Professor Samuel Huntington caused a scandal when, in the middle of the Cold War, he wrote that what was important for a government did not lie in its ideological characteristics but in its effectiveness (Political Order in Changing Societies, 1968). What gave rise to the uproar was his affirmation that the US, the UK and the Soviet Union had systems of government that worked, while many nations within the American sphere of influence lacked that capacity. Pairing the USSR with the US was pure apostasy, but the argument was well sustained: the three nations, penned Huntington, have strong, adaptable and coherent political institutions, with effective bureaucracies and mechanisms to resolve political conflicts. The key point, and therein lies its relevance for Mexico, was that despite their differences, in none of the three nations was there impunity.
Impunity has become the main characteristic of present-day Mexico.
There is literally no space in public life where there is compliance with the rules, procedures or laws. Although this statement may seem excessive, the evidence is overwhelming: there are criminals because there are no sanctions nor the capacity (nor the interest) to restrict or impose limits on them; murders, extortion and abductions go unnoticed, as if they did not exist; the administration juggles budgetary items, rigs public consultations, commissions public works without calling for bids, does away with the purchase of medicines and reduces salaries, all in order to transfer funds to the government’s electoral projects, with no impediment; the government cancels contracts without compliance with the law or established rules; organized crime terrorizes the population and levies protection money without the authority ever showing up; the police are corrupted (and use the laws to abuse them in their favor), without punishment; public officials of the previous administration (just to cite one example) stole without compunction, but they are now only persecuted when it is politically convenient for the current government. The point is clear: impunity is the prevailing law.
The matter is not partisan, ideological or political. Impunity banishes all vestige of organized society because it implies, by its very nature, the nonexistence of rules, laws or contracts. When a society descends into the realm of impunity, civility disappears as does civilization, because the only thing that counts is the power of the most powerful, formerly known as the law of the jungle. The paradoxical part is that each administration claims that its officials are pristine, unpolluted and untouchable, permitting it to penalize its predecessors, with no limit. However, those who boast of power and victimize their enemies, sooner or later find themselves on the other side of the fence. The pretense that today, in contrast with the past, there’s no impunity is sheer fantasy.
The trademark distinguishing the present administration resides in the construction of an entire legal scaffolding whose true purpose is intimidation and threat (beginning with the fiscal scaffolding and presumably being followed by a judicial scaffolding). With powerful -and abusive- laws in its hands, the government today has the possibility of jailing citizens without a judicial order, expropriating their property (eminent domain) without there being a trial, and freezing their bank accounts with a simple administrative order. Hard to imagine a clearer and more patent definition of impunity.
Impunity is what explains that Mexicans live under the threat of permanent insecurity, bureaucratic abuse, corruption, sale of government positions, the President’s “purification” of corrupt civil servants, the scamming investors who buy clean-energy bonds, the refusal to authorize the mega-investment of a brewery in Mexicali and, the crown jewel of impunity, the pretension of Mexico’s state-owned oil company (Pemex) and the Ministry of Energy to keep the Zama oil field developed by Texas-based Talos Energy, violating contracts, rules and regulations in force.
Impunity is an old malady of the Mexican political system because the laws confer upon its officials enormous discretionary, in fact arbitrary, powers, which render possible any action on the part of whoever holds the power at any given moment.
There is no evil worse than that of impunity because it implies the total absence of rules, thus, of certainty, the mother of development and civility. Worse yet when it becomes the “raison d’être” of a government.
While impunity comprises part of Mexico’s DNA, the Mexican governments from 1982 onwards attempted to erect institutional scaffolding that would check or diminish its reach. The real tragedy of the present government is that, on doing away with this entire platform, it became evident that its only interest is imposing itself by force or intimidation. The long-term cost of this is indescribable, regardless of whether the government officials of today and their acolytes can understand it.
Mexico’s expropriation of private banks in 1982 threw open Pandora’s Box because it flaunted force and impunity. What the current government has done is to appropriate that torch and take it to its ultimate consequences. The result last time was the Lost Decade of the 1980’s; the impact of the present one will not be identical, but it surely will not be better.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition