No one is safe

Luis Rubio

“I am God”, the brand-new Attorney General told me. “This institution confers upon one enormous power to persecute or pardon.” Those are the words that I remember from a visit to the Attorney General’s Office some time ago and they did not seem surprising to me: the power of the Mexican government has no parallel in the civilized world; when a civil servant accumulates such power –faculties so vast as to unilaterally decide who lives or dies, who goes free or who goes to jail- civilization simply does not exist; we are all losers. In the era of the old system, many believed that the country was buttressed by strong institutions when, in reality, there was an authoritarian system that maintained discipline through mechanisms of control and loyalty that, in retrospect, typifies the enormous primitivism that characterizes Mexico’s polity.

The power evidenced by the then freshly minted Attorney General is nothing exceptional. From the most eminent public servant to the most modest of these, the entire country functions like this: all of the operators of all of the systems –ministers, attorneys general, inspectors, auditors- possess prodigious powers for pardoning or persecuting, each in their own space and circumstance. A citizen who makes a small home improvement –an additional room, remodeling- comes face to face with that excess of faculties in the person of the municipal inspector: attributions so massive that they can make the difference between “resolving” the matter in a few minutes or spending the rest of the citizen’s existence immersed in bureaucratic intricacies that would make Kafka the famous author of daily life in Mexico.

All Mexicans exist within that interlining of potential abuse. Anyone who has perused the newspapers in recent months knows that no one is safe: “Are open investigations being conducted against Marcelo Ebrard (a former Mexico City governor) in the capital’s Attorney General’s Office?”, the City’s Governor Miguel Ángel Mancera was asked: “We in Mexico City have no open inquest”, he responded. The phase is revealing: we do not have an inquest, but one can always be initiated; yet more important: I decide. It does not matter how powerful the functionary has been in the past, today he is subject to the whim and fancy that propitiates the immense bureaucratic power enjoyed by functionaries-in-turn. A few weeks ago, the victim was Manlio Fabio Beltrones, probably Mexico’s most accomplished and effective politician: no one is safe from the all-powerful one of the moment.

All depends on how the winds are blowing, not on adherence to or violation of the law. Examples are infinite and proliferate in all ambits; in some cases, perhaps the majority, the arbitrary powers relished by the authority-in-turn exists to advance the enrichment of the functionary; in others, the most visible of these, those attributions comprise the instrument by which those in power castigate, control or subordinate their enemies.

The first case concerns municipal inspectors, who can permit or stop a construction work already underway, a nightclub or bar, a street or a restaurant. How long were the main traffic arteries under construction in the Condesa borough of Mexico City a few months ago as a means of amassing “donations” for the political campaign of the area’s delegate? What distinguishes that tactic from that of those who demand protection money from local businesses? Only the subsequent use of the money. Under the same rubric we find the Federal Commission of Electricity (CFE) inspectors, who come around to a house to count the number of light bulbs, but whose purpose is none other than to utilize their credentials to take a bribe, something not distinct from what transit police officers do on a daily basis. All have such broad powers to “persecute or pardon” that are nothing more than means of extortion.

If the previous examples explain part of the hatred that the citizenry has with respect to the authority, then the following illustrate the personal and political use of the State institutions: the businessman who is audited for supporting the wrong candidate or the politically incorrect cause; the candidate who is suddenly found to have links with “money laundering”, and thus finds his personal banking accounts, and those of his or her relatives, frozen, so that, once the election is over, a statement comes out declaring that “there is no accusation,” once the harm has been absolute.  The use of the State institutions -in this case the National Banking Commission, the Office of the Attorney General, the Bank of Mexico- for the personal ends of the powerful one of the moment.

If there is a measure of civilization or of primitivism, surely judicial persecution is found at the top of the list because it concerns freedom, the most basic human right. That power, manifest in distinct ways at every level and variety of authority, brings to light everything that Mexico is still to address and how far from reality the daily political rhetoric is found. The reality evidences a primeval country; the rhetoric attempts an inexistent concretion, and all of the functionaries and governors, without distinction of party, work the same way, when they are in power: power for personal and party ends, not for the development of the country.

The day that those excessive, arbitrary powers disappear, Mexico will begin to live the world of civilization, while in the meantime    those who aspire to remove those lusting after power do not perceive that, sooner or later, they themselves will be on the other side. No one is safe.