Mexico's Path Out of Corruption

Mexico's monument to corruption is set to go on sale. The so-called "Parthenon," situated near the Pacific resort of Ixtapa, features a disco modeled after New York's "Studio 54," five bedrooms, nine bathrooms, and many other amenities.

Mexico's Parthenon was built and owned by Arturo "El Negro" Durazo - Mexico City's police chief during the administration of President Jos Lopz Portillo. Amazingly, El Negro managed to build it on a salary of about $100 a week. Today, it is valued at about $1.5 million.

Mexico's sad tale of government corruption did not end with Durazo's fall from power. It continues to be a lucrative business for many.

A recent national poll by a Mexico City newspaper showed that Mexicans feel corruption is a leading problem. President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len has repeatedly pledged to rid the government of this scourge.

This is no small task, since Mexico is considered the third-most-corrupt country in Latin America behind Brazil and Venezuela, according to a 1995 survey of 2,800 international executives conducted by Goettingen University in Germany.

Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of the former president, languishes in a maximum security prison and faces allegations of murder, extortion, and illicit enrichment. His Swiss bank account has some $84 million. Not a bad nest egg for a career public servant.

Although Mexicans are sickened by the corruption, they are fooling themselves if they believe that going after Raul Salinas will end it. An entire system has developed based on loyalty and rewards. Many who receive bribes and kickbacks support the system; the system, in turn, stands by them and continues to offer important political posts. This had been the case with Mr. Salinas and a handful of others who have made headlines.

However, those in high office are not the only people susceptible to the mordida, or "bite."

Indeed, reaching for the wallet happens to most Mexicans, beginning at an early age. A parent who is stopped by a traffic cop, for example, finds it easier to pay on the spot - usually while the children are watching. Later, when the kids are in school, it is not uncommon for an underpaid teacher to solicit cash to ensure a better grade.

Is there hope? Yes, since not all bureaucrats are bad, and not all cops are on the take. Many people are working to make a better government.

Some solutions are obvious. Higher standards for government employees, better pay, and a reduction of political patronage are good starts. Government agencies could provide the public with better, simpler instructions about waiting times and other aspects of their services.

But the frustrating system will not change until there is better independent policing of government servants. During the month of May, all federal employees must file a statement of income and holdings, which supposedly ensures that they are not getting rich off their jobs. Raul Salinas filed such statements every May. Alarms should have sounded when the number of homes and other properties registered each year increased way beyond the reach of a modestly paid bureaucrat.

The process did not work in Salinas's case, and people should not assume it will work in the future. Currently, federal auditors lack autonomy, and they lack the resources for in-depth investigations. They are pinned down by the same system that rewards the corrupt.

By creating a special force of highly trained and motivated auditors, the government could prove it is serious. Then other corrupt officials would be more likely to spend yard time with Raul Salinas.

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