WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

15 Apr 2020 | Commentary

Five Years On, What’s Still Missing from Mexico’s National Anti-Corruption System?

Nearly five years have passed since Mexico’s Congress passed the landmark constitutional reform that created the National Anti-Corruption System—a body designed to coordinate anti-corruption efforts at all three levels of government, monitor and evaluate the country’s progress in eradicating corruption, and facilitate citizen participation in initiatives to combat government misconduct.

After all this time, the National Anti-Corruption System has yet to receive the political support it needs to thrive. When President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to power in December 2018, proponents of the system hoped that the new president’s grandiose promises to put an end to government greed and malfeasance would materialize into enhanced support for the anti-corruption system and the various institutions that form part of it. 

However, in the first sixteen months of López Obrador’s term, the president has so far shown indifference toward the anti-corruption system, failing to capitalize on its potential as a body capable of finally institutionalizing Mexico’s fight against corruption. López Obrador’s skepticism of institutions—particularly those that enjoy autonomy from the executive—and his preference for leading an anti-corruption drive primarily based on firm messaging and symbolic gestures, has raised doubts about whether the president will back anti-corruption bodies in any substantial way.

In turn, Mexico’s Senate, which is controlled by a coalition led by López Obrador’s political party, MORENA, has allowed key aspects of the anti-corruption system to languish. As discussed below, legislators have failed to uphold their constitutional responsibility to nominate key leadership positions, leaving critical seats vacant. At the state level, the anti-corruption systems often receive little funding from state legislatures—or none at all—and many anti-corruption prosecutors say they lack the resources and autonomy needed to do their jobs. 

As WOLA has noted, the National Anti-Corruption System can in many ways operate without political support from the executive or legislative branch. In fact, the system has made important progress without this support. The system’s board-like Coordinating Committee has passed important transparency laws, its Executive Secretariat has implemented technology that makes it easier for anti-corruption institutions to coordinate their efforts, and the Citizen Participation Committee—the national system’s civil society-led governing body—developed the country’s first National Anti-Corruption Policy, a document that outlines 40 public policy priorities to guide Mexico’s anti-corruption fight. Several state-level anti-corruption systems have also developed practices that other states could benefit from adopting. 

But still, with vacant seats, often poor funding, and lack of political will, the anti-corruption systems at the federal and state level will never reach their full potential. Below, we provide a broad overview of some of the major pieces still missing from the anti-corruption systems.

Citizen participation committees

The spirit behind the anti-corruption system is based largely on the premise that Mexico can’t combat corruption without the buy-in of citizens. In 2019, more than a third of citizens reported having to pay a bribe to access a public service like health or education. Less than 11 percent of crimes in the country are ever reported, due in most cases to victims’ mistrust in authorities or their lack of confidence in the capacity of public institutions to do anything about their case. If citizens continue to view corruption as an unchangeable part of their daily life, and if they do not feel confident or empowered enough to denounce corruption when they see it, any anti-corruption drive will fall short. 

This is where the citizen participation committees come in. In Mexico State, for example, members of the state citizen participation committee have worked to ensure that journalistic reports go beyond merely exposing corruption scandals: they have worked with the authors to gather more information about the cases they’ve exposed and shared the findings with state prosecutors and judicial authorities. 

In Aguascalientes, the anti-corruption system has taken to YouTube and social media outlets to increase public awareness about the system’s initiatives and to inform citizens about how to report corruption to the proper authorities.

While they are central to the anti-corruption systems, ten citizen participation committees have vacant seats, while two states—Mexico City and Chiapas—have no committee at all. At the federal level, two of the five members have finished their terms in recent months, but the Senate has failed to ensure their prompt replacement. 

On three occasions, the Senate’s Anti-Corruption Commission failed to make quorum when scheduled to interview candidates for the National Anti-Corruption System’s Selection Commission (the group of nine individuals responsible for nominating new members to the Citizen Participation Committee). The previous members of the Selection Commission completed their terms in October 2019, and with their absence, no new members can be nominated to fill the Citizen Participation Committee’s vacant seats. 

Anti-corruption magistrates 

One of the secondary laws that accompanied the creation of the National Anti-Corruption System called for the addition of 18 autonomous anti-corruption magistrates to the Federal Tribunal of Administrative Justice. These magistrates will have sole jurisdiction over imposing administrative sanctions for grave corruption offenses such as embezzlement and money laundering. The law calls for adding a new “Third Section” to the Tribunal’s Superior Chamber, as well as five new regional, specialized chambers—all meant to facilitate more prompt corruption-related processes in the courts. The five specialized chambers and the Third Section should be headed by three magistrates each. 

In April 2019, President López Obrador stated that, as a way to reduce government expenditures, he was interested in reducing the number of magistrates. “A proposal is being made to comply with the legal mandate, but to see if we can reduce the number,” he said. “To see if there can just be one chamber instead of four or five regional ones so that we won’t need 18 magistrates.” In an August 2019 report, WOLA explained how this would negatively impact Mexico’s corruption sanctioning functions.

To date, President López Obrador has only proposed names for the three magistrates of the Tribunal’s Superior Chamber. He has failed to make nominations for the regional chambers, despite a federal court ruling ordering him to do so.

Poor funding and vacant seats at the state level

Apart from the states who do not have full citizen participation committees, several others are missing additional key players in their anti-corruption systems. Five states are lacking anti-corruption prosecutors; in Baja California and San Luis Potosi, the prosecutors were selected, but soon after resigned. In Baja California, the prosecutor resigned in January 2020, a month after taking office, saying that she did not receive the financial resources needed to properly do her job and build up her team—a concern echoed by other anti-corruption prosecutors across the country. 

Meanwhile, five state systems are lacking executive secretariats, which provide technical assistance to the coordinating committee and evaluate the effectiveness of anti-corruption initiatives. While the government bodies that form part of the coordinating committees have their own budgets, legislators at the federal and state level must appropriate separate funds for each system’s executive secretariat. In 14 states, the executive secretariats received less funds in 2020 than they did in 2019. Three states did not appropriate any funds at all: Mexico City, Chiapas, and Morelos. 

With political will, the anti-corruption systems can still live up to their potential

To date, the anti-corruption systems have had limited successes, and progress has been slow. But tackling the deep-seated corruption plaguing the country won’t happen overnight. It took time to pass the laws needed to give the anti-corruption systems life and it will take time to galvanize the broad public support needed to tackle corruption from all angles. 

While successful prosecutions and sanctions are essential in the fight against corruption, the work of the citizen participation committees is also crucial to this effort. So is the work of the executive secretariats in developing the technology needed to strengthen anti-corruption efforts and to conduct constant evaluations of anti-corruption policies. 

With the right leadership, the anti-corruption systems can continue to strengthen their capacities and develop creative ways to fulfill their mandate. But President López Obrador, the Senate, and state governments need to do their part. Filling the systems’ vacant seats, naming the magistrates, ensuring proper funding, and implementing the National Anti-Corruption Policy would be a good start. A failure to strongly back the system will curtail its possibilities of success and cast doubt on López Obrador’s commitment to truly putting an end to government corruption.