“Flash 18” was the code that a policeman once gave a friend of mine so that nobody would stop her again for having failed to take her car to the twice yearly pollution test. After threatening to take her to the police station, the motorcyclist offered her the traditional alternative: for a small fee he would forgo the traffic ticket and avoid the discomfort, but would also give her a code so that if any other police officer stopped her on that same day, he or she would let her go. The notion that the rule of law can be brought to bear and enforced in a society that already has more laws in the books that nobody can (or will) comply with is utterly absurd. The real question is how in fact this reality could be changed.
The situations of illegality that every ordinary citizen faces on a daily basis are endless. So are the attempts to correct or resolve these problems. For example, in traffic issues, we have had mayors or heads of government that have sought to criminalize any abnormal behavior, as much as those that have forbade their police to impose any fine. The problem that both face is the same and the fact that they have tried opposite solutions shows frustration vis-a-vis reality. In a city where there are no good traffic signs, where in fact it is impossible to comply with all traffic regulations by the very nature of the urban jungle in which we live, the notion of penalizing any violation of the regulation is absurd and lends itself to all sorts of abuse and corruption. The alternative, not to impose any fines, is total surrender: the authority relinquishing all responsibility.
Some municipalities have opted to negotiate with the anomalies. In Naucalpan, a municipality next to Mexico City, the authorities negotiated with the “viene viene” (the name comes from the words “easy-easy, easy-easy” they use to help people park), men and women who serve a vital function in the absence of spaces for public parking. Local authorities asked them to register and submit to authority. Similarly, the cranes in the service of the city’s government have arrangements with the “franeleros” (called that way for the red flannel they carry to wash cars) of the city. In other words, rather than attempting to enforce the laws and regulations, the very authorities have legalized this modus Vivendi, thus accepting the existence of surreptitious parallel authorities and arrangements. If this is not corruption nothing is. Actions of this nature may solve the immediate problem, but they also imply succumbing, instead of acting as an authority: if you cannot beat, better join them.
The underlying problem is that these are all partial, temporary solutions, and, more importantly, they go against the possibility of building a society of institutionalized rules that allow every citizen to know where he or she stands and what are their rights and obligations. Workarounds like the aforementioned not only undermine the role of authority, but create an environment of irresponsibility and uncertainty. Some will use this lack of rules to commit abuses (as is the case with the informal economy), while others will not be willing to invest in the absence of security, the uncertainty inherent to the law and regulations, and the absolute unwillingness of the authority to enforce them.
None of these problems is new, but it is no use to assert that they are a colonial legacy. The problem is not where the problems come from, even though it might be interesting to know their origin, but to find ways to eliminate them. For decades, perhaps centuries, the country has been working to try to resolve them without actually doing anything: new laws are approved or new regulations are announced but still nothing happens. The problem is clearly not one of laws but of the unwillingness or inability of respective authorities to enforce them. And often, the laws themselves violate the basic rights of citizens, which is hardly an incentive for the people to see them as legitimate.
Some might say it is a cultural problem (“Mexicans are rebellious by nature”), while others might claim that this is a question of immutable traditions. But there are positive examples of transformation in the country, as seen in the northern state of Chihuahua, a state plagued by crime, that suggest that solutions exist if the problem of lack of continuity in the structures of authority is resolved, together with the lack of agreement on the rules that must be enforced.
The lack of continuity in the structures of authority is perhaps one of our greatest vices, one that is also the source of the weakness of our institutions. A new leader takes office, full of spirit. The first thing he does is to repave all the streets in town, starts to tackle the main issues and sometimes finds a successful way to solve a serious problem (as has occurred intermittently in the case of crime), but then he goes on to seek his fortune elsewhere and leaves everything hanging. The next administration comes full of vigor to fight with the former one and does something completely different. Works are left unfinished, projects have no continuity and the whole cycle starts anew. The worst part is that there is nothing the citizens can do about it.
The other side of the coin is the lack of agreement among those in power that are responsible for making decisions: there is no continuity because there is no agreement or incentive for one to exist. Historically, governments come as a gang dedicated to exploit the spoils and that means they do not want any rules to limit them, and alternation of parties in government has not changed this pattern. Sticking to an institutional structure would involve accepting that there are limits to rapacity and that is anathema in the context of the old political system that, unfortunately, has not disappeared, but that “perfects” itself daily.
The history of legality in various countries and societies is not linked to culture or to the existence of an impressive police and judicial apparatus. Countries that have been able to establish legality as a mechanism to regulate life among citizens and guaranty respect for their rights, are those that have succeeded in making society, but especially the politicians and representatives of the people, accept the legal framework as a valid one. This can be seen both in the theories of Rousseau and Locke, as well as in political agreements like the Moncloa Pacts, whereby all Spanish political parties accepted the existing legal framework as a foundation for future development. What matters is that there is a commitment to adhere to a regulatory framework. The Spanish case illustrates that what is important is not the content but the fact: Spain accepted the existent frameworl because the alternative would have been chaos. Using the Moncloa Pacts as a starting point, Spaniards began to change their laws but from within the institutions that recognized the initial covenants. At heart, what Mexico needs is a great political overhaul that makes it possible to adopt a legal framework to which we will all submit ourselves.