The traditional stance of the PRI political party is to wait out protest: engage where essential and allow time to mollify.  Why then have the massacres of Tlatlaya and Ayotzinapa persisted in the Mexican mind? We approach 1 year since Tlatlaya when the Mexican army shot at close range 22 alleged gang members, claiming self-defense, and 8 months since 43 students at a famed teacher training College were murdered and thereafter disappeared.  The national uproar was intense with protest marches extending throughout the Mexican states and up into the United States.

A scandal over financial support to purchase a mansion for the President’s wife, actress Angelica Rivera and the subsequent cancellation of her patron’s contract to build a high speed rail road to the electronic heartland of Mexico lent fuel to public contempt for presidential management.

Then, a prominent investigative journalist, Carmen Aristegui was fired from her morning job at MVS Radio en Vivo for publishing stories about the First Lady’s mansion and other tales that embarrassed the Mexican president.  Presidential aides called on the owners of MVS to end the investigative journalism, but they could not do the same with CNN en Español, with which Aristegui has a nightly week show, holding top Neilson ratings. She therefore continues to investigate and publish instances of corruption and the appearance of conflict of interest among the Mexican elite.

Less notorious, but deeply troubling were the multiple tales of harassment toward Mexican journalists in provincial papers. The crime beat has become a dangerous profession with threats from both criminal enterprises and local officials to minimize or distort criminal acts. Several journalists whom I met preferred to seek transfer to the sports or the fashion pages where threats to personal safety were absent rather than continue as crime reporters.  Self-censorship and threats to freedom of the press have resulted in Freedom House classifying Mexico’s press as “Not Free” in 2014.

The common theme running through these four situations is lack of trust in public institutions and cynicism toward the rule of law. Recent surveys find that 75 percent of those polled do not trust politicians and police in Mexico. Politicians, certain bureaucrats and the police are not considered public servants, but users and abusers of citizens.  This is a most serious accusation.  It is not news, but the expected rate of any bribe has risen significantly.  In the first decade of the 21st century, a 6 percent payment to the official was the cost of doing business and most Mexicans shrugged it off their conscience.  Now the payment can go up to 30 percent, as the head of ISTE in Queretaro required of the local caterer to put on the annual Gala Dinner for 500 people in 2014.  The additional 30 percent per head went directly into the director’s personal retirement fund.

This pervasive corruption is a virus which threatens the fabric of the state unless stopped.  The example of Italy in the 1980s and the current cases brought by young Brazilian prosecutors gives us hope.  In both Italy and Brazil, citizens had become totally fed up with the rotten state of their government. No longer would they tolerate it.  Therefore, a new generation of prosecutors found public support for their pursuit of the law and their willingness to confront the powerful through use of their prosecutorial powers.

In Italy, chairman of powerful legislative committee and even Prime Minister Andreotti were charged with crimes. Giulio Andreotti was convicted of conspiring to murder a journalist who sought to publish stories of Andreotti’s relationship with the mafia. The conviction was overturned on appeal. Later, the case was revived with a 24 year sentence imposed, but the statute of limitations had run its course.

Today, Brazilian prosecutors have indicted 97 senior people involved in kickbacks through the national petroleum company, PETROBRAS, and three former lawmakers – no longer protected by immunity – were detained on April 10. Furthermore, the Brazilian Supreme Court is investigating 34 sitting politicians on suspicion of receiving bribes.

In Mexico, the only prominent politician indicted and jailed for misuse of union funds and tax evasion is the former head of the SNTE teacher’s union, Elba Esther Gordillo. One year after her February 2013 arrest, the judge confirmed the formal order for her imprisonment.  However, the length of her imprisonment has not been announced, nor have her multiple properties in Mexico and the United States been legally attached (taken). The legal framework has been used as an instrument that is molded to the objectives of the case, namely the removal of Gordillo from Mexican political life. No Mexican prosecutor dared bring charges against the former governor of Coahuila and Mayor of Saltillo, Jorge Torres, for financial wrongdoings.  Instead, it took U.S. Federal prosecutors to bring those charges in September 2013.  Recent charges have been brought against 13 Federal Police Officers linked to the abduction of a businessman in Matamoros, but there is little evidence to suggest that a conviction will be handed down. 

With less than 2 percent of those charged of a crime serving jail time, the powerful in Mexico have little to fear from the judicial process. That must change if citizens are to gain trust in their government.  Only when citizens hear their judges convict and send to jail prominent politicians, police chiefs, powerful businessmen as well as drug kingpins will they recognize that times have changed. The Italian and Brazilian experiences teach us that the judicial branch must be sufficiently independent from the Executive and Legislative branches of government to bring cases and achieve convictions against the powerful who abuse their positions. Only then will citizens gain a degree of trust in the rule of law and their government institutions. There is a way forward for Mexico.

*Diana Villiers Negroponte is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a member of the Mexico Institute's Advisory Board.