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Mexico: From a Drug War to a War Against Corruption

Viridiana Rios

In this Expert Take, Viridiana Rios discusses Mexico's fight against corruption and #Ley3de3.

Mexico: From a Drug War to a War Against Corruption

Frustration. Such is the feeling that permeates Mexican citizens who have seen corruption and security scandals breaking one after another, year after year. 

Cases like the disappearance of 43 students at Ayotzinapa, the release of private audios showing government contractors describing corruption operations in infrastructure developments, and the identification of millionaire government funds poured into programs without proper evaluations of impact, have all contributed to the founded belief that corruption is one of the most daunting problems Mexico is facing currently.

The Mexican government has proven unable to diminish such frustration, and thus is paying a brutal toll in terms of its credibility. Corruption scandals have been the main ingredient behind the sharp reduction in popularity of Mexico’s President, Mr. Peña Nieto. During the six months after Ms. Carmen Aristegui broke the news about him inhabiting a luxurious home that had not been declared as part of his assets, approval of the president fell 20 percentage points, sharply decreasing from 59% to 39%, according to Parametría, one of Mexico’s major polling companies.

Yet, it would be inaccurate to portray Mexico’s problem as a battle between corrupted officials and fed up citizens. In Mexico, all are victims.

The truth is, even the cleanest and most committed public officer would find it difficult to prosecute someone for corruption because there are few legal tools to fight such types of crimes in Mexico. Government and citizens are victims of legal lacunas and gray areas. Specifically, Mexico does not have a law that defines penalties for basic corruption activities like conflict of interest or influence peddling. 

As a result, Mexico is submerged in a vicious cycle that no one has dared to break… at least not until now. The vicious cycle is one in which corrupt politicians do not have incentives to change the law, and corruption continues on because there is not a proper legal framework to punish it. Only civil society has dared to break the cycle.

The first strike from civil society came last year. In May of 2015, a coordinated entity to fight corruption, known as the “National Anti-corruption System (Sistema Nacional Anti-Corrupción, SNA),” was approved by the Congress, but only because civil society organizations lobbied in favor of it and used clever mechanisms of public pressure via social media. Before the push from civil society, the law of the Anti-corruption National System was still just a campaign promise of Mr. Peña Nieto.

The second strike is gestating. Mexico’s top civil society groups, academics, and activists have utilized a newly created legal mechanism to present an initiative to congress. The citizen’s initiative, known as #Ley3de3, is one of the three laws required to regulate the SNA.  It is a bill that defines clear punishments towards acts of corruption. The law would define 10 types of corruption, following the United Nations’ best practices, protects whistle blowers, gives benefits to confessors, defines obligations for 96 state level institutions with auditing capacities, and requires all authorities to present declarations of interest, assets and tax payments.

Strike two, though, may be a little more difficult to achieve than the first one: In order for the bill to be considered by Congress, 120 thousand signatures need to be gathered-each one in hard copy and with detailed information from the photo ID of all those signing it.

But Mexicans are incensed and signatures have begun to flow. Students, citizens and business communities are on-board. Chambers of commerce are asking their members to sign the bill. Radio stars like El Sopitas talk about it on their shows. One of the largest chains of pharmacies volunteered to receive the signatures at all of its locations. Activists, academics and columnists endlessly discuss it.

These are exciting times for Mexico, the times in which a drug war that made the country realize how important it was to make the judicial system work is giving way to a war against corruption, the original plague that infected the judicial system.

In the big picture, achieving the requisite number of signatures to discuss the citizen’s initiative in Mexico is really not what is important. What really matters is what it reflects--a country that awoke, and whose citizens took the battle to improve it into their hands.

Viridiana Rios has a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University, and is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. 

About the Author

Viridiana Rios

Viridiana Rios

Former Global Fellow;
Columnist, El Pais; Instructor of US-Mexico politics at Harvard Summer School
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Mexico Institute

The Mexico Institute seeks to improve understanding, communication, and cooperation between Mexico and the United States by promoting original research, encouraging public discussion, and proposing policy options for enhancing the bilateral relationship. A binational Advisory Board, chaired by Luis Téllez and Earl Anthony Wayne, oversees the work of the Mexico Institute.   Read more