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.