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Mexico's Ruling Party Cries 'Witch Hunt' at Landmark Anti-Corruption Bill

The proposal aims to tackle the multitude of corruption scandals swirling around Mexico’s politicians by requiring public officials to upload documentary explanations of their assets, tax returns, and potential conflicts of interests.

by Paul Imison
Apr 29 2016, 5:10pm

Photo by Edgard Garrido/Reuters

A grassroots proposal for a new law designed to make it harder for Mexican officials to hide ill-gotten gains has garnered unprecedented public support at a time when corruption and conflict of interest allegations buzz around both the government and their political rivals.

The bill, however, now appears on the point of being blocked from becoming law by the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, and its allies in the senate.

Drawn up by lawyers, academics, and high-profile transparency activists and organizations, the citizen's bill was designed to be included in the package of laws governing the implementation of the much-touted National Anti-Corruption System, which was approved last year.

"This was a real landmark for civil society in Mexico, actually drafting a bill and gaining enough signatures for it to reach the senate floor," said Edna Jaime, director of the think-tank México Evalúa and one of the activists behind the initiative.

The proposal is called the Ley3de3, or the three-out-of-three law, because it would oblige all holders of public office to upload proof of their personal assets, tax returns, and potential conflicts of interest onto a national database that is already up and running. It also lays out formal channels for citizens to denounce corruption and recommends sanctions for those officials found guilty.

Prior to being presented to the senate on March 17, a petition in support of the proposal obtained 650,000 signatures and won the support of Mexican celebrities such as film star Diego Luna.

"I've only voted once in my life, but I feel like this meant more," said biology student María José Flores as she stood in line in Mexico City's historic downtown to add her name to the petition. "You can't trust the political parties to change Mexico. This proposal is coming from below, from the people, and it's important that our voices are heard."

This week, however, the ruling PRI and its allies in the Green Party — a party famous for its alleged corruption and opportunism — tried to obstruct passage of the law by pointing to elements they claim are unconstitutional.

Related: In Mexican Politics, the Greens Are 'Corruption Turned Into a Party'

Emilio Gamboa Patrón, head of the PRI in the senate, said in a press conference that financial incentives to encourage citizens to denounce corruption would unleash a "witch-hunt."

"If somebody buys a new car, somebody else will say: Here, investigate them, investigate the money they bought it with, the cheque they deposited," he told reporters.

Rival lawmakers from the conservative National Action Party, the PAN, and center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, the PRD, accused Gamboa of "fear-mongering."

The efforts to block the Ley3de3 is unlikely to help the Mexican government improve the country's position in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index where it currently ranks 95th jointly with Mali and the Philippines.

The government's own auditor's office, known as the ASF, published a report in February that cited $4.5 billion in public spending irregularities. Yet sanctions are few and far between.

According to the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, one of the NGOs backing the initiative, the ASF filed 444 criminal cases for corruption between 1998 and 2012. These, it says, resulted in just seven judicial rulings.

The chronic nature of the problem of corruption in Mexico helps explain the range of its expression.

This February, a Reuters investigation revealed that officials from the Public Administration Ministry — the federal agency responsible for pursuing corruption — had blown thousands of dollars in expenses on luxury goods during official trips to London, Washington, and Kuala Lumpur.

Recent protests by students in the state of Veracruz were sparked by the enormous public debt, about $145 million, accumulated under Governor Javier Duarte. In its recent report, the ASF detected irregularities in the use of $800 million intended for health, education, and public security budgets in the state.

José Luis Abarca, the former mayor of the city of Iguala, Guerrero, is currently awaiting trial on accusations that he collaborated with drug cartel Guerreros Unidos in the forced disappearance of 43 student protesters — the infamous Ayotzinapa case — in 2014.

Abarca had become an extremely wealthy man allegedly thanks to payments from Guerreros Unidos. He had also built a shopping mall on terrain he had obtained from the military.

Related: International Experts Say Mexico Is Blocking Efforts to Find Out the Fate of the 43 Students

But perhaps the most delicate case of all for the Enrique Peña Nieto administration are the suspicions circling around a multi-million dollar mansion built for the presidential family by a government contractor. The fact that a federal investigator personally appointed by the president found no evidence of wrongdoing in the case only served to fuel public distrust. Nor did it help when the contractor's name featured prominently among the rich Latin Americans found to be using complex offshore arrangements for hiding their assets in this month's massive Panama Papers' leak.

President Peña Nieto has also received criticism for referring to corruption as a "cultural" problem in speeches to business leaders and foreign dignitaries.

"Corruption exists in every country to a greater or lesser extent, but in Mexico, it's complicated by opacity and a lack of independent institutions," said Alberto Fernández, a Mexican political scientist at The New School. "The country was effectively a one-party state for many years, and although parties now compete freely, they are very much stuck in the old way of doing things."

It can all make Mexico appear to be dragging its heels in the wider struggle against corruption in Latin America, which has been hurtling along of late.

In Guatemala, the resignation and arrest of former president Otto Pérez Molina on graft charges last year was seen by many as a watershed moment in the country's recovery from dictatorship and civil war.

Related: Jailed Former President of Guatemala Wants a TV

Meanwhile, the sweeping investigation currently underway into graft at Brazilian energy giant Petrobras has seen the prosecution of dozens of officials, businesspeople, and politicians. Even the hugely popular former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is now under the spotlight.

"Latin America is really a mixed bag in this regard," said Fernández. "Much of it comes down to judges, prosecutors, and public institutions functioning independently. In Mexico, these institutions are very often subject to political interference."

Yet Ley3de3 is not without its critics.

Edgardo Buscaglia, a lawyer and anti-corruption specialist said the bill does not do enough to prevent the infiltration of organized crime money in political campaigns, a key issue amid Mexico's high-profile drug violence.

"As it is drafted right now, Ley3de3 just constitutes an expression of good wishes by a small academic elite," he said.

A number of politicians have already uploaded details of their personal finances to the national database created by the organizations behind Ley3de3 while the Mexican employers' association Coparmex has urged lawmakers to approve the reform as soon as possible.

Yet, with congress due to go into recess tomorrow, the passage of the anti-corruption package could well be delayed until September.

"Publicly, politicians have had no choice but to say they support the initiative, but whether they vote in favor of it is another matter," said Edna Jaime. "The passage of the law in its current form really requires pressure from society throughout the debate, but, unfortunately, there may not be sufficient awareness of the importance of the issue for that to happen."

Related: The Year Latin Americans Got Angry About Corruption


Follow Paul Imison on Twitter: @paulimison