Since Enrique Peña Nieto became President of Mexico in 2012, the government has tried to change the narrative of a narco-stained nation existing under the siege of organised crime. During his first two years in office, an ambitious package of reforms in education, telecommunications and the energy sectors, to mention just a few, was sent to the Congress. After some successful non-partisan agreements, the reforms were approved and will be implemented in the coming years. The government has highlighted the benefits that these historical amendments to the Mexican constitution are expected to bring in terms of increased competitiveness, foreign investment and much needed employment. However, not everything looks so promising.
Violence, political corruption and lawlessness are still areas of concern. To begin with, the high-level corruption behind the outrageous murder of 43 teacher college students in the south-western state of Guerrero emphasized the urgency of approving anti-corruption legislation that so far appears to have become stalled in partisan discussions. Mexican journalist Denise Maerker points out that part of this legislative deadlock is explained by the unwillingness of the ruling party, the PRI, to countenance any diminution of the influence of the executive branch as an element of the anti-corruption measures. Meanwhile, as the 2014 Corruption Perception Index shows, Mexico’s public sector is still perceived to be corrupt. On a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean) Mexico got a 35, below other emerging economies such as China (36), India (38), Brazil (43), South Africa (44), Malaysia (52), South Korea (55) and Chile (73). Mexico is ranked 103 out of the 175 countries that were evaluated.
The dissatisfaction of the Mexican public with the investigation of the murders in Guerrero was not all. In November 2014, a group of Mexican journalists revealed that the president’s wife, Angélica Rivera, purchased a house from a company, Grupo Higa, that conducted worked for Peña Nieto while he was governor of the State of Mexico. Grupo Higa was also part of the consortium that was to build a $3.7 billion bullet-train starting this year. Nevertheless, just before the investigations were revealed, the federal government cancelled its agreement with the Chinese-led consortium, increasing the public’s suspicion of a conflict of interest. Further investigations lead to the discovery of the purchase of two more houses from Grupo Higa by the Mexican finance minister, and a further house purchase by the president himself from another government contractor. The federal administration argues that the properties were legally purchased with personal resources and that the contractors won the tenders through transparent procedures.
In order to quell public anger over the revelations which have led to demands for his resignation, Peña Nieto announced eight executive actions meant to foster transparency and, most importantly, to identify potential and real conflicts of interest. Included in these measures will be a requirement for federal public servants to declare all possible conflicts of interest. In addition, a newly empowered Ministry of Public Function with a special ethics division will carry out an audit of all government functions and operations. And to ensure that these measures are carried out according to best international practice, the Mexican Foreign Ministry along with the Ministry of Public Function will sign an agreement of collaboration with the OECD.
Many of these transparency efforts have been driven by the recently appointed minister, Virgilio Andrade, who was part of Peña’s transition team back in 2012. However, despite the President’s apparent good intentions, there is public suspicion that the investigation related to the purchase of the President’s houses could not be independent or impartial given Peña’s historically close relationship with Andrade. Even if the results of the investigations will be evaluated by a panel of experts, the perception that Mr Andrade will be involved is hardly helping matters. Mexican political analyst, Amparo Casar, argues that the executive action ‘falls short of what people are demanding.’ It ‘won’t earn the president credibility,’ she said, ‘that the commission is in the hands of somebody who is close to him.’
These recent events illustrate the effects that chronic legislative inaction and executive ineptitude have had in delaying the creation of an effective and independent anti-corruption system. Thus far, Mexican leaders have used populist rhetoric to pay lip service to the demands of the electorate, while simultaneously avoiding responsibility for their actions. In the past, public opinion was controlled quite effectively by an all powerful party machinery. Nowadays, a diverse and impatient society that is tired of corruption demands radical change, transparency and accountability. Mexico has gone through a painful period, marked by violence and endemic corruption. Time will tell whether recent reforms may lead to increased public engagement in the political process, and help ensure a blossoming of the values that may make Mexico a real democracy.
Image courtesy of Eneas