Mexican President tries to root out deep-set corruption
Mexico's move to file fraud charges against the country's former oil chief signals that President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado seriously intends to rail against corruption here.Skip to next paragraph
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Several previous presidents have pledged to root out corruption - but only de la Madrid has broken the unwritten rule against charging the highest public officials for possible crimes committed during office.
The accused here is Jorge Diaz Serrano, head of the state oil monopoly Mexican Petroleum (PEMEX) from 1976 to 1981, and a very close friend of former President Jose Lopez Portillo. Mexico's attorney general charges that Diaz Serrano embezzled $34 million in a deal involving the purchase of oil tankers. Diaz Serrano denies the charges.
Mexicans have become increasingly angry about government corruption - but many are skeptical that anything substantial will be done about it. The announcement of charges against Diaz Serrano aroused mostly snickers from Mexico City residents. They say that no matter how guilty, government officials never go to jail.
''I don't believe the charges mean anything,'' said Odilon Moreno, a young factory worker. ''Officials have always stolen, and nothing will change that. It seems to be part of their jobs. I don't think Diaz Serrano will ever go to jail, because his friends in the party will protect him.''
Near the root of Mexico's corruption problem is the same organization that has ensured the country's political stability - the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has dominated Mexican politics for 54 years. Lopez Portillo, de la Madrid, and Diaz Serrano are all party members. The PRI traditionally selects presidents, and these candidates are automatically elected after a pro forma campaign.
''You cannot really clean the government of corruption because you would have to charge higher-ups, and then the whole political structure would fall apart,'' says Ishmael Ruiz, a clerk, reflecting a typical view of young Mexicans. ''The PRI controls everything in this country.''
Concentration of power in the PRI bred inefficiency, corruption, and nepotism. A spoils system developed, with each president bringing in his own team. So long as they did not challenge the established order, top officials were allowed to use their positions to their advantage, if they chose to.
Under the Lopez Portillo administration (1976-1982), graft and waste were widely believed to have reached new heights. To a large degree, observers say, this is because of the nation's oil boom during his tenure. Huge amounts of money flowed into the nation's coffers, and huge amounts were stolen.
A typical story is related by Humberto Sauri, an engineer: ''I know of one Health Ministry official who, under Lopez Portillo, had about 20 government-owned cars for his personal use. When he was asked by the new administration to turn the cars over, he did - without the engines.''
De la Madrid, who became president last December, campaigned for office on a pledge of moral renovation. He sensed - and tapped - the slow-building anger of Mexicans toward government corruption and mismanagement.
That anger spilled out publicly in February when criminal lawyer Ignacio Burgoa Orihuela of the Chihuahua University Law School and Luis Sanchez Aguilar of the left-wing Social Democratic Party filed a ''citizen's complaint'' with the attorney general.
Orihuela and Aguilar charged Lopez Portillo and his former Cabinet members with ''the misappropriation of $80 billion in foreign loans'' - the amount of the foreign debt when the former President left office.