One key question in Mexico these days is understanding whether corruption is a tool for the government to advance a political project or an evil that should be eradicated. What is certain is that both things cannot coexist given an evident flagrant contradiction: corruption is either something government makes use of or something it fights to erase from sight. Available evidence shows that corruption is an instrument in the hands of the current Mexican government to consolidate its political base and power at large.
Government corruption is an ancient vice in Mexico, but not an inexplicable one. In historical terms, there are two factors that have fostered and allowed corruption to take root. In the first place, Mexico’s post-revolutionary political system transformed corruption into an instrument of power. The political regime that emerged from Mexico’s revolutionary era required the creation of a mechanism to satisfy the ambitions of the many leaders on the winning side and that could consolidate its hegemonic nature at the same time.
The key to solve this post-revolutionary Mexican dilemma laid in creating a system of political loyalties nourished by two components: on the one hand, access to corruption and, on the other, interrelated complicities. The former would allow the existence of a verbal arrangement to justify any act and to excuse anyone stealing as some sort of service to the nation. People would often say: “the Revolution did justice to them”. Government and party jobs were assigned following one rule: reward loyalty. This can be summed up in another revelatory popular dictum of Mexico’s authoritarian era: “Don’t give me anything, just put me where there is”. People appointed to become purchasing managers at the different Mexican government Ministries (or even better, at a government-owned company like Pemex) knew that they have been sent there not to improve productivity, but rather as a reward for their loyalty.
Another factor that fosters and that renders corruption possible in Mexico, is the nature of the legal system. For example, construction inspectors in Mexico know that their function is not ensuring that the authorized blueprints of buildings are complied with. They know that their job is rather one of negotiation between what has been authorized and what the builders are actually doing. Under-the-table arrangements allow buildings to have 15 floors when they were originally authorized to have 10. Still, the responsibility does not lie with the inspector or the builder, but in the Mexican legal system that confers such vast discretionary power upon the inspector.
Discretionary power becomes in the end arbitrary power because it does not have to comply with any previously established and duly published code, regulation or rule (the basic condition for an effective Rule of Law). The discretionary power that a government official has in Mexico grows as he ascends through the bureaucratic hierarchy. One example is the law of foreign investment that the administration of president Luis Echeverría (1970-1976) advanced. The bill’s title did not leave any doubt of its goal: Law to Promote Domestic Investment and Regulate Foreign Investment. One might agree or not with the objectives or specific limits to investment established in it but the wording of the law was clear and it intended to give certainty to potential investors. However, the law also included one clause granting all-encompassing powers to one single Minister in the Mexican government who was able to redefine limits to investment following his or her own judgement. With this ability, the foreign investment law ceased to have any relevance given that this discretionary power superseded the law itself. The point is that discretionary power easily becomes arbitrary and, thus, a wellspring of corruption within the government, between citizens and the government, and also among private actors themselves.
Corruption in Mexico assumes many forms and not all of these necessarily involve money: taking advantage of public resources, profiting from the government’s budget and buying land through which a future highway will pass are just some of the many means of illegal enrichment. They have become an intrinsic component of what is Mexico and no political party is untainted, including the current López Obrador administration. The diversion of public funds to nurture political clienteles is corruption no matter how it is disguised.
In addition to time-honored modes of corruption, Mexico is witnessing the growth of other phenomena not entirely new: the pardoning of corrupt officials or businesspeople close to the government, the destruction of government institutions, the elimination of key services like daycare for working mothers and the scarcity of medications in public hospitals. All of these are forms of corruption that prevail in Mexico given the country’s full impunity.
The two crucial sources of corruption in Mexico –the nature of the country’s legal system and the informal system to repay loyalty- can be eradicated in that both arise are from factors that are known and, at least in principle, modifiable. But none of that is being done. The decision to send to jail the former Social Development Minister Rosario Robles and the President’s use of the bully pulpit to attacks his alleged opponents are in no way different from the arbitrary actions of any previous Mexican administration. The idea behind these actions is not to expunge corruption but the derision of people. The president is applying a pliable standard and not acting following the law.
Thus, political rhetoric changes but corruption persists. As it has happened in other times in post-revolutionary Mexico, what we are seeing today is a process that has to do with consolidation of power, nothing more.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition.