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The Corruption Crackdown in Guatemala Is Making Mexico Jealous

Ever since Guatemalans ousted and jailed their president in a corruption probe, Mexican observers have grown green with envy over their own country's political shortcomings.

by David Agren
Sep 21 2015, 6:27pm

Imagen por Presidencia de México

Guatemala seldom makes the news in Mexico, where the population largely looks at Central America with a sense of suspicion and superiority — if it looks at all.

Then Guatemalans took to the streets in steady protests over the spring and summer, impeached their president, and imprisoned him on corruption charges. And Mexico started paying attention.

The sight of Guatemalans protesting corruption and pushing President Otto Pérez Molina out of power and into a prison cell has provoked envy in Mexico, where impunity is rife and top politicians are seen as untouchable. The popularity of President Enrique Peña Nieto has plunged over corruption and conflict of interest scandals, and the clumsy handling of the government's investigation into the case of the 43 missing students.

"If a country with deficiencies as abysmal as Guatemala in matters of justice [...] can do this, what's impeding Mexicans from aspiring some day to have a clean-up that starts at the top?" wrote columnist Jorge Zepeda Patterson in the online publication Sin Embargo. "If Guatemala could, why are we not going to do this ourselves?"

The unflattering comparisons between the countries are highlighting the shortcomings of Mexico, where public protests tend to peter out and corruption cases almost always go unpunished.

"Mexico is ages away from Guatemala in this regard," said Manuel Molano, adjunct-director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness think-tank, which has studied the impact of corruption in Mexico.

Guatemala's former President Otto Pérez Molina in court in Guatemala City, Sept. 11, 2015. (Photo by Moises Castillo/AP)

In Mexico, Peña Nieto appointed a friendly figure in February to investigate allegations that he, his wife, and his finance minister all purchased properties from crony contractors.

To no one's surprise, Comptroller Virgilio Andrade, a college friend of Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, exonerated the trio last month.

Andrade concluded that those being investigated didn't steer business toward the contractors unlawfully, but critics ridiculed the announcement as a farcical attempt to clear the president's name.

Related: Can a President Accused of Corruption Convincingly Push an Anti-Corruption Law? Mexico Is Finding Out

Guatemala, meanwhile, turned to outside investigators in the form of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG in Spanish), an entity established in 2007 by the United Nations and the Guatemalan government.

The CICIG, which investigates alleged wrongdoing and presents its findings to Guatemalan prosecutors, didn't make an immediate impact. But under the leadership of Colombian judge Iván Velásquez, the body put the country's political class on notice and started blowing open corruption cases.

Most notoriously, it investigated a customs-duty scheme called "La Linea," or The Line, which allowed importers to pay bribes for reduced tariffs.

The scheme implicated then-vice president Roxana Baldetti and other top officials. Baldetti was forced to resign in May and is accused of accepting bribes of $3.7 million. Pérez Molina is also implicated in the scandal, though he denies any wrongdoing.

CICIG's success in Guatemala is causing protesters in other Central American countries to call for similar setups, including impoverished Honduras, where more than $350 million was allegedly embezzled out of the state health system and some of the money ended up in President Juan Orlando Hernández's 2013 campaign.

'If Guatemala could, why are we not going to do this ourselves?'

The judicial system in Mexico meanwhile has been unable to effectively pursue cases of corruption, and justice can come across as selective — with those playing by the political rules enjoying impunity and those seen as expendable or becoming enemies (such as jailed teachers union boss Elba Esther Gordillo) facing the full extent of the law.

"No party has appeared particularly interested in ending this situation, from which they benefit to some degree," political science professor José Antonio Crespo wrote in the Mexican newspaper El Universal. "Our institutions are the inheritance of an authoritarian regime. The changes are cosmetic and any legal reforms are quickly distorted."

This year Mexico did turn to outsiders for help in the case of the missing students. The government invited a body called the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (or GIEI), formed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to investigate the September 2014 attacks on 43 teacher trainees in the state of Guerrero.

The experts concluded the official investigation — called, "the historical truth," by Mexico's then-attorney general — was full of falsehoods, including the assertion that the students' bodies were burned in a remote garbage dump. The GIEI's Sept. 6 report considered that scenario impossible.

Peña Nieto accepted the findings. Later, the country's chief prosecutor convened a last-minute press conference on Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day, to say DNA evidence sent to Austria had allowed the identification of a second missing student.

Sovereignty is a touchy topic in Mexico, which lost much of its northern territory in the Mexican-American War and where nativist rules restrict everything from who can hold public offices to foreigners not being able to buy beachfront or border area properties.

Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is traditionally suspicious of outside intervention into Mexican matters. That nationalist sentiment explains, in part, why cartel kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, who tunneled out of a maximum-security prison, wasn't extradited to the United States after his 2014 arrest.

Related: Mexican Drug Lord 'El Chapo' Escapes Prison Through Elaborate Tunnel with Motorcycle

Central Americans, in comparison, are more open about appealing to outsiders for assistance.

"These countries, with the possible exception of Nicaragua because of the Revolution, are not especially xenophobic in their politics," said Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and a Guatemalan citizen.

"They're not nativists," he told VICE News. "Mexico is very xenophobic."

Additionally, "at the ordinary citizen's level, Mexico is far more corrupt than Guatemala," Estevez added. He pointed to the extra-official payments, which especially impact the poor, that citizens fork over for everything from garbage collection to informal parking attendants "guarding" cars parked on the public streets.

"It's called 'solidarity' here," Estevez said. "Guatemala doesn't have very many examples of 'solidarity.'"

Protesters took to the streets in Guatemala City starting in April. (Photo by Moises Castillo/AP)

After Peña Nieto's conflict of interest scandals broke, Congress approved new transparency and anti-corruption systems, which are meant to increase auditing and prosecutions.

Some analysts remain skeptical and see a fundamental problem in the Mexican political system. In it, the PRI — the party that ruled Mexico for most of the last century — established an all-powerful presidency, whose authority went unchallenged and superseded any oversight from Congress and the courts.

Ilán Semo, a political historian at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, said the system doesn't provide for proper scrutiny from anyone, let alone foreigners. "Throughout history, the PRI turned the presidency into a meta-power," Semo told VICE News. "It's like a monarchy, which isn't touched by the law."

But Semo sees a more basic reason for politicians to avoid international investigators and oppose a Mexican version of the CICIG.

"They won't do this because they're corrupt," he said. "Not because they're nationalistic."

Related: Could Mexican Officials Eventually Face Charges for Failings in Missing Students Case?

Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero

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guatemala
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Otto Perez Molina
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ivan velasquez
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