How governors' offices became ground zero for corruption in Mexico

Two former Mexican governors were recently arrested on charges of corruption. Is it another step forward in anti-corruption efforts, or window dressing to appease voters before Mexico's upcoming elections?

Luis Echeverria/Reuters
Javier Duarte, former governor of Mexican state Veracruz, is escorted by policemen while leaving a court in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on April 19, 2017.

Two former Mexican governors were arrested this month in Guatemala and Italy, where they had been living low-key lives out of the public eye, following requests for their extradition on charges stemming from alleged corruption while in office.

The arrests of Javier Duarte of Veracruz and Tomás Yarrington of Tamaulipas, along with the disappearance of two other former governors affiliated with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), have revived public indignation and speculation that its leaders could have sheltered figures once held up by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto as beacons of a new, reformed party.

Mr. Duarte, sought on charges of graft and organized crime since October, was apprehended April 15 in a hotel located in the bucolic Guatemalan lakeside town of Panajachel. Mr. Yarrington, captured in Florence, was wanted on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking in both Mexico and the United States since 2012 – though state bodyguards remained assigned to him until late 2016. 

The apprehensions have cast a light on how the turn-of-the-century democratization of Mexican politics, after seven decades under the PRI’s one-party rule, has led to an unintended plague of corruption starting from the governor’s seat downward, as new funding flowed outward to the states. But some think the outrage inspired by details of the allegations could produce a response – perhaps less from lawmakers, who recently passed a package of anti-corruption laws, than from citizens, who pioneered a transparency initiative later incorporated into them.

“We’re seeing how corruption changes,” says Stephen Morris, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and a longtime researcher on corruption in Mexico. “In the past, with the PRI keeping governors in bounds, there was the idea that there were certain things they could do to enrich themselves – the spoils of the system, if you will – but it seemed different than the types of patterns we’re seeing now.”

Little seems to have changed over the years in the public’s estimation of official corruption. In 2016, Mexico scored about the same as it had in 2000 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, though its ranking plummeted from 59th place to 123rd, out of the 176 countries surveyed.

The problem crosses party lines. But the PRI is already paying the biggest price. In last summer's regional elections, the party lost six governors’ seats, and it looks poised to lose the presidency in 2018. 

What happened to the governor's seat

In their six-year term, Mexican governors wield enormous power and influence and control state legislatures, state auditors, and state prosecutors.

As federal control began waning around the turn of the century, historians explain, governors who might have been expelled from office by party heads for being too brazen in their misconduct now found themselves unchecked by leaders in Mexico City. And as prosecutors took aim at drug gangs, who had once done their business quietly and with PRI protection, governors sometimes fell into the role of protector for newly exposed bosses of drug cartels. 

Greater state and municipal access to federal resources produced during the democratic transition helped foster popular participation, says Claudio Lomnitz, an anthropologist and specialist on Mexican history and culture at a Columbia University in New York. "But at the same time, it opened the door to a lot of corrupt practices, especially on the local level," he says.

At least 11 former governors either face charges or have been sentenced since 2010. Three governors, including former Governor Yarrington’s successor, have apparently gone into hiding. And last year, an analysis by the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) found that press accounts from 2000 to 2013 linked 41 of the country’s 63 serving governors from that period to acts of corruption. Only five were ultimately convicted.

“The old days of being able to just rob the coffers are really no longer feasible, so you have to have more elaborate means: working with supporters to create [shell] companies, then arrange for them to get contracts with the [state] government, in order to get kickbacks,” says Dr. Morris.

A 'state of the state' too terrible to ignore

Former Governor Duarte's case has become emblematic of the wider problem in part because of the violence that blackened the state of Veracruz, much of it seeming to bear the imprint of drug gangs and criminal economies, during his term from 2010 to 2016. Some 627 people were reported missing, compared to just 54 in the preceding five years, according to federal figures; the remains of at least 245 people were recently uncovered in a mass grave; and over the course of his term, at least 17 journalists were murdered and three went missing.

Then there are the eye-popping amounts allegedly diverted: depending if you ask the national auditor or the justice department, anywhere from $11 million to nearly $3.2 billion in funds that were intended for a state university, health centers, and infrastructure projects ended up sunk into dozens of personal properties and bank accounts in the US, Spain, and Costa Rica.

Civil-society and news organizations have produced reports linking Duarte to several dozen shell companies that received as many as 73 contracts from the state of Veracruz.

“I kind of think there’s got to be an upside to this, because it’s such a level of scandal,” says Dr. Lomnitz. “I do think there’s going to be some round of reforms that’s going to come out of this. I can’t imagine not, because it’s too serious.”

Citizens take up transparency initiatives

The greatest sources of hope may spring from the grass-roots. A 2014 online campaign dubbed 3de3, or “three out of three,” that saw citizens urge officials to make public their taxes, assets, and conflicts of interest has elicited that measure from 31 senators, 125 federal deputies, 367 state officials – and 27 out of the 32 current governors.

In 2015, the initiative joined a raft of transparency reforms – first proposed by President Peña Nieto and later approved by Congress – that were signed into law in July 2016. But the 3de3 law ended up somewhat de-toothed – it did not require public disclosure of the three categories, after opponents protested it would endanger officials, settling instead for private release to the government.

That wrangling over whether to open up details of officials' finances to the public, or confine it to the authorities, has led many advocates and researchers to suspect that lawmakers are too preoccupied with maintaining control to get serious about curbing corruption.

"The reforms that they've made over the years, on paper they should have been far more effective than they prove to be. And in a sense that's baffling," says Morris.

The transparency reform, passed in 2015, was considered a landmark in part because it created a new umbrella group dedicated to anti-corruption work, the National Anti-Corruption System. Whether it can meet the high expectations around it may depend largely on how much pull can be exerted by its core, the Citizen Participation Committee, on the other six agencies represented.

“There’s been a groundswell of consciousness and greater mobilization in Mexican society for an accountable government,” says Morris. “That’s where I draw a lot of my optimism from in Mexico.”

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