Nearly two months ago, forty-three student teachers were murdered in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. It was later discovered that the city’s corrupt mayor had had the students arrested and then turned over to a local criminal organization. In this piece published last week in Spanish in El Financiero, I lay out what the federal government can and should do to tackle corruption. You can read the piece in English below:
The news in Mexico is moving from bad to worse. The search for forty-three missing student teachers in Iguala, Guerrero ended tragically, with a few remains found in garbage bags dumped in a nearby river. During the desperate search investigators discovered no fewer than eleven other mass graves, holding dozens of poor unnamed souls, many likely subject to the same ruthless lawlessness, as well as the negligence of if not direct abuse by local and state political powers.
As potentially worrisome are the allegations over the “White House,” a seven million dollar abode seemingly controlled by the Peña Nietos, but not claimed by the president when he released a list of his assets during the electoral campaign. The house is legally owned by Grupo Higa, whose owner Juan Armando Hinojosa Cantu is close with the president and a beneficiary of a recently awarded—and then quickly cancelled—$3.6 billion contract to build a high speed train between Mexico City and Queretaro, home of Mexico’s expanding aerospace industry.
The only way to quell the rising dissatisfaction and unrest in Mexico is to take on, finally, corruption. If the opacity, silence, and fear that enables these abuses continues, Mexico’s economic and global potential will falter and fade. Until these last weeks, government officials seemed to believe that their economic transformation could occur without a more fundamental shift in underlying incentives and practices. That is no longer the case.
So what can the federal government do?
First, it needs to pass stronger anti-corruption legislation. Tackling corruption was part of the original 2012 political pact between the three main parties. Yet in the press to successfully pass education, telecom, financial, antitrust, and energy reforms, addressing deep-seated governmental dysfunction got lost. Also undone are necessary changes to the juicio de amparo law, which has become a means for the suspected wealthy to ward off charges rather than a protection from true state overreach.
Next, the federal and local governments need to invest in earnest in the transition to the new justice system. The initial 2008 reforms gave the government until 2016 to implement the sweeping changes, which introduce oral trials, alter the roles of judges, prosecuting attorneys and defense lawyers, and strengthen due process among other measures.
So far, change has been excruciatingly slow. Only in March did the federal government pass a new penal code, setting the ground rules to which Mexico’s thirty-one states now need to conform. A functioning new system that protects the innocent and convicts the guilty will likely require billions of dollars to retrain the nearly forty-thousand current court officials, to revamp the law school curriculums guiding the next generation of lawyers and judges, and to build forensic labs to examine evidence and court rooms to try cases.
As Mexico’s citizens await a new anti-corruption agency and a new justice system, they need immediate concrete actions. The attorney general’s office must try and convict prominent wrongdoers. This can start with just a handful of cases, and Mexico’s reporters and other independent investigators have valiantly provided numerous options.
Using Mexico’s decade old freedom of information law along with other tools, the press has exposed alleged bad behavior by governors from all three parties, business leaders, union heads, among many others, any of which could be pursued. The government does not have to try and convict them all—a tall order for a transitioning attorney general’s office and justice system more generally. But it does need to demonstrate that those within the Hermes ties and scarf wearing set can end up behind bars: that malfeasance can carry real costs.
Finally, the Mexican government needs to engage directly with citizens. In every recent case of progress against crime and violence—Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez, and Tijuana among them—the involvement of local organizations has made the difference. Business owners, social leaders, heads of victims and human rights groups, along with others, partnered with federal authorities, and at times local ones, to demand and create change. And as these cases show, local governments do respond to federal authorities’ lead. A national level openness to cooperation with civil society groups will be as, if not more, important in places such as Guerrero, due to the already weaker economic and social fabric upon which to begin stitching together a functioning rule of law.
This Mexican government has yet to do these things, and in particular, to engage directly and extensively with society, creating watchdog organizations and other accountability mechanisms to tie its own, others, and future hands from corrupt acts. But that is what is needed for a different Mexico.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. You can read the piece as it appeared in Spanish on El Financiero here.