Corruption has become the stand-out issue in the 2018 Mexican presidential election. As Mexicans demand greater transparency and accountability, the candidates are engaged in a fierce electoral battle over this national problem.
“Undoubtedly, this election, one of the key issues that candidates are talking about is corruption, precisely because it is one of the key issues that is concerning the Mexican population…so I think all of the candidates particularly have really needed to explain to the population what steps they will take to combat the widespread corruption in the country,” says Maureen Meyer, Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington D.C. based think tank.
According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which surveys experts and business people on their perception of how much corruption exists in a country's public sector, Mexico’s score has dropped by 5 points in the span of 5 years. In 2012, Mexico ranked 105 out of 174 and it ranked 135 out of 180 five years later. Furthermore, in a survey from the Mexican government’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) last year, 91.1 percent of the respondents stated that they believed economic misconduct to be frequent, a 2.6 percent increase from 2015.
There are legitimate reasons for this. There are 14 current or former governors under investigation for illegal practices. Fraud seems to creep into all sectors of the state apparatus and moves taken by the current administration to stop investigations possibly implicating those close to the administration are only making things worse.
As a result, the candidates on the campaign trail are widely using the issue to attract voters and condemn each other. For example, Ricardo Anaya, the candidate for the National Action Party (PAN), told the media that he would put the current president in jail because of his alleged ties to economic malpractice. The presidential debates and the campaign commercials of the three main candidates have constantly revolved around the problem. “We have to cut off the hands of those who rob. It’s that simple,” stated the independent candidate Jaime “El Bronco” Rodríguez Calderón during a debate.
Beyond this rhetorical war, the candidates have also engaged in a war of policy promises.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the third-time presidential candidate and current front-runner in the election, wants to strip sitting presidents of their immunity, believes citizens should be allowed to monitor contract proceedings (such as who they are awarded to), and plans to allow anybody to conduct criminal investigations linked to fraud.
José Antonio Meade of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) wants not only to increase the penalties for guilty officials, but promised to take away their assets and property to redirect the money to scholarships and anti-crime programs.
Finally Anaya, Obrador’s biggest competition wants to strengthen audits by the Congress, guarantee the independence of prosecutors, and eliminate the immunity of elected officials. He plans to improve transparency by having government employees disclose their assets and tax information and through the creation of a citizens’ commission to investigate economic crimes.
A War of Words and Promises
Anaya wants to strengthen the National Anti-Corruption System, a law signed by President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2016, that would allow seven agencies such as the Superior Auditor of the Federation and the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Combating Corruption to assist with investigations into fraud and to effectively reprimand those involved.1 But the process has been extremely slow as the individuals chosen to lead the National Anti-Corruption System (NACS) have yet to be confirmed.
“It’s been a great concern, the fact that while we have a NACS, we still do not have a national prosecutor or magistrates, judges to look at these types of cases. It’s clearly a complicated process. The NASC is massive and involves seven different agencies. I think the fact that we haven’t seen real progress made on key positions certainly speaks to a lack of political will to push this forward at the level it needs to be,” stated Meyer.
The lack of political will that Meyer refers to may be part of the reason Meade is coming in third place. Meade, though not a formal member of the PRI, has held several positions in the current government. President Peña Nieto and his government have been involved in numerous scandals that have provoked the frustration and calls for action that we currently see in Mexico. Furthermore, most of the scandals have not been thoroughly investigated and those involved have not been held accountable.
For example, a case known as La Casa Blanca involves the president’s family who for some time lived in a $7 million house owned by a government favored company involved in the building of Mexico’s first high-speed railway. The project was later called off after details emerged. There are also allegations that Peña Nieto’s 2012 presidential campaign was funded by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. The money was apparently given to Emilio Lozoya Austin, Peña Nieto’s confidant and international engagement coordinator, who went on to be the head of the state owned oil company, PEMEX. When an investigation was launched, the prosecutor Santiago Nieto was fired on grounds that he broke the code of conduct.
The other presidential candidates are not immune from criticism either. One of Obrador’s candidates for the Senate, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, was a mining union leader who fled to Canada in 2006 after he criticized the government for a mining accident that led to the death of 65 workers. Gómez was later accused of dissolving the workers’ trust fund worth $55 million USD. While the charges were dropped in 2014 for lack of evidence, an arbitration court ordered him to return the money last May. Lopez Obrador’s association with Gómez has been used in a PRI political commercial.
Some of the scandals have had a real impact on the campaigns, particularly Anaya’s. Indeed, the Attorney General’s office is investigating the presidential candidate for his alleged involvement in a money laundering scheme and fraudulent property deal. The incident involves a plot of land purchased by Anaya on which he built an industrial a warehouse before selling it to the same person he bought it from. The money used by the buyer in the transaction allegedly came from offshore accounts but Anaya has denied wrongdoing, stating that it is not his responsibility to know where the funds are coming from.
While Anaya’s campaign has suffered as a result of the investigation, a group of intellectuals have criticized the Attorney General’s office for politicizing the case. “You need to be investigating any allegation, but why pick that one instead of all the other corruption allegations? In the past we have seen that investigations sometimes have been politically motivated,” says Meyer.
Despite accusations of wrongdoing, there is a concerted effort by the three main presidential candidates to tackle the problem and feed off of the popular discontent. As a result, the candidates’ promises could be seen as opportunistic.
“We have seen a lot of proposals out there for new laws, new investigations, new measures to look at oversight over government funding or personal assets that suggests that everybody is thinking much more seriously about what would need to be done,” stated Meyer.
“Whether they do that once they are elected [to] office is certainly something everyone is watching for.”
While each of the candidates seem to talk about corruption seriously on the campaign trail, they all have their blind spots when it comes to this issue. They may well be false prophets who, once in office, will simply use their new powers to go after opponents and ignore a problem that Mexicans truly want fixed.
We could, however, also decide to be hopeful. Public disenchantment with the current government is so great that the candidates may very well have the will to combat the scourge.
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- 1. Other agencies include the Ministry of Public Administration (Secretaría de la Función Pública), the Federal Tribunal of Administrative Justice (Tribunal Federal de Justicia Administrativa), the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information, and Personal Data Protection (Instituto Nacional de Transparencia, Acceso a la Información y Protección de Datos Personales), the Federal Judicial Council (Consejo de la Juridicatura Federal) and the Citizen Participation Committee (Comité de Participación Ciudadana)