Corruption in Mexico under AMLO: Lessons from an Interview With Dr. Jose Ivan Rodriguez-Sanchez

In July 2018, Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) won the Mexican presidential election in a landslide. AMLO campaigned on the promise to transform Mexican society, and his pledge to curb corruption was among the most prominent planks of his platform. Yet although AMLO remains very popular with the Mexican public (his approval rating at his 100-day mark in March 2019 was above 80% in some polls), many Mexican anticorruption experts are less enthusiastic.

I’ve offered my own reasons for skepticism about AMLO’s approach to fighting corruption in prior posts (see here and here), but to try to better understand some of the reasons why Mexican anticorruption specialists are critical of the AMLO administration, I interviewed one of those specialists, Dr. Jose Ivan Rodriguez-Sanchez, a Mexican scholar currently based at the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Dr. Rodriguez-Sanchez, whose recent publications include Measuring Mexico’s Corruption and Corruption in Mexico, shared his view of the biggest concerns regarding the AMLO administration’s approach to corruption. What follows is my translation from our conversation (which took place in Spanish), with some paraphrasing and condensation for clarity.

Dr. Rodriguez-Sanchez highlighted five criticisms of the AMLO administration’s anticorruption policies:

  • First, AMLO’s decision not to prosecute former officials for past corruption sends many unfortunate messages to Mexican citizens. First, AMLO seems unaware that he is sending a message that he might have negotiated with these past corrupt officials in exchange for their support. Second, while it is true that it can be expensive for the government to carry out these prosecutions, this cost would have a very real benefit of sending a message to Mexicans of his true commitment to change the corrupt system. Most Mexicans are more interested in knowing what punishment corrupt politicians will receive. Third, the decision not to prosecute those who violated the law sends a very authoritarian message because AMLO seems to be implying that he does not care about what the law says. The Mexican Constitution states that by law he needs to investigate these crimes—it is not up to him. Mexico also has a duty under the UN Convention Against Corruption, which Mexico has ratified, to take action against those who have engaged in corruption. The fact that AMLO is choosing not to prosecute these crimes of corruption is sending negative messages, not only to the people of Mexico, but also to the world.
  • Second, AMLO has decided to create a National Guard as a response to police corruption. But instead of creating a new National Guard, AMLO should focus on police reform, which he had promised to do in the first place. He didn’t follow through on this promise because a National Guard is a faster remedy. At the very least, the National Guard must that it be temporary; otherwise it will be too powerful. It’s also important that the National Guard be led by a civilian rather than by military personnel, in order to avoid solidifying the militarization of public security in Mexico. Soldiers are not trained to carry out police duties. The police are better equipped to tackle the surge of violence; therefore there should be a focus on police reform instead. Mexican police have their own codes of ethics and laws. If a police officer acts corruptly, the police needs to investigate it and punish it. However, the problem is that there is impunity inside the police, and they have not issued the punishments that can help fight corruption. AMLO should focus on using the laws that already exist and reforming the police. Police reform includes recruiting better people, making sure they take are assessed for honesty and evaluated frequently. Police also need better salaries, because their current salaries are so low that they are easily susceptible to corruption by the cartels. The police also are few in number, and fear that they might be killed and have no one to protect them makes it easier for them to be corrupted as well.
  • Third, AMLO’s decision to slash public sector wages is politically correct, but in practice the decision has been counterproductive. The salary cuts have caused many to flee to the private sector, forcing the government to hire replacements who are not as well-trained or prepared. Lower salaries also increase the incentives for corruption, because public servants have a lot to do, but very little pay. The AMLO administration should have instead independently investigated and punished public sector employees who were actually corrupt. Punishing everyone is unfair because there are many people who were not corrupt and deserved their previous salaries.
  • Fourth, AMLO created super-delegates, powerful federal officials responsible for coordinating and implementing government programs and plans at the state level. Rather than the governor of each state receiving funds for their states, super-delegates now receive those funds and decide how to use the money. Though this was meant to combat corruption, instead the new system has given super-delegates both too much power and strong incentives to behave corruptly. The super-delegates are the ones personally handing the money to the people in each state, which means they can position themselves to run for governor of that state since people will have a personal connection to them. This is a conflict of interest, which AMLO does not seem to have recognized.
  • Fifth, though AMLO said he was going to sweep from top to bottom to combat corruption, he first he needs to learn how to sweep to get rid of corrupt individuals. I do believe that AMLO wants to combat corruption and that he has good intentions, but he simply does not implement this well. For example, AMLO’s fight against huachicoleros (petroleum thieves) illustrates the broader flaws of his approach: He temporarily shut down several of the nation’s main pipelines and caused a negative impact on the Mexican economy. AMLO accused the director of the energy regulator of having a conflict of interest—but without any evidence. Rather than come out strongly against certain people, it is more important that AMLO actually conduct investigations through the correct autonomous institutions. AMLO also needs to respect institutions to investigate. He needs to give them autonomy and not interfere. If AMLO continues to not believe in these institutions and tries to make all of the decisions, Mexico is going to have an authoritarian government. One of AMLO’s main faults is that he is not critical of himself; he needs to start thinking before he acts.”

2 thoughts on “Corruption in Mexico under AMLO: Lessons from an Interview With Dr. Jose Ivan Rodriguez-Sanchez

  1. Agree with most points, but the administration has not instituted the policy of punto final and is investigating Odebrect, Estafa Maestra and other cases from the past (Proceso from May 10). Piece also fails to mention freezing assets of officials involved in huachicolero by Financial unit of Treasury and series of reforms in Funcion Publica including recent agreement with UN Office of Drugs and Crime. Just 5 months in and not everyone is this critical.

  2. Respectfully, I have different view than Mr Rodriguez, and evidence starts to show.:

    First, AMLO’s comments on not prosecuting former corrupt officials. That is a proper stance for a president, prosecuting is job is for the Judicial Branch and District Attorney(s) , president should let them do their job, without interference from the Executive. Fact : several former high ranked officials and associates have started to fall ( Rosario Robles, Juan Collado, Emilio Lozoya, etc, etc)

    “Second, AMLO has decided to create a National Guard using all available military police, with a more serve and protect profile, complementing with screened military and federal police personal. Creating new, trained, vast force is a much better that reforming an old force that is corrupt infiltrated, small, poorly trained, Fact Guard has been, created and deployed with good starting results.

    “Third, AMLO’s decision to slash public sector wages is politically, economically, reasonably correct. It is important to note this cut was just to high end top officials, considered to be too many, too highly paid, extremely Inefficient and insatiably corrupt. High end officials were being paid more than their government counterparts in the US or Europe, even higher that Private sector managers or directors in Latin America. Fact: Reform was passed on this matter, some high end officials still resist. Many redundant and unnecessary high paid directors and sub-director positions created under previous administrations were canceled. Middle and low official wages were not touched.

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