In 2012, the international press and the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto declared that it was Mexico’s moment. It was the time when the country would reorient its economy and take its rightful place as a leading emerging market. Four years and a few corruption scandals, massacres, and brazen prison escapes later, the label is little more than an afterthought.
But let’s not be hasty in our rush to abandon the phrase. Actually, let’s embrace it. Mexico, it’s time for another moment, but this time in rule of law.
President Peña Nieto assumed office three years ago, taking his country and the world by storm. His technocratic team introduced and pushed forward a stack of reforms that overhauled markets, promised sizzling economic growth, and positioned the country as a market to watch.
The energy sector opened up, competition picked up in telecommunications, and structural changes went into effect in labor markets and schools across the country. It seemed, to quote a Financial Times piece, that the Aztec tiger was beginning to sharpen its claws.
There was one critical element missing in this ambitious plan: seriously strengthening rule of law. In the process of redefining Mexico, the new team ignored the very problems of corruption and violence that had tripped up previous administrations. Armed only with a fresh re-framing and a few isolated policy ideas, it is hard to see how they planned to thoroughly patch up Mexico’s rotten rule of law.
It didn’t take long for Mexico’s moment to give way to Mexico’s mayhem. From the earliest days of Peña Nieto’s sexenio, as the six-year tenure is called, the administration couldn’t stop the emerging self-defense groups or fiery shootouts across the state of Michoacán. But it all unraveled in September 2014 as 43 students disappeared. Angry protests filled Mexico’s streets and were repeated around the world. Investors were suddenly less confident. And so were Mexicans, with almost 75 percent reporting that they felt insecure.
At the same time, Mexico was being buffeted by allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest. These accusations went beyond a handful of governors to hit the reform team itself, with President Peña Nieto and Secretary of Finance Luis Videgaray at the center. Just as the dust was settling, Mexico’s most wanted criminal, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, escaped from the country’s securest prison. It was clear what the reform agenda had left untouched.
In response, the government pushed forward piecemeal policies, with subpar success. President Peña Nieto named an anticorruption czar, who was then accused of having his own conflict of interest. Federal government employees were asked to report their own conflicts of interest, with less than half ever bothering to oblige. A 2008 judicial reform was supposed to be up and running by June 2016, but it remains incomplete across many states. Some 93 percent of crimes still don’t get investigated.
It’s time for a new approach. Bottom line: It’s impossible to strengthen rule of law through small, incremental steps. We’ve seen one promising approach to addressing corruption and transparency through a recent series of constitutional reforms, but Mexico needs to reach further if it is to start seriously tipping the scale. It needs a plan that is even more ambitious and that simultaneously overhauls laws, builds institutions and checks and balances, strengthens civil society, and promotes change across various sectors.
Without a doubt, taking on rule of law is easier said than done. Especially now, as low oil prices are robbing billions from the country’s budget. Politically too, it is unlikely that the government could ever recreate the Pact for Mexico. Top this all off with the fact that pushing for policies that might not only hurt your political allies but possibly put them in jail is just never going to be popular.
Yet for those who say that this won’t be possible, look no further than Mexico itself. Four years ago, Mexico took on the tough issues and emerged, by and large, victorious. The Aztec tiger can start sharpening its claws once again. But this time around, it needs to be in the hunt for the corrupt.
Antonio Garza is a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico. He is counsel in the Mexico City office of White & Case.