Opinion | Mexico and the Gods of Corruption

MEXICO CITY — I’ve spent two decades trying to make sense of the economics of Mexico’s drug trafficking. During that time I have often heard a phrase muttered by gangsters and crime journalists: “Who needs the angels, when you have God.” If cartels pay off the top levels of government, or the gods, then the lower levels, like the police officers, are already taken care of. Money rises up like gas, and power flows down like water.

When Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidency in 2018 on a platform of ridding Mexico of corruption, he duly recognized that change had to start at the top. “We are going to clean up the government like a staircase,” he famously said, meaning from the top down. He said that Mexico would no longer suffer at the hands of corrupt leaders, whom he called, “a mafia of power.”

Corruption tears at the soul of Mexico, and many here see it as one of the country’s leading problems. It’s the reason killer cartels flourish, roads have potholes, and doctors treating Covid-19 don’t have better protective gear. It also pervades everyday life, with bribes functioning as the grease that keeps the system moving, and in this way it makes a large part of the country complicit. Bureaucrats get cash tips for issuing birth certificates for example, and police pocket cash for turning a blind eye to motorists running red lights. The “angels” at the bottom take bribes, too.

But when the “gods” at the top are rotten it has the most devastating consequences. The former governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, was accused of skimming billions of dollars from state coffers when he was in office between 2010 and 2016, and later convicted on various charges. During his term, poverty increased and 17 journalists were murdered. After he left office, the biggest mass grave in Mexico’s recent history was discovered.

While former governors and generals have been jailed, corruption charges have never been filed against those at the very top: the presidents. That could now change.

On Sept. 15, the eve of Mexico’s independence day, Mr. López Obrador delivered a document to the Senate calling for a referendum on whether to indict former presidents if there is evidence of crimes that did grave harm during their administrations. It was backed by what activists claimed were 2.5 million signatures written on piles of paper that were hauled into the building in boxes, an image shared in enthusiastic tweets by the president’s supporters.

Critics retorted that you shouldn’t need a referendum on whether justice is served, and that it is a distraction from high pandemic deaths and a double-digit recession. And as the vote could coincide with midterm elections in 2021, it might be a tool to get voters to the polls in support of the president’s National Regeneration Movement party, or Morena. The thinking there is that people will be more motivated to cast a ballot in a historic plebiscite than just a regular midterm.

I think a referendum could give citizen support to what may become very politically divisive cases. And going after the gods of corruption is certainly a good thing, forcing Mexico to catch up with an anti-graft drive across Latin America. In the last half-decade, former presidents have been convicted of crimes involving corruption in Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil, and charged with similar crimes in Guatemala, Peru, Argentina, Panama and Bolivia. Justice could help deter future leaders from succumbing to temptation, while acting as a catalyst in cleaning up the system, and pushing Mexico to finally live up to its great potential.

Yet there is the danger, as in other Latin American countries, that politicians could wield the anticorruption club against their enemies — giving yet another weapon to the powerful. Cases need to be open and fair, which is especially challenging in a divisive partisan environment. And the president’s own allies in Morena need to face the same scrutiny. Otherwise, there is a danger of replacing one “mafia of power” with another.

There are various accusations against Mexico’s former presidents. The biggest case centers on Emilio Lozoya, the former head of the state oil company Pemex. Recently extradited from Spain on bribery charges, Mr. Lozoya filed a deposition last month claiming that former leaders were involved in taking handouts from Pemex and other companies for awarding them lucrative contracts.

His harshest accusation was against former President Enrique Peña Nieto, alleging that he “created a scheme of corruption in the federal government” during his term between 2012 to 2018. Mr. Lozoya also said that former President Felipe Calderón had knowledge of bribes when he was president between 2006 and 2012. Mr. Peña Nieto has not commented publicly on the deposition but he previously denied any misconduct.

In a separate case, Mr. Calderón’s former public security secretary, a key figure in his war on drug cartels, has himself been imprisoned in the United States on drug-trafficking charges filed there. Mr. Calderón has denied wrongdoing and said in a tweet that Mr. Lozoya’s accusations are “an instrument of vengeance and political persecution.”

The challenge with fighting corruption, however, is that it can affect all sides. When Mr. Lozoya dominated the news, videos emerged of Mr. López Obrador’s brother receiving paper bags of cash back in 2015. The president said he thought that the money was Morena campaign contributions to candidates in local elections but he also said that electoral officials should investigate. “If a family member commits a crime, they should be judged, whether it’s my son, my wife, my brothers or whoever,” he said.

With accusations seeming to touch all of the country’s politicians, it’s easy to lose hope that things will change. In his 1984 book “Distant Neighbors,” Alan Riding, a former New York Times bureau chief here, described corruption as the “oil and glue” that keep the machine in motion.

However, I find hope in the wave of civil society groups that have grown in recent years, including Mexicans Against Corruption, which was formed by journalists, academics and others in 2015. They are, among other things, working to expose cases of graft, which can lead to government probes.

With more eyes on them, Mexican officials are unable to get away with such flagrant abuses, the group’s communications director, Darío Ramírez, told me. “It’s about how we can have a change so corruption is not part of our culture,” he said. “I am optimistic because I believe in the evolution of societies.”

Mr. Ramírez said he thought improvements have occurred under President López Obrador, who has cut the budgets of various agencies to limit waste and embezzlement. But in the long term, he said, it would be best to create more independent prosecutors; Mexico’s federal attorney general is currently proposed by the president and ratified by the Senate. Another potent action would be to expand the online posting of all government spending and contracts, which would be intended to make it harder to conceal bribes and other fraudulent activity.

“There are more and more tools, above all from civil society and journalism, to create the public pressure necessary to change the system,” Mr. Ramírez said. “So corruption stops being the oil of all the social, political and economic relations in Mexico.”

These tools need to be used against the ruling party as well as former leaders. Mr. López Obrador has an opportunity to clean house. But unless he is thorough, the effort could be in vain.

Ioan Grillo, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency” and, most recently, “Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America.”

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