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Mexico inaugurates new President Peña Nieto, but takes on 'old' party reputation

Corruption will likely be a constant challenge for Peña Nieto and his PRI party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years largely through graft before it lost the presidency in 2000.

By Staff Writer / December 1, 2012

Mexico's President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto listens as US President Obama speaks prior to their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 27. Nieto takes office Saturday, but when Mexicans chose him as president in July, they voted for more than just a presidential platform.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Mexico City

Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto takes office today, but when Mexicans chose him as president in July, they voted for more than just a presidential platform. Voters elected to bring back to power a party that ran the state for 71 years through a combination of corruption and cronyism, and, at its worst, with a repressive authoritarian hand. 

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Some Mexicans do fear a return of past practices: Immediately upon his victory, Mr. Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) faced a scandal alleging that they systematically handed out gift cards in exchange for votes.

Many others, however, seem to think that Mexico of the 21st century leaves no space for the free reign that the PRI enjoyed while in power in the last century. and the PRI itself maintains it’s a new party, just as committed to democratic principles as any other.

Still, it is corruption, in its many different forms, that is likely to be the party’s constant challenge for the next six years.

Not only will the PRI likely have to continuously prove clean credentials to skeptics, corruption itself is deeply rooted in Mexico, affecting everything from fighting drug traffickers to collecting taxes. The National Action Party (PAN), which took power from the PRI in 2000, made some limited progress, but graft remains rampant. And corruption has morphed from a more localized problem of bribing to a sophisticated, multi-country phenomenon that involves multinationals and all three branches of government. Exhibit A is the recent Walmart scandal in Mexico, in which the American corporation allegedly bought permits to more quickly construct big-box stores here.

“Their biggest challenge is to convince people on the streets that they are really a new PRI. This is not going to be easy,” says Eduardo Bohorquez, head of Transparencia Mexicana, the Mexican chapter of the global watchdog Transparency International.

“As much as the PRI says it wants to change… the levels of systemic corruption… have also changed in the past 15 years. [Corruption] includes bribing a police officer, but there is a much more sophisticated form of corruption today.”

In order for the PRI to clamp down on the various forms that corruption takes, it will have to exercise a lot of political control, Mr. Bohorquez says. But then “it will resemble this idea of an authoritarian presidency. It’s not a simple balance.”

Reforms

Last month Peña Nieto sought to allay general fears of shady state dealings by proposing a new anti-corruption commission that would have the powers to remove officials from office, hand out fines, and request prosecutions. But he has also proposed moving the federal police, who have taken a lead role in the fight against organized crime, under the domain of the Interior Department, which to some harks back to the PRI of the past, when the Interior Department was extraordinarily powerful – and opaque.

Some have expressed concern about his plans on reforming the structural organization of the police, who have long been one of the weakest links in the fight against crime. “We are concerned about the concentration of power,” says Antia Mendoza, a police expert and consultant for municipal police departments. “And so far, what he seems to be [proposing] is a new organization of the police, not an integral reform.”

Outgoing President Felipe Calderón swelled the ranks of the federal police, and with US support, sought to root out corruption through vetting and other integrity testing. But the efforts have failed to produce tangible results. The most recent scandal involves a federal police ambush of CIA agents in Mexico, which is still under investigation.

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