World Americas Focus

One beige bus. A city tour. And a shift in thought on Mexican corruption.

Shift in thought

Mexico City's 90-minute, 10-stop Corruptour reflects a new openness about talking about corruption. It's a first step in addressing a widespread problem.

A man talks to one of the organizers of the bus known as the 'Corruptour,' during a tour showing buildings and sites involved in alleged corruption cases in Mexico City, Feb. 5, 2017.
Carlos Jasso/Reuters
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Caption

A line of eager tourists curves along a bustling sidewalk here on a sunny Sunday afternoon, waiting to board a beige school bus for a tour like none other. One woman pores over the pamphlet that advertises each stop, elbowing her friend as she reads aloud.

“This is too good,” she laughs, rattling off sites like the “White House” (a $7 million home-buying scandal involving the presidential couple), the Senate (which named an attorney general in November, apparently to shield the majority party from investigations), and a giant television conglomerate (which took payoffs in 2012 to promote a presidential candidate).

This is the Corruptour, a 1.5-hour, 10-stop circuit that highlights stories of fraud, mismanagement, and corruption across Mexico City and, in some cases, the country. Corruption is rampant in Mexico, which has ranked in or near the bottom third of nations in Transparency International’s corruption perception index since 2000. In 2016, it placed 123rd out of 176 countries.

Thanks to Corruptour and other factors, Mexicans are talking more openly about official corruption. Mexican Millennials, a generation set to make up some 40 percent of the country’s eligible voters in the 2018 presidential election, appear eager to vote and clean up the nation’s politics. And a few young politicians are working to reform their districts.

This may not be enough. What’s really needed to break up Mexico’s longstanding culture of cozy relationships between politicians and industry, or in some cases, collusion with cartels, reform experts say, are empowered independent prosecutors, a safe environment for the press, enforcement of recent judicial and police reforms, and, perhaps most importantly, continued public activism and scrutiny.

But talking about official wrongdoing – even if only to lampoon it – is a first step.

“Having a conversation about corruption isn’t a small thing,” says Miguel Pulido, one of the many private citizens that helped organize the tour, which ran for three months through April and may be extended for a longer run here. “If we don’t talk about these things, if we don’t ... recognize the problem, people will hardly be willing to talk about solutions.”

In some ways, Mexico is doing better on the recognition front. Compared with 1996, for example, when the word “corruption” appeared in less than 30 newspaper headlines around the country, the term appeared in 3,593 headlines in 2015, according to Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, an advocacy group based in Mexico City. But there’s still plenty of work to be done when it comes to raising awareness and inspiring action.

A new kind of politician?

Growing up, Pedro Kumamoto felt the Mexican government operated under a type of Murphy’s Law of corruption: If backroom deals and the lining of pockets was a given in political circles, all politicians must therefore be corrupt.

Of course, the 27-year-old legislator in Mexico’s western Jalisco state sees things differently now that he’s taken office. He caught national attention during his 2015 campaign, when he ran as an independent without any traditional party backing. And through initiatives like donating 70 percent of his salary to projects in his district that encourage citizen participation, to backing historic legislation that stripped public officials in Jalisco of their prosecutorial immunity while in office, he’s working to spread a message to his peers that the next generation of Mexican politicians have the power to rewrite the norms of leadership here.

“What we are doing is an inspiration for a lot of people,” Mr. Kumamoto says, citing a handful of other young aspiring politicians choosing to run without party affiliation across the country, or joining the growing network of Wikipolítica, the grassroots movement he cofounded, which pushes for civic engagement and government transparency.

“We don’t want to be that ‘new generation’ that draws so much hope only to let people down. We have to build on these possibilities,” Kumamoto says.

About 77 percent of Mexican Millennials say they intend to vote in next year’s presidential elections, according to a poll published by news site Nación321 last October. That’s an incredibly high percentage of young voters, who are typically believed to skip trips to the ballot box. In the 2012 presidential race, roughly 53 percent of Mexicans between the age of 20 and 29 cast ballots. It was the age group with the lowest rate of participation, according to the Federal Electoral Institute. As a result, many hope that politicians will start perking up to the distinct preferences of Mexico’s young constituents over the next year.

But when it comes to candidates for political office, this generation wants more than the status quo. Polls show Millennials overwhelmingly prefer candidates whom they perceive as honest and who will prioritize transparency, says Alejandro Moreno, a political scientist and public opinion researcher here. 

“What caught my attention was that when Millennials are asked to characterize the country, it’s corruption,” says Mr. Moreno, who has conducted several polls on Millennial political attitudes. That’s been spurred, in part, by the uptick in high-profile corruption scandals over the past few years, from the government’s botched response and involvement in the disappearance of 43 college students to a sweetheart real-estate deal between the president’s wife and a favored government contractor, known as the White House scandal.

Technology use and a strong social-media presence among this generation means that corruption is being talked about more – both online and IRL (in real life). Will Millennials hold politicians accountable?

“What’s surprised me most [now that I’m in office] is that politicians always say they have a plan for the country, or the state, or the municipality. But I see an utter absence of future plans,” Kumamoto says. “That’s serious, because Mexicans under 30 will be living with the consequences of the actions of politicians who are overwhelmingly men and overwhelmingly older.”

“For me, that’s a call to get more diversity in office and to get [my peers] motivated and involved,” he says. “It’s our future.”

'I am 132'

Many of today’s young activists, aspiring “alternative” politicians, and members of civil society – including Kumamoto – credit their interest in fighting for transparency and a more modern democracy to a youth uprising during the 2012 presidential race.

#YoSoy132, or “I am 132,” emerged among private university students who felt television media were unfairly boosting the candidate from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), current President Enrique Peña Nieto. The PRI, which held power in Mexico for more than 71 years straight, and a handful of media outlets, painted students protesting a speech by Mr. Peña Nieto as plants, bused in and paid to disrupt the event.

In response, 131 of the protesters posted a video online identifying themselves as registered students at the private Ibero-American University. They professed their opposition to Peña Nieto and frustration with the media. A few hours later, the first anonymous message popped up on social media: “I’m 132.”

More and more posts appeared, proclaiming solidarity with the student protesters.

The movement, which prided itself on having no clear leader, spread to include public university students as well. They had a laundry list of demands ranging from a more democratized media landscape to better internet access. It was the first time since the iconic 1968 student movement, which was marked by the government massacre of young protesters in Tlatelolco Plaza, that a unified movement emerged defined specifically by its membership of youth, observers say.

But the movement largely fizzled out after Peña Nieto’s victory. That makes it easy to overlook the impacts of #YoSoy132, says María Elena Meneses Rocha, who wrote a book about the movement. It’s left a lasting mark here when it comes to youth mobilization, she says, pointing to examples like the international networks built by #YoSoy132 that jumped into action following the presumed murders of 43 teachers’ college students in 2014. A youth collective called “More than 131” still meets regularly to discuss the news and publish documentary projects online about transparency and human rights. Grupo Televisa, the country’s dominant broadcaster, accused of serving as a PRI mouthpiece in 2012, now has an hour-long segment each weekend where young academics and students can voice their concerns and comment on political events.

“That kind of space didn’t exist for students in this country before,” says Alejandro Díaz, director of research at the school of government at Tecnológico de Monterrey.

Younger voters have shown a preference for anti-establishment candidates in recent elections, such as independent governor of Nuevo Leon, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, or “El Bronco,” who made social media engagement a staple of his campaign.

“If you are 21 in 2018, you have roughly another 10 elections in your lifetime,” says Mr. Díaz. “We assume Millennials will preserve these values and attitudes and behaviors [around corruption and transparency] for more than 25 or 35 years. This segment of the electorate is important now, but they will become even more important in the future.”

Tuned in. Then tuned out.

What unites Millennials is the shared experience growing up with access to technology. From hackathons focused on using tech to improve transparency to the corruption street tour, Millennials are taking steps to educate themselves and make it harder for politicians and leaders to ignore corruption.

Yet, this easy understanding of computers, cellphones, and digital applications leads to a common criticism around the globe: that conversations or political awareness taking place on social media don’t necessarily translate into action by Millennials.

“They are more creative and innovative, and for a hackathon they are excellent,” says José Luis Chicoma, executive director of Ethos, a think tank that works on a number of anticorruption initiatives here. “In terms of tools to combat corruption, we might see some important changes with this generation.”

Ethos hosted a hackathon in January, bringing together nearly 90 young competitors on 25 teams to try to come up with technological solutions to issues of corruption in Mexico. The proposals ranged from cellphone applications that can be used by citizens at traffic stops to better inform themselves about their rights when dealing with police, to a digital platform that allows people to rank their experiences and give feedback when reporting crimes. But corruption doesn’t end because new tools are created.

“We have to change the norms and values in Mexico, and I don’t know that a new perspective from one generation is enough to do that,” Mr. Chicoma says.

Ms. Meneses, author of the book on the 132 movement, agrees. “Politicians can easily tune them out,” she says of young protesters. “I’m not seeing, frankly, any [political] party talking about this generation in a sincere way.”

But public pressure – on the streets and online – is increasingly important to changing the culture of corruption in Mexico. And it’s already showing results, through initiatives like the 3de3 law, a citizen and civil-society backed law that requires politicians to disclose conflicts of interest, assets, and tax returns. It also clearly defines 10 categories of corruption and lays out punishments for violations. Thanks to social media – and the pressure it can put on modern-day politicians – the proposed law garnered more than 600,000 signatures in less than three months, moving the citizen proposal into Mexico’s Congress.

“There’s really no incentive for political leaders to push forward in fighting corruption on their own,” says Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president of Costa Rica who recently published a report on fighting corruption in Latin America for the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “That’s why social pressure, an independent media, they are so important. Unless [politicians] are faced with a scandal of monumental proportions that threatens the very viability of the political system, they aren’t likely to take it upon themselves to clamp down on corruption preemptively.”

Public involvement and pressure can join forces with other watchdogs, like the media. However, despite a media that is more independent than it was in the 20th century when Mexico was dominated by one political party, there are still serious shortcomings. Many newspapers rely on government funding for advertisements, salaries are low, which reporters say makes them easy targets for drug cartels to coopt, and the environment is increasingly unsafe for reporters. In March this year, five journalists were attacked, resulting in the deaths of three. Reporters Without Borders calls Mexico the most dangerous place for journalists in the world. Clamping down on investigative journalism or independent reporting has a direct effect on holding public officials accountable and uncovering corruption.

Despite the tough conditions, which analysts suspect will only worsen in the lead-up to the 2018 presidential election, hard-hitting journalism has already helped bring corruption here to light. Journalist Carmen Aristegui, for example, was essentially pushed off the air after her team revealed the White House scandal in 2015, but instead of disappearing into the shadows, they’ve kept their show alive, and more independent, by moving to an internet radio station.

Finding ways to maintain public interest is also key.

“Corruption is something my friends and I talk a lot about because it’s a big problem in Mexico,” says Francisco Martinez, 19, who signed up for the waiting list to ride on the Corruptour earlier this year. He didn’t make it on the bus, but the majority of the passengers were under the age of 30, something that caught the attention of Claudia, one of the older corruption tourists.

“What is going to really stay with me after today is all the new people here, the young people,” she says, following the tour. “I’m getting off this bus with a lot of hope for the future.”

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