Mexico’s New Anti-Corruption System May Help Turn the Tide — if it’s Allowed to Survive
An Interview with Jorge Alatorre from Mexico’s National Anti-Corruption System
From the disappearance of millions of dollars from public universities and hospitals, to former governors and even the former head of national security being accused by U.S. authorities of accepting million-dollar bribes from drug cartels, corruption in Mexico is an enormous problem. Over the last 23 years Mexico has fallen 92 places in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions ranking from the 38th least corrupt country in 1996 to the 130th least corrupt country in 2019.
As corruption has worsened, increasingly frustrated Mexicans have demanded change. Things came to a head in 2014 when a high-profile corruption scandal with the previous president and the disappearance of 43 teaching students led to massive protests in the streets. The public pressure helped Mexican civil society organizations push a constitutional reform they helped design through congress and into law in 2016, creating Mexico’s National Anti-Corruption System. The system is led by a Citizen Participation Committee, a group of 5 citizens from Mexican civil society tasked with coordinating anti-corruption efforts between 6 government agencies and institutions responsible for preventing, investigating and sanctioning corruption crimes.
Four years later, little headway has been made in lowering Mexico’s endemic levels of corruption and the National Anti-Corruption System has faced criticisms of ineffectiveness from politicians and the public. Mexico’s current president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly referred to as AMLO, ran on an anti-corruption platform in 2018 yet has never included the National Anti-Corruption System in his plans, failing to even mention it in the anti-corruption section of his government’s 5-year year plan.
I sat down with Jorge Alatorre, professor and researcher at the University of Guadalajara and the newest member of the system’s Citizen Participation Committee to talk about the challenges facing Mexico’s National Anti-Corruption System and whether it can still factor in the fight against corruption in Mexico.
Riley Schenck (RS): Why would you say combatting corruption is so important for Mexico from a governmental and economic perspective?
Jorge Alatorre (JA): Actually, three perspectives: governmental, economic and societal, because corruption takes a lot of money from the public budget that could go to better use.
In terms of economics, corruption is good for bad business, and bad for good business, and we want good business to make headway in Mexico. Corruption hurts businesses that search for honest profits and helps businesses that are in the hands of pirates who profit off our national tragedy.
In terms of society, corruption erodes the moral fabric of society, because once a society falls into widespread corruption, everyone starts thinking, “well if everyone else is doing it why shouldn’t I?” It can corrupt the moral core of any society, so it’s terrible from any standpoint and stopping it is essential for Mexico’s progress and survival.
RS: During his presidential campaign, AMLO didn’t speak favorably about the National Anti-Corruption System or Mexican civil society, labeling their members as “fifis” and insinuating that they are wealthy, pretentious people who can’t connect with the average Mexican’s problems. He also accused civil society organizations of being funded by people he sees as part of Mexico’s “mafia of power,” who have other interests besides ending Mexico’s corruption. How do you respond to those criticisms?
JA: I would have to disagree with the President, because most of the anti-corruption work in Mexico has been done by those civil society organizations. They need to get their funding from somewhere, and they usually get it from international corporations, agencies, and occasionally from private donors. It’s important to look at the balance of good they have done in terms of research and advocacy against corruption. I believe the work of Transparencia Mexicana, IMCO, Mexico Evalua, and plenty more has been quite beneficial compared to the cost of their programs.
RS: What would you consider to be the biggest success of the National Anti-Corruption System so far?
JA: The creation of the National Digital Platform that will collect information from every government agency involved in the fight against corruption, that with the help of big data will give essential leads towards the areas that are most susceptible to corruption. With 6 different agencies and institutions contributing information to a platform that will be overseen by the National Anti-Corruption System’s Citizen Participation Committee, you also guarantee that the information won’t be in one set of hands where its use could depend on the political agenda of whoever is in power.
RS: With the National Digital Platform you’re supposedly going to be able to look up the financial declarations of any public servant, right?
JA: In a way, the thing is there will be some information that’s public and other information that’s private, but even the private information will be available to law enforcement agencies through the platform to detect discrepancies between how much a public servant officially makes and how much they have in terms of assets, and that will lead them to possible sources of corruption. That I think is a big achievement.
Another success that was just passed (by the National Anti-Corruption System’s Coordinating Committee) is the National Anti-Corruption Policy, which is an effort to coordinate the six different agencies on the Coordinating Committee with specific responsibilities which will finally give us a way to coordinate and track the impact of our efforts in this fight.
RS: Some people have criticized the National Anti-Corruption System for not focusing on election corruption, which they see as the root cause of Mexico’s systemic corruption problem. The Mexican Institute for Competitiveness estimates that 15 times more illegal campaign funding than legal campaign funding enters Mexican elections, and critics believe that if you don’t get illegal money out of political campaigns it will be extremely difficult to fight corruption at any level because of the perverse incentives that exist to generate funds to compete in elections. When I looked over the National Anti-Corruption Policy, I didn’t notice any mention of elections. How do you change the system without focusing on election corruption?
JA: Well if you look at the tracking of spending in Mexican elections, INE, the National Election Institute, has one of the most sophisticated systems of money tracking in the world, so working closely with INE, plus –
RS: Why not bring INE into the National Anti-Corruption System?
JA: You don’t have INE or the UIF (Financial Intelligence Unit) in the system, but the thing is you don’t have to have them within the system to call for their support in specific cases, for example the UIF was called into action in the case of the mother of Lozoya (the former director of PEMEX facing charges of accepting a $12 million bribe from Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht), and the UIF reviewed her bank statements and assets and realized that she wasn’t declaring all her income to Mexico’s tax office. If there’s political will from the state to use these resources, we will see results.
RS: And in terms of going after election corruption?
JA: Elections move a lot of money in micro amounts, for example giving $500 pesos to a person to vote for a party or to go to a rally, and that’s really hard to track, not because of a lack of efficiency on the part of the anti-corruption system, but because in Mexico, six out of ten workers work in the informal sector in cash (about 30% of Mexico’s GDP), and all of that money pretty much never hits the banking system, and it’s not easily tracked. There could be more efforts to track it, but I think that the best bet to try to overcome the situation is with the National Anti-Corruption System.
RS: Would a good summary be that it’s so difficult to go after the election corruption, that if you can go after-
JA: You can go after the big money
RS: Exactly, so if you can start cutting off those larger branches of corruption that funds elections, you can start drying out the sources of illegal funds.
JA: Yes, but the problem is that even if you eliminate government corruption there’s still the money that comes from crime (entering elections and corrupting the political process).
RS: Is there any way that the National Anti-Corruption System is fighting against that?
JA: For that we will have to coordinate with the national banking system and with Mexico’s IRS, where (by limiting money laundering and large cash transactions) you can make the narco guys have to operate with tons of paper bills and without any chance to use them to buy houses, cars, etc.
RS: In the U.S. most of the big mob bosses weren’t caught by the FBI but by the IRS.
JA: Exactly, Al Capone is one of them, the most famous perhaps.
RS: Is there anything in the National Anti-Corruption Policy that will move Mexico in that direction?
JA: Well once we’ve started coordinating as planned in the National Anti-Corruption Policy, there will be a way for all of society including public media and NGOs to track the efforts and progress in different areas, which should allow society to more effectively create public pressure and demand accountability.
We’re going to make this information available to the public through the National Digital Platform, and while some delicate private information won’t be visible to the general public (such as parts of the aforementioned public servant asset declarations), you will be able to actually really easily track if there’s any progress being made.
RS: So you believe that will help journalists and government authorities start –
JA: Exactly, government, journalists, opposition parties, invested citizens, international governments…
RS: — can start following the money trails like they’re able to do in the United States.
JA: Exactly, I mean I’m not saying this is some kind of fantasy or silver bullet to kill the werewolf of corruption, but it’s our best chance thus far.
RS: Any final thoughts?
JA: Every day there are reasons for disappointment, but if we don’t make the most of the best shot we have had thus far in fighting corruption, things will only get worse. It’s going to take generations for Mexico to see significant change, maybe thirty years. But if we had started thirty years ago in 1990, which is not that difficult to fathom, Mexico would be quite a different country by now.
I want to, and I’m sure my (colleagues) want to, do the best we can at this point in time so the men and women who follow us will have the strength of a system that will help them tackle corruption in a more effective way than we were able to.
RS: And the National Anti-Corruption System is the best chance Mexico has?
JA: It’s the best chance we have. It’s perhaps not the best lifeboat on the Titanic but at least it’s a boat, so it’s time to row.