Will 2018 be the year Mexico starts to tackle its corruption problem?


Mexico’s economy did not do particularly well in 2017. In fact, the economic slowdown raises important questions about what politicians throughout the country should be promising in the upcoming July elections and to whom they should feel most accountable. Like much of the Americas this year, corruption will be a major deciding factor at the polls in Mexico. The recent article in Foreign Policy, Corruption is Mexico’s Original Sin written by Luis Rubio not only describes a deeply embedded patronage system of corruption but offers little hope for reform, save for a massive judicial overhaul.

Rubio suggests that despite impressive efforts by anti-corruption activists, Mexican civil society is unlikely to witness Brazil inspired upheaval in their political system; for many years Mexico focused on growing its economy, while Brazil took time to reform its judiciary. Outgoing President Pena Nieto, of longtime ruling party PRI, has earned low approval ratings and widespread contempt due to rampant corruption at the federal and local levels, malfeasance by him and his wife, allegations of espionage, and extreme negligence – particularly in regards to the murder rate of civilians and members of the media.

Frustration with PRI suggests that populist, opposition leader López Obrador of MORENA has a good chance of being elected. While he offers a compelling nationalist vision and a promise to tackle graft and corruption, if his time in office as Mexico City’s mayor is any indication, it may not be enough. Promising to renegotiate NAFTA and inclusive agricultural reform are great platforms to run on, overhauling a long-embedded system of public theft for private gain may prove a bit more challenging and potentially dangerous to enact. Moreover, it is not clear what role he sees for the wider business community in tackling corruption and getting the economy back on track.

While it is easy to suggest that private companies are equally to blame for Mexico’s woes, and certainly a well-connected few are, it would be a mistake to alienate the employers and economic backbone of the country. Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises employ millions of people throughout Mexico and with wages stagnating, any tolerance for corrupt politicians and paying bribes, is certainly slim. Creating a business environment that encourages companies to grow and formalize requires greater trust between the private and public sectors – luckily, there’s still time for that.

The Mexican business community has an opportunity before the election, to step out loudly against corruption. One lesson likely not lost on voters throughout Latin America is that ideology is no indicator of less corruption. Left-leaning governments often find a scapegoat in the private sector, yet with state-owned enterprises hardly a beacon of ethics, what can the thousands of companies that employ Mexicans from Chihuahua to Chiapas do to ally themselves with fellow voters?

Why not demand stricter corporate governance of boards, stronger business ethics obligations for management, and enforce anti-bribery measures up and down supply chains? Companies can assess risks, implement compliance standards and whistle-blower procedures regardless of political will or whether local prosecutors investigate. With Rubio’s pessimistic view of the capacity for change within the bureaucracy, why not tackle the supply side of corruption and level the playing field? Bribery is bad for business and corruption has proven disastrous for Mexico’s economy.

Louisa Tomar is a Global Program Officer at CIPE