After a series of corruption scandals, Mexico has created a government-backed National Anti-Corruption System that — to my surprise — is getting good reviews from some leading independent anti-graft groups.
Some respected anti-corruption groups, such as Transparency International, say Mexico’s new approach could perhaps even become a model for Brazil, Argentina and other countries shaken by government corruption cases.
The new National Anti-Corruption System was approved by Mexico’s Congress late Tuesday with the support of the country’s two biggest opposition parties. Because the wide-ranging plan requires a constitutional change, it will have to be approved by a majority of the country’s state legislatures.
It follows a series of government corruption scandals that have taken a heavy toll on the popularity of President Enrique Peña Nieto. The scandals included Mexico’s first lady Angelica Rivero’s purchase on favorable terms of a $7 million house — now commonly known in Mexico as the “White House” — from a major government contractor.
Also, Peña Nieto came under intense criticism for a dubious $3.7 billion bid awarded to a Chinese consortium to build a Mexico City-to-Queretaro high-speed train. Peña Nieto canceled the contract after an uproar following press reports that the Chinese firm had been the only bidder.
Mexico’s new anti-corruption plan seeks to strengthen and synchronize federal, state and municipal laws to combat corruption. Among other things, public servants will have to disclose possible conflicts of interest, and the head of the Public Administration Ministry (SPF) — the government’s top anti-corruption investigative agency — will be a presidential appointee who will have to be approved by Congress.
According to several independent anti-corruption groups, the new law is a major improvement over existing laws because it gives new investigative powers to congressional and law enforcement anti-graft agencies. This will create more checks and balances, supporters of the new law say.
Also, for the first time, the new law sets relatively strong penalties for private corruption acts, such as corporations or people who bribe government officials.
Eduardo Bohorquez, head of Mexico’s chapter of Transparency International, the Berlin-based independent international anti-corruption organization, told me that the new anti-corruption system marks a new approach in the fight against corruption in Latin America.
“Until now, most Latin American countries have relied heavily on anti-corruption czars, or anti-corruption commissions, which clearly haven’t work,” Bohorquez said. “These centralized anti-corruption czars generally focus on a few big cases, and at best succeed in catching a big fish, but they do very little to combat systemic corruption.”
Instead of creating top-down anti-corruption agencies, countries should strengthen their various federal, state and local institutions, so that they can better control one another and create a more efficient system of checks and balances, Bohorquez said.
“Admittedly, this is more boring that announcing a national anti-corruption czar, but it works better,” he added.
My opinion: The biggest problem with Mexico’s new National Anti-Corruption System is not what it plans to do, but the fact that it will have to be approved by state legislatures and implemented by enabling laws that may be watered down by state governors and local politicians.
As for the plan itself, while it has several flaws — such as not making it substantially easier to impeach a sitting president on corruption charges — it’s a new approach that may be worth trying.
Government-appointed anti-corruption czars or anti-corruption agencies have not worked in most Latin American countries. Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela and several other countries have long had government-appointed anti-corruption czars or agencies that have done little or nothing. At best, they have gone after top officials from previous governments or their most visible friends.
But if you look at corruption perception rankings around the world, most of the countries that have the cleanest governments do not have an almighty anti-corruption office.
Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland — the countries that top the list of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index as the nations with the cleanest governments — don’t have an almighty anti-corruption czar. They have strong institutions at the local, state and national levels, which work independently, watch each other constantly, and make sure that corruption cases don’t go unpunished.
Perhaps Latin American countries should focus on strengthening institutions at all levels, and heed the advice of a Brazilian politician who once joked, “This country just needs one law, that says that from now on it’s mandatory to comply with all others.”