From generalized and unpunished corruption, Mexico has moved now to centralized and purified corruption. What is left is the same corruption as always. The only thing that has changed are the adjectives.
The arrest and extradition on corruption charges of the former head of Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex, Emilio Lozoya, is the opening act of a circus. Yet, the corruption remains. There is great hubbub and grand negotiations but there is just one single goal behind the Lozoya proceedings. The objective is to distract the citizenry from the failures of the current government, the terrible recession the country faces and the inaction around the promise that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made during his 2018 electoral campaign: hope.
The preeminent campaign pledge made by López Obrador in 2018 was that he would end corruption. The moment was more than auspicious. Not only because of the bold corruption of the government led by his predecessor Enrique Peña, but also because the Mexican population was fed up with what it perceived as the exploitation of natural resources for private advantage, with the granting of permits and contracts to those close to government, and with the favoring of government cronies. As the information that Lozoya allegedly has with him shows, corruption during the Peña government was not only a goal, but also a modus operandi. Money solved everything and nobody was too small to be part of such a perverse scheme: members of congress, senators, journalists, governors, the opposition parties, entrepreneurs, the media. Peña was an extreme in the spectrum of the old and the very Mexican practice of corruption because of his lack of self-restraint: stealing was a divine right to be publicized in all its magnitude.
Under President López Obrador, the story is a different one: instead of fighting corruption, the new fashion is to centralize it. Like in the good old times of the 20th century when the PRI was dominant, corruption is there to be administered from the Presidency, both as an instrument to reward those near to power -relatives, close friends and other favorites- and to punish enemies. The novelty is that the President’s word is enough to purify cases of evident corruption: those who are closest can never be corrupt because the mere proximity to power disinfects them.
Corruption has returned to be what it was before: a mere instrument of power to generate loyalties and distract the citizenry: the old custom dating to Mexico’s colonial era and that was later refined during the 20th century until reaching its current level of subtlety. What we are seeing today is the ultimate perfecting of corruption in the manner of a media spectacle with vastly ambitious aims.
During the PRI decades, it was rare if the government that arrive in power that did not arrest a public official from the outgoing administration as a way to show who was the new sheriff in town. This practice was so common that Mexicans even referred to anti-corruption laws as “the law of the postman”. Back then, only lower public officials would ever be prosecuted and the rest was just for mere messaging and personal retaliations. While the profile of those incarcerated from prior administrations escalated over time, it never reached what is thought to be possible today: the prosecution of a former President.
The question is whether this a change of direction or a paltry strategy of distraction by the current Mexican government. Without doubt, the alleged evidence that Lozoya has in his power involving other political figures entertains the media and has a political value, but it is not obvious whether it could be employed as evidence in proper judicial proceedings respecting the rules of evidence and due process. The political use of corruption is long-standing, and the López Obrador government is preparing to take it to new heights. But none of this implies that corruption is being effectively tackled or that it will be punished. The dilemma is whether to advance toward the eradication of corruption or merely going back again to the usual: using scapegoats instead of properly prosecuting former public officials.
The matter is not a minor one because the current moment is not either. No government in any living person’s memory has experienced the levels of recession, unemployment, and violence, all together, of today’s Mexico. The exceedingly strange moment that we are living has created a political parentheses due to the pandemic lockdown that has paralyzed nearly everything from the economy and political debate to social demands and personal conversations. It is undoubtedly the calm before the storm. Sooner or later these ills will explode and the Mexican government has not prepared itself to deal with its consequences. The economy will not recover soon, cash transfers to the president’s political clienteles will be insufficient, and the suffering will multiply without control. In contrast with other nations, the Mexican government appears to be petrified in place. The only things where the government appears to be active is in the upcoming media circus and its unwavering focus on the 2021 midterms.
The question is whether the President’s distraction attempt will be enough to discharge him from the responsibility of his poor decisions andhis incompetence in how to conduct public affairs. In such a polarized environment where people are fed up, Mexicans natural cynicism will allow them to enjoy the comedy: nothing like seeing a former President in handcuffs, if the current government is able to achieve it. This will not change however Mexicans’ opinion of a President whose principal promise was to fight corruption, not chaos nor the circus. This is no small difference.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof