Corruption scandals in the administrations of three outgoing governors have once again highlighted the need for Mexican authorities to undertake serious efforts to tackle corruption. If Mexico’s recently approved anticorruption legislation is to have any substance, President Peña Nieto must effectuate the law, and ideally start with bringing three corrupt governors to justice.
“Every day I grow more convinced and decided to battle corruption,” affirmed President Enrique Peña Nieto on July 18 during the executive approval of Mexico’s National Anti-Corruption System. The President’s remarks came across as imperative in a country, where corruption is present in virtually every sphere of public life. But if President Peña Nieto is truly determined to be championed as the anti-corruption crusader he claims to be, his administration should undertake serious efforts to investigate and prosecute the outgoing governors of three states. These three are accused of widespread financial mismanagement, illicit enrichment, and wide-ranging frauds.
Corruption allegations reach the national spotlight
As a result of increased access to information by Mexico’s think tanks and NGOs, serious inconsistencies and frauds in the administrations of the states of Chihuahua, Quintana Roo and Veracruz have been showcased in the national media this year. The three governors of these federal states belong to President Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In all three cases, the PRI lost the statehouses during the latest electoral contest in early June. In the cases of Quintana Roo and Veracruz, the PRI lost the states’ election for the first time in Mexico’s democratic history.
In the northern state of Chihuahua, a prominent activist group accused state authorities of injecting roughly MX$80,000 million (approximately USD$4.4 billion) to a private financial consortium, which needed to raise capital to consolidate as a regional bank. Allegedly, this happened with the consent of the governor. It was later revealed that the governor was slated to become a shareholder of the eventual bank. The issue has raised concerns over massive transfers of public funds for private interests in this heavily indebted state.
In the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, the current administration has been under intense scrutiny following reports about a series of frauds resulting in the seizure of houses, luxury apartments, buildings and lands along the prosperous Quintana Roo coast. Authorities from the state’s Labor Board with a public notary and the Public Registry have staged express labor trials that have resulted in substantial compensations. Furthermore, they have unilaterally seized properties to allegedly pay for said compensations. In most cases, no prior notifications of the trial were sent to the property owners. Moreover, people associated to Quintana Roo’s governor have since purchased the seized properties at prices substantially below the market.
In the oil-rich, coastal state of Veracruz, outgoing governor Javier Duarte’s administration was found to have vanished at least MX$645 million of federal funds to perform public works or social assistance programs through a network of shell companies. This is only the latest episode in a long history of corruption scandals for Duarte, who has been accused of widespread financial mismanagement in the past. During his administration, Veracruz’s public debt has ballooned 13-fold, while public security has deteriorated sharply. 18 journalists have been killed or gone missing since 2010, making this state one of the deadliest places for journalists in Mexico and the Americas.
Reprisals and Prospects for Prosecution
Following elections in June, the three governors embarked on legislative processes at the state level in an attempt to shield themselves from investigation and prosecution once they leave office in November. Soon afterwards, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office filed a constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court to block said legislation at the state level, raising hopes that federal authorities may indeed be serious about bringing the governors to justice.
Since these scandals reached the national spotlight, the Federal Tax Authority and the Attorney General’s Office opened 34 and 32 investigations respectively against members of the current administration in Veracruz. Meanwhile, federal authorities have committed to investigate those implicated in the seizure of properties in Quintana Roo. In Chihuahua, civil society leaders are embroiled in a legal battle to block the outgoing governor from acquiring further debt before leaving office.
Federal authorities cannot afford to turn a blind eye on these corruption scandals given the crisis of rule of law and accountability confronting Mexico. Furthermore, increased involvement from civil society leaders and NGOs has made it costlier for the government to simply ignore these allegations, as has often been done in the past. In this regard, it is important to note that activists and think tanks were deeply involved in the drafting of the bylaws of the recently approved National Anticorruption System. They can be expected to demand that the cases of these governors are thoroughly investigated.
Facing record low approval ratings, President Peña Nieto would be wise to adopt a firm stance against the outgoing governors, even if this comes at the expense of fragmenting his own party. Moreover, bringing the governors to justice will send the message that Peña Nieto is indeed serious about battling corruption. It will partially restore some of his lost credibility, a move that will ultimately benefit the image of his administration and his own party.