The Mexican Attorney General’s Office has charged a number of accomplished of academics with organized crime and money laundering. Yes, you read that correctly and it is as crazy as it sounds. Just to be clear from the start, they are not accused of being involved with drug trafficking or pocketing money to buy mansions. The accusation relates to one academic program’s support for another academic program.
Organized crime and money laundering are real problems in Mexico. They are impediments to a more prosperous and equitable Mexico. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is known for his campaign against corruption. But what is happening here appears to be something else.
The López Obrador government alleges that one academic institution, CONACYT (the National Council for Science and Technology), used funds to inappropriately support another academic institution, the Foro Consultivo (the Scientific and Technological Consultative Forum). Even if true, it is not clear that a crime has even been committed since CONACYT’s governing documents reportedly mandated it to support the Foro Consultivo.
I don’t know the particulars of academic financing in Mexico and have no opinion about whether or not inappropriate academic financial transfers took place. But let’s look at the supposed crime – organized crime and money laundering – and the penalties they could incur. Does the accusation fit the alleged crime?
The UNODC defines organized crime as, “a continuing criminal enterprise that rationally works to profit from illicit activities…. (and) is maintained through corruption of public officials and the use of intimidation, threats or force to protect its operations.” Global Financial Integrity defines money laundering as, “the process of disguising the proceeds of crime and integrating it into the legitimate financial system.”
In this case, it is reported that CONACYT approved the budgets and expenses of the Foro and that the funds were externally audited. While something may have been inappropriate, it is hard to imagine how a misdeed of this type rises to the level of organized crime or money laundering.
In Mexico, simply being accused of these crimes can result in pretrial detention in a maximum-security prison. The Mexican Attorney General has twice sought arrest warrants for the academics. Twice judges have denied the request.
So what is happening here? Why these outsized charges for leading academics? Along with AMLO’s anti-corruption theme have been austerity measures that have hit public universities hard. The Foro did not just complain about the cuts, they sued the government over austerity related cuts.
Academia is based on challenging ideas. Their research should (and does) challenge the status quo. Threatening academics with a stint in a maximum-security prison is beyond the pale. Fear will keep them from performing their role in society.
The government’s allegations create real fear within the Mexican academic community. Maybe instigating fear is the intent. To silence and ensure compliance.
Unfortunately, this is not over. The Mexican Attorney General has said that he will seek another warrant for the academics. Scaring professors into not criticizing the government will not help Mexico. Organized crime and money laundering are the real problems.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson