ignore the politically active people in the country’s urban areas who are focused on the corruption problem, because they are hardly representative of the broader public. Most Mexicans have no access to the resources, benefits, or power of the political system — and, precisely for that reason, they are not much concerned with how it works. The concerns and interests of the average Mexican instead revolve around the more basic things in life, such as safety, jobs, and income.

Hence, the detention of Alejandro Gutiérrez in the state of Chihuahua makes headlines that add to the malaise that has characterized Mexicans’ mood for the last few years but is unlikely to change much. Those who assume that this, or a similar case of corruption, could unleash a political crisis that will lead to a reshuffling of the political order — of the sort that Brazil is currently experiencing — are bound to be disappointed.

Circumstances in Mexico and Brazil are radically different — not least because Brazil’s judicial system is far more advanced. Back in the 1970s, while Mexico was developing an extraordinary cadre of first rate economists and technocrats, Brazil concentrated on its justice system by developing a school of independent prosecutors. It is not by chance that Mexico has gone much further in reforming its economy while Brazil has made much more progress in developing an independent justice system.

Mexico’s political system isolates, and protects, politicians from the citizenry and provides them with extraordinary powers to do as they please. To be sure, elections these days are contested, and political parties alternate in government. But the system carries on. The only solution is a new political regime, under new rules of the game — that is, a new constitution that would hold government officials accountable through checks and balances enforced by independent institutions.

Absent such a revolutionary change, specific legal reforms can address the symptoms of corruption or other social problems, such as drug activity. But the core of Mexico’s problem isn’t corruption or drugs but the lack of a basic functioning government that is designed to address the needs of citizens rather than the interests of politicians themselves.

For now, the current case of embezzlement in Chihuahua, which follows the governor’s own political agenda against the PRI, may alter citizens’ perceptions of one or another candidate in the presidential race. But it will not, by itself, transform Mexico’s political system. The system itself, after all, is based on corruption.

Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and of México Evalúa-CIDAC.

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