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Where is Mexico's Fight Against Corruption Now?

Viridiana Rios
Where is Mexico's Fight Against Corruption Now?

The deadliest earthquake since 1985 hit Mexico last week, the second significant earthquake in 2017. With at least 225 victims, the parallels between last week's earthquake and 1985’s are spine chilling. Both happened on the same day of the year, September 19th, and both have awoken a powerful civilian mobilization to rescue victims from collapsed buildings.

Back in 1985, corruption and violations of the city's building codes were attributed much of the destruction. Today, an excellent piece by Animal Político has proven that the state of Oaxaca was hit the hardest during the first earthquake of 2017 due to corruption and poor use of tax-payer resources. The entire seismic warning system of Oaxaca had not been operating since January due to the state government's debts to the service provider. The alerts were either stored in warehouses, or were sold online by private parties. In Mexico City, out of the 7,356 seismic alerts that the city’s government had bought, about 46 percent were never installed and had simply disappeared. 

In the face of these events, corruption becomes a humanitarian crisis, rather than just a judicial issue. 

Mexico’s organized civil society knows this and, as a result, has recently embraced a vibrant and ambitious agenda to improve the corrupt system. Lawyers have joined efforts with activists to propose to Congress the necessary laws and institutions to effectively prosecute corruption acts and to watch over the legislation’s implementation.

This citizen-driven effort to change a judicial system flooded with impunity and legal simulation has had many steps, each one characterized by a deep confrontation between citizens and entrenched political elites.

The story began in 2013, when the incumbent party approved a bill to create a “National Anti-Corruption Commission.” This bill was supposed to be the answer to a vociferous public demand to reduce impunity. Yet, when experts and civil society organizations (CSOs) analyzed the legislation, they found it insufficient. The CSO was a centralized entity unable to coordinate efforts among the many state and federal entities. In addition, it lacked real autonomy from other powers and did not establish a clear coordination with the Auditing or the Attorney General offices.

Civil society groups held closed meetings with Mexican authorities to reject the CSO and, instead, called for the creation of a "National Anti-Corruption System" (SNA). The SNA would coordinate the institutions required to efficiently identify, prevent, and sanction corruption, provide them with larger legal capacities, and demand that a citizen council watched over the results of investigations and institutional reform. The public and private pressure was strong. As a result, a constitutional reform to create the SNA was approved by the federal congress in May of 2015.

After the SNA was approved, civil society became much more ambitious. Secondary legislation to regulate the implementation of the SNA was required, and they decided to create it themselves.

Lawyers and organizations drafted a "citizen anti-corruption initiative" containing the secondary laws of the SNA, also known as #Ley3de3, and presented it to the Mexican congress with the demands to be discussed. They used a newly created legal mechanism that allows groups of citizens to submit a bill before Congress, which forces the congress to discuss it, if the initiative is backed by the signatures of 0.13 percent of the electorate, that is, about 120,000 signatures with details of the voter's credential. The citizens' anti-corruption initiative had more than 630,000 signatures.

The formula of public and private pressure worked again and, by July of 2016, the citizens' initiative to regulate the implementation of the SNA had been approved.

Once the secondary laws were approved, a new battle began: full implementation. The leadership organ of the SNA was supposed to be integrated by six representatives of federal institutions with faculties to identify, prevent, or sanction corruptions, and presided over by an independent citizen. The selection of this independent citizen became the most immediate goal. 

The law dictated that the president of the SNA would be a citizen selected by a jury composed of nine notable activists and academics nominated by civil society groups and universities. After receiving dozens of applications, the juries were selected and started the long process of headhunting. 

The president of the SNA, Jacquelin Peschard, an academic specialized in transparency and a citizen electoral counselor, was officially appointed in February of 2017. Along with her, four other citizens were selected to rotate through the presidency (each for one year) until 2021.

Yet, even though the SNA officially started operating in April of 2017, the battle was not over. The SNA started operating with one empty chair. Out of the six representatives of federal institutions required by law, the anti-corruption prosecutor, was missing. This chair is critical. The anti-corruption prosecutor is in charge of conduct criminal proceedings. The SNA had been born without legal teeth. Partisan politicians are to be blamed for this critical failure. The Mexican Senate, who was in charge of selecting the prosecutor, has not been capable of leaving partisan differences behind to make it happen. Several times, they tried to agree without success.

Fortunately, this month the citizen movements have started again. Lawyers and activists collectively presented a second citizen bill, this time to regulate an independent process to select the anti-corruption prosecutor.

This fight is a bit more targeted. Citizens want the anti-corruption prosecutor to be autonomous from the current federal prosecutor, Mr. Raul Cervantes. A reform approved in 2014 established that, starting in 2018, Raul Cervantes would select the anti-corruption prosecutor. Citizens fear that, with him being a prominent member of the PRI and the subject of recent reports of tax evasion, this would de facto provide an amnesty to corrupt members inside the incumbent party.

It is uncertain whether citizens will get their second citizen bill approved, yet chances are they will as they have the public on their side. Animal Político continues to publish pieces on the subject, creating public outcries. A recent investigation showed that Mexico’s federal government, through 11 dependencies, diverted through illegal contracts more than USD430 million. These were given to 186 companies, out of which 128 did not have the infrastructure or legal personality to provide the services for which they were hired, or they simply did not exist.

For Mexico, reducing corruption is the first step towards creating a state capable of redistributing social benefits. We hope that soon the SNA is fully functioning to do just that.

Viridiana is a Global Fellow at the Mexico Institute in Washington, D.C., and one of the four activists distinguished by Mexico’s senate to become jury of the National Anti-Corruption Citizen Committee. She holds a Ph.D. from Harvard. The views expressed here are solely those of the author. 

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