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.
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.”
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.
Edgardo Buscaglia, a senior law and economics fellow at Columbia University and the president of the Institute for Citizen Action for Justice and Democracy in Mexico City, says that neither commissions nor police reorganization alone will do enough to root out corruption, unless four areas of reform are tackled as well: creation of a functional justice system; a government “clean-up” with anti-corruption measures in place that includes prosecution; the confiscation of illegally obtained assets; and social policies and greater economic opportunities.
And despite what any leader attempts to do on the police front, as long as society is ambivalent about what it wants from its police, no changes can be long lasting says Scott Stewart, the vice president of analysis at the security consultancy firm Stratfor.
Mr. Stewart cites the Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations, or DOAN, in Guatemala as a prime example. Set up in the mid-90s, the DOAN was a newly established force of well-paid, US-trained, vetted recruits. But by 2002 they were disbanded for essentially becoming a drug-trafficking organization, Stewart says.
“I believe there are a lot of rich Mexicans who have a conflicting concept of the police. On one hand, if they are being victimized, they want a force they want to rely on that is honest. At the same time, they want to be able to offer [a bribe] to get out of a speeding ticket,” he says. "It is very difficult to have a really uncorrupted system until the culture demands and expects it.”
Mr. Bohorquez says that corruption is not endemic to culture but responds to systems. For example, when procedures for getting driving licenses were streamlined, payoffs largely disappeared in Mexico. “People adapt to systems that work,” he says.
Mexicans face an inordinate amount of corruption in their daily lives, and that has gotten worse despite transparency and access-to-information laws passed after the PAN took power. According to Transparencia Mexicana’s latest poll from 2010, paying bribes cost Mexican households 14 percent of their incomes. And specific acts of corruption actually increased during Calderón's term, from 197 million in 2007 to 200 million in 2010 (even though he’s been hailed for eliminating thousands of bureaucratic procedures at the federal level that reduce the room for payoffs).
'Adapt to new circumstances'
Mexicans themselves are divided on whether the PRI in power represents an additional challenge. The student movement called #YoSoy132, which has risen as a watchdog group of sorts over the PRI, is planning to protest Peña Nieto’s Dec. 1 inauguration. The losing leftist presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is also protesting what he says is a victory thanks to massive vote-buying.
Others say that there is no greater risk with Peña Nieto in power than with any other leader, especially since corrupt governors and municipalities would exist regardless of who is in the presidential suite. And the rise of civil society and stronger institutions forms a new barrier for the PRI, which once colluded with drug traffickers.
“The PRI is well known because of the corruption of the past, but it’s shown some evidence that it understands the reality of the country and that it will adapt to new circumstances,” says Jorge Chabat, expert on narcotics trafficking at Mexico's Center for Economics Research and Teaching.
There is also a good share of disillusionment with the government in general. The PAN, despite being an opposition voice for decades, did not leave Mexicans with the faith that it is any less corrupt than former rulers. The most common sentiment expressed on the streets is that all the parties are corrupt, but at least the PRI “shares the goods.” Mexico tied with Guatemala for last place in the latest 18-nation survey by Latinobarometro, which asked about citizens' satisfaction with democracy.
Hugo Said, a truck driver who delivers potable water from Mexico State, where Peña Nieto was the former governor, to the federal district of Mexico City, says that whether the PRI is corrupt or not is far from his top concern anyway. “No one is ever going to get rid of corruption, in any of the parties,” Mr. Said says. “But at least with the PRI we lived better.”