WASHINGTON—Mexico has long been challenged by its pervasive and endemic corruption. In 2014, the disappearance and murder of 43 students attending the teachers college in Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, and the involvement of the city mayor and his wife, of organized crime, and perhaps of the police and the army made headlines in Mexico and even in the United States.
Public opinion surveys of everyday Mexican citizens generally find that Mexico’s political parties, parliament, and the police are regarded as very corrupt, according to the Global Corruption Barometer.
Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index rated 168 countries in 2015 on the perceived level of public sector corruption on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Mexico ranks 95 with a score of 35. Somalia and North Korea tie for last place with scores of 8. The United States ranks 16 with a score of 76.
Methods of solving the corruption problem by Mexico’s version of the “war on drugs” haven’t changed the country to any notable degree. However, a new approach that is rapidly gaining in popularity may be more successful in fighting corruption. The aim is to place the emphasis on civil society and strengthening the citizenry.
A citizen initiative, known as Ley 3de3, which is Spanish for Law 3 out of 3, calls for public officials to provide disclosure on three items: personal assets, financial interests, and tax information. It proposes stronger penalties and sanctions for public servants and companies or individuals guilty of corruption.
The proposal also expands the legal definition of corruption to include 10 types, including bribery, misappropriation of public funds, embezzlement, conspiring to commit corrupt acts, concealed enrichment, obstruction of justice, and nepotism. It’s attempting to correct the problem of persons evading prosecution due to vague definitions of corruption.
On March 18, Mexico’s Senate President Roberto Gil Zuarth received the initiative with 291,467 signatures of Mexican citizens. In six weeks, the number shot up to 634,143, far surpassing the 120,000 needed to force the legislature to debate the initiative and vote on it.
Behind the proposal is a desire to make the three disclosures mandatory at the various levels of Mexican government: federal, state, and municipal.
Currently, the measure is frozen in the Mexican Congress due to disagreement between political parties.
Congress: ‘Heart of the Political System’
Two individuals leading this citizen initiative spoke at the Wilson Center, May 4, on “Mexican Civil Society’s Battle Against Corruption: #Ley3de3.” Juan Pardinas, director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), said they launched the initiative at only three signature collection points on Feb. 2.
“We went into the heart of the political system. … At the point of time that we achieved [634,000 signatures], according to surveys, only 7 percent of Mexicans had heard of 3de3.”
At first, legislators were not very receptive to the proposal. Pardinas said that only 5 out of 628 members of the Mexican senate, called the Chamber of Deputies, would voluntarily provide the three disclosures.
Pardinas clarified that the third disclosure on taxes doesn’t mean disclosing the amount paid in taxes, but rather whether the public servant was registered with the Mexican equivalent of the IRS. It’s illegal to have an income and not be registered with the tax authorities, he said. The public should know whether an official has paid taxes for the past three years.
The other individual who spoke at the Wilson Center and also has been devoting many hours of his time to this proposal was Eduardo Bohórquez, director of Transparencia Mexicana, which is the Mexican chapter of Transparency International. Transparencia Mexicana and IMCO were the leading organizations backing the initiative.
Transparency is not a new issue in Mexico, and the government has sort of embraced it with various laws, said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center and moderator for the event. However, Bohórquez asserted that these past efforts could even have been counterproductive.
“There is no statistically significant correlation between levels of transparency and levels of corruption,” Bohórquez said.
In addition, there is no correlation between transparency and impunity. He ridiculed the common tactic used by compromised officials who say “make an independent audit.” Bohórquez said you could get the opposite of what you want with an audit. He said that “the more you know how the big black box works,” the easier it becomes to get away with crimes with impunity.
“[In the 1990s], we were assuming by disclosing huge amounts of information, we were fighting corruption.” An audit is not the way to fight corruption in the real world, said Bohórquez. “Transparency became a very questionable word in the 1990s and early first of the 21st century,” he said.
On the other hand, the three disclosures of personal information are only a “tiny amount of information.” Nonetheless, the three disclosures can be very effective in restraining criminal conduct by public servants.
“The new law will help citizens ensure politicians are not enriching themselves illegally or involved in conflict of interests,” states the Transparency International website.
The answer to making headway against corruption is via civil society. “We should not wait for political will for things to change. Citizens must say openly no to corruption,” Bohórquez said on the website.
Something New for Mexico
“This initiative represents the first time in Mexico’s history that civil society has come together to take legislative processes against corruption into their own hands,” states the Wilson Center’s invitation to the event.
“We touched the political system and went to the heart of the political system, which is its congress,” Pardinas said.
“We started an unprecedented conversation in Mexican history. The law gave us the right to have one person seated at the table [to engage with the legislators]. … For some weeks we were there discussing on equal terms with them. … We were having a very technical debate about what should be in the law,” he said.
It was as if unelected American citizens were having a discussion in real time at the same table on equal terms on the technicalities of a law with U.S. representatives and senators, and it was broadcast on C-SPAN, Bohórquez said.
Bohórquez explained that the roles of the two sides are different. “We are not representatives of the population. We are not legislators. We are having a dialogue. What we are doing is not negotiation,” he emphasized. “We are having a technical dialogue, persuading them on having the best technical approach to the issue.”
He explained they would refrain from commenting whenever the discussion turned political.
Pardinas said it was uncomfortable for the legislators, who weren’t used to this kind of dialogue. “For them, it was a very strange conversation and learning process on how to deal with civil society.” He likened it to inviting someone to your home for a cup of coffee and they decide to stay six months.
Bohórquez said that the politicians don’t like an end to their “monopoly.” They often made negative comments to the press, he said.
To put some larger context to the discussion, Viridiana Ríos, who is currently a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute and an expert in Mexico’s subnational economy and the rule of law, made come observations.
She said that what we are witnessing is perhaps “the most important change in the political debate [the country] has had in the last couple of decades.” It’s hard in Mexico where the belief, “corruption is business as usual,” is strongly ingrained.
It’s a change in Mexico of “having the highest priority to be the war on drugs and changing it into battling against a war on corruption. … We thought the enemy in Mexico were drug traffickers.”
During the period 2003–2010, homicides in Mexico doubled, with the cartels getting the blame, she said. “Little by little we realized that we had been fighting the wrong war,” she said. Ríos noted that in the two states where violence had actually diminished, the downturn had nothing to do with traffickers being captured. “It had much more to do with civil society working together with the government into reducing corruption.”
Pardinas said that it has become increasingly clear that corruption is the biggest problem for national and internal security.
“Every problem you see in Mexico, the highest ranking priorities you have—violence, poverty—all of them are directly caused or aggravated by corruption, especially at the state level.”