AMLO Cannot Put a “Final Period” in Mexico’s History of Corruption Without Addressing the Past

The trial and conviction of the notorious drug lord “El Chapo” has shed new light on the rampant corruption that exists at even the highest levels of the Mexican government. To take just a couple of the most startling examples: During the trial, a witness testified that Mexico’s former president Enrique Peña Nieto accepted a $100 million bribe from El Chapo, while another cartel member testified that he paid at least $3 million dollars to the Public Security Secretary of former president Felipe Calderon and at least $6 million dollars to President Calderon’s head of police. In other countries these accusations would have shaken citizens to their very core. But in Mexico, long perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, citizens have sadly grown accustomed to allegations of this nature, and the revelations from the El Chapo trial were met with little more than a shrug.

That doesn’t mean that Mexicans don’t care about corruption. Quite the opposite. Indeed, frustration at this flagrant culture of corruption was one of the key factors that helped Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to capture his constituents’ faith and votes. AMLO has promised to eradicate corruption through a “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico (the previous three were Mexico’s independence from Spain, the liberal reforms of the 1850s, and the 1910-1917 revolution). Yet despite these sweeping promises, AMLO has decided not to investigate the allegations against his predecessors that have emerged in the El Chapo trial. In fact, AMLO’s stance has been not to prosecute any officials for corruption that took place in the past, before he took office. (AMLO has wavered on this position—though only slightly—after receiving backlash during his campaign; he has since stated he would prosecute past corruption offenses only if the administration has no choice due to “internal pressure” from citizens.) AMLO has justified his opposition to investigations and prosecutions of past corruption crimes by using the language suggesting the need for a fresh start. He speaks of a need to put a “final period” on Mexico’s history of corruption, and to “start over” by not focusing the past.

But how can one eradicate corruption by granting numerous “Get Out of Jail Free” cards? AMLO’s support of a de facto amnesty for corrupt ex-Mexican officials’ casts doubt on the seriousness of his pledge to eradicate corruption. Rather than simply saying that it’s time to turn over a new leaf, AMLO should demand accountability for grand corruption, and he should start by ordering a full independent investigation into the veracity of the corruption allegations that came to light during the El Chapo trial.

To understand why it is so important to hold Mexican ex-officials accountable for their past crimes, one must take into account Mexico’s current culture of impunity—a culture in which 97% of all crimes are neither reported nor investigated. According the Global Index of Impunity study conducted by the University of the Americas Puebla in 2018, Mexico has the fourthhighest level of impunity in the world and the highest in the Americas. A lack of a proper investigation into alarming bribe allegations at the highest levels of office would be, and would be seen as, a tacit endorsement of Mexico’s culture of impunity. By contrast, investigating these allegations would send a much-needed message to those in the highest offices that their former ways of doing business are no longer acceptable—indeed, that they were never acceptable.

Moreover, taking these allegations seriously and ordering an independent investigation would help shore up AMLO’s credibility as an anticorruption fighter. Though elected on an anticorruption platform, AMLO’s commitment to this agenda has already been called into question by a number of his early decisions, including his refusal to ensure the independence of the Prosecutor General and his proposal to drastically cut funding for the National Anti-Corruption System (NAS) in the 2019 federal budget. (It might also be worth noting that at least one of AMLO’s associates—a senior adviser to his unsuccessful 2006 presidential campaign—has also been linked to El Chapo bribery allegations, though this associate has vehemently denied the allegations.) Many Mexican citizens have placed their hope in AMLO’s promise to fight corruption, and right now he remains overwhelmingly popular. But if citizens start to see his anticorruption promise as empty, it would further damage citizens’ already minimal trust in the government. Investigating the bribe allegations that arose in El Chapo’s trial would help bolster Mexicans’ trust that AMLO really is taking the country in a new direction.

I understand there are may be legal or policy concerns with suggesting that a President should instruct an autonomous federal prosecutor to investigate a particular crime. But this is not a normal situation. I also recognize that there are arguments for granting immunity, or amnesty, to corrupt officials in certain circumstances. However, none of those arguments are valid in this case. This isn’t a situation in which a grant of immunity is necessary to ensure cooperation with an ongoing investigation, nor a case where an amnesty would help smooth a transfer of power or deflect otherwise insurmountable or destabilizing resistance to major anticorruption reforms (as was arguably the case in Hong Kong back when it reformed its anticorruption system in the late 1970s). AMLO’s political party, Morena, has control over both houses of congress, so political resistance is not an issue for him. And while some have suggested that sometimes a “truth commission” approach could be preferable to prosecution in dealing with past systemic corruption, Mexico already took a more reconciliatory approach when it adopted the NAS in 2016; the NAS gave forms of leniency for disclosure of violations, but no action has been taken since, and in fact the NAS’s reforms have yet to be fully implemented.

In a country where virtually all crimes go uninvestigated or unreported, an investigation into the El Chapo bribery accusations would at the very least be a firm first step into eradicating decades of inaction and corruption by not giving de facto impunity to corrupt politicians. Only through an investigation into these alarming allegations can Mexico truly put a “final period” on its history of corruption.

8 thoughts on “AMLO Cannot Put a “Final Period” in Mexico’s History of Corruption Without Addressing the Past

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful, cogent argument as to why the AMLO administration should support the investigation, and possible prosecution, of grand corruption offenses committed in prior administrations.

    While your arguments are strong, I think I have somewhat more sympathy for AMLO’s stated position than you do, for two related reasons:

    First, as a practical matter, I think you might dismiss too quickly the possibility that granting a kind of de facto amnesty might be helpful in mitigating, as you put it, otherwise insurmountable or destabilizing resistance to major anticorruption reforms. True, AMLO’s party has legislative supermajorities, but that doesn’t mean that pressing for prosecutions of past corruption might not trigger significant opposition. After all, the Hong Kong precedent that you mention involved a political system that wasn’t even democratic, so the issue wasn’t that resistance to a corruption crackdown would prevent the Governor-General from pushing through other legislative reforms. I don’t know the Mexican case well enough to know whether this is in fact a serious concern there. I mean only to suggest that it can’t just be dismissed out of hand. If it’s really true the corruption has been pervasive among the Mexican elite for generations, then any attempt to hold all corrupt actors criminally accountable would likely trigger substantial resistance.

    Second, one of the attractive features of AMLO’s position is that it avoids the common accusation that post-election anticorruption crackdowns are really about punishing political rivals. The perception that anticorruption is politicized is a constant threat to the legitimacy of anticorruption efforts, and can breed public cynicism. If the AMLO administration were to go after Pena Nieto or others from his government, I would imagine that many would accuse AMLO of acting out of partisan motives (especially if many suspect that AMLO and his associates were themselves implicated in the rotten system for many years, whatever he may be doing and saying now). By declaring that he has no interest in going after Pena Nieto and others in previous administrations, mightn’t AMLO be credibly signaling that his anticorruption campaign is not about punishing political enemies?

    Of course, neither of these arguments gets much traction if AMLO doesn’t accompany his opposition to investigating and prosecuting past corruption with genuine, credible, and effective measures to combat present and future corruption. And your point that his action, or inaction, on this front so far may also be cause for concern. But let’s assume for the moment that, over the next couple of years, the AMLO administration comes down hard on corrupt schemes that began after, or continued into, AMLO’s presidency. Under those circumstances, it seems to me there might be benefits to AMLO’s hands-off approach to corruption in previous administrations, and those benefits could in principle be high enough to outweigh the costs that you persuasively lay out in your post.

    I suspect you disagree, and you know much more about the Mexican case than I do, so I’d be very interested in your response.

    • Thanks for the great discussion. One of the main reasons many in academia and civil society in Mexico insisted on having independent prosecutors was precisely to avoid injecting politics into prosecutorial decisions. Unfortunately, as the author notes, AMLO chose a different course, so the discussion now is whether HIS decision not to prosecute was a good one or not, when ideally it should never have been up to him. In any case, I tend to agree with the author that there should be an investigation of at least some of the accusations that surfaced in the Guzmán trial.

    • Thank you so much for your insightful points, Professor. Below is my response to both of your points:

      First, I agree that it might trigger resistance if he were to attempt to hold politicians accountable (I must admit I am not very knowledgable on this topic, but I will respond based on my limited experience). But, AMLO is already currently experiencing resistance for many of his proposals since they are viewed as controversial. For instance, when he tried to slash the salary of the Mexican Supreme Court Chief Justice he initially received significant resistance from the Court. I don’t think that experiencing resistance from those that know they would be punished because they are corrupt is a strong enough downfall to prevent him to do it; I just don’t think it would cause enough destabilization to warrant him from abstaining. I must caveat however that drug cartel’s and political corruption are so intertwined, that it might lead to more violence if he were to focus on Cartel leaders and not Political leaders. But, Mexico is already experiencing the highest homicide rate since it began keeping record, so something needs to be done to break this corruption link and I do not think some resistance from the opposite party warrants him to keep his arms crossed with no action.

      Second, I would agree with this point if Mexico were a two party system like the United States, a current weak democracy, or if AMLO was the first non-PRI President to win after the 70 year PRI rule. However, that is not the case. If Mexico were a two party system like in the U.S., were they alternated more often than not each presidential terms among both parties and then tried to prosecute the previous president from the opposing party for corruption, then that would be more in tune with prosecuting political enemies. But, AMLO’s party, the Morena Party, is only four years old and one of many political parties. Two parties have controlled the Presidency in recent years, the PAN and the PRI, and AMLO has lost to both of them in previous presidential runs. Therefore, unlike other presidencies, my take is that in Mexico Peña Nieto is not really viewed as AMLO’s “political enemy.” Traditionally, everyone in the establishment was perceived to be AMLO’s “enemy” or more accurately people he did not agree with, which is why the Mexican population voted for him. They were fed up with the establishment and hoped that he would finally hold them accountable. Which is why it is a disappointment that he has chosen not to prosecute.

      I hope this helps. Thank you again.

  2. It is something more informed, as well as interesting from the conventional outlook of corruption against actual ‘Corruption’, which is not covered by any political doctrine.
    Context is the development of the Mexican Presidential promising attempt to eradicate corruption happened in the past ruling-power. Investigation, prosecution, legal defense, etc. is the right democratic pathway to determine a corrupt. In following these process, 80% corrupt cases are faced impunity due to major legal complications created. But when it is a case of big political power, especially of US-favored power-personified, the case is considered as different sense in discussion, which is most unfortunate motive of anti-corruption movement even.
    I think, the fight against corruption is a specified political game itself, nothing else.

  3. Asseret, thanks for this great post. As you allude to when you mention the “truth commission” approach above, one thing your post reminds me of is the peace/justice debate that’s common in the transitional justice literature. AMLO’s approach, as you describe it, seems to want to sacrifice some justice for more clean institutions, just as “justice” is sometimes seen as the necessary tradeoff to attain peace in some post-conflict societies. There’s been no resolution to that debate in the literature as far as I know, except to say that preferred outcomes are highly dependent on context. You’ve made a persuasive case that the Mexican case demands more justice. I hope then that AMLO delivers.

    Additionally, one thing I wanted to ask you about is whether you have any sense of how serious AMLO was in his anticorruption rhetoric. As Professor Stephenson writes above, there may be persuasive reasons to deprioritise prosecuting past corrupt acts, but as you’ve laid out, it’s perhaps more worrisome that AMLO seems to be stymying investigations of current or ongoing corruption as well. What are we to make of this? Was his anticorruption rhetoric merely a cynical political ploy, a la Bolsonaro in Brazil or Trump in the U.S. (drain the swamp?)? Or is he just ramping up and we just have to be patient as results are on their way. Would be curious to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

    • Hi Jason, thank you so much for your comment!

      Unlike, Bolsonaro or Trump, AMLO’s anticorruption rhetoric was quite genuine. This was his third presidential campaign and he has always been viewed as the candidate of the people, because he has been really focused on being anti-establishment and anti-corruption. That is why he promised a Fourth Transformation of Mexico and to his credit he has done much in his first 100 days to demonstrate his genuine effort. For instance, he slashed his own salary and denounced every presidential benefit, even selling the presidential plane. He got rid of secret service and drives his own Jetta because he thinks that money should be better spent funding social programs.

      I hope this helps!

  4. Asserat, very interesting perspective. You talk about sending “a much-needed message to those in the highest offices that their former ways of doing business are no longer acceptable—indeed, that they were never acceptable.” I hear your point loud and clear on the need for reform and persecuting corruption, but I also wonder whether it is feasible or practical to prosecute people for past crimes. Corrupt behavior is never acceptable, but if it was an entrenched and widespread practice, then where do you stop with the persecution? By creating grounds for politicians to selectively persecute their rivals and enemies, would that achieve the desired outcomes? I see the argument for a clean break from the past, and I wonder if AMLO’s commitment is better measured by a crackdown on crime and corruption undertaken after he was elected. Would be curious to hear if and how he has lived up to his promise of stopping further corruption.

    • Hi Disha, thank you so much for your comment!

      I understand that it would be futile to prosecute every single instance of past corruption. However, I am not saying he should focus his efforts on every single instance of past corruption that he can find. I am simply saying that he should prosecute the corruption allegations that were shed during the Chapo trial since it occurred during his presidency. Not investigating those allegations is contributing to the culture of impunity. Also, as I responded to Professor Stephenson’s post above, there is not really a perception of Pena Nieto as AMLO’s political rival. In that instance it is not as clear as the Republican and Democratic divide. AMLO has traditionally been viewed as being anti-establishment, so prosecuting Pena Nieto for corruption would be expected due to his continued decade long anti-establishment stance, and it would not be generally viewed as a political ploy.

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