Coming Home to Corruption

Mexican authorities fired 10 percent of the federal police force in 2010, in an effort to clean house. / REUTERS

México City – Javier Treviño-Rangel, a doctoral candidate in sociology, landed at Benito Juárez Airport here after five years in London, and found himself greeted by an old friend he had hoped never to see again: corruption.

No sooner had the 33-year-old scholar retrieved his luggage than he felt “back in the country where surrealism is real life.” A set of lights controlled whether his bags would sail past a luggage inspection or not. He would push a button: if it flashed green, he’d be free to go; if red, an official would rummage through his suitcases.

“The perfect metaphor for the rule of law in Mexico: it is determined by the Wheel of Fortune!” Treviño-Rangel said, still fuming at the memory.

Outside the airport, as he searched for a ride home, Treviño-Rangel found a jarring contrast to Heathrow’s organized system of dispatching London taxicabs.

“There were signs put up by the authorities saying, ‘This cab may be violating the law,’ and, ‘Take only authorized taxis.’ Then I found that one of the authorized cabs’ sites charged almost double what the other one did,” Treviño-Rangel said.

It was “Kafkaesque: What is official can also be illegal; what is authorized may be violating the law,” he added.

The young sociologist had grown unaccustomed to the Mexican capital’s ways after his years at the London School of Economics. Weeks after his return, Treviño-Rangel said, “I realized I had become oversensitive to my country’s disorganized and corrupted culture.” He felt paranoid, convinced that everyone he met was angling to swindle him.

Foreigners are keenly aware of the violent battles fueled by organized crime in Mexico — the drug gangs that rule entire neighborhoods and cities, the murders along the United States border, the kidnappings that lead wealthy Mexicans to send their children abroad.

But beyond these headline crimes are the quieter, myriad daily forms of dishonesty that corrode the lives of average citizens: The bribes that must be paid, the pirated products that are freely bought and sold by upstanding citizens, the unrelenting moral compromises Trevino-Rangel was rediscovering, woven into the fabric of daily life.

Indeed, Mexico shows a great deal of tolerance towards corruption. A 2009 investigation by the Organization of American States and the United Nations Development Program reports that Mexico’s political system fosters corruption, and people go along in the hope that they, too, will benefit from a lack of transparency. The report, which analyzed 18 Latin American democracies, found a consensus that corruption is endemic in Latin America, although less so than in Africa, Southeast Asia and Southeastern Europe.

So struck was Treviño-Rangel by this mass surrender to the absence of integrity that he coined a name for it–“corrruption fatigue syndrome”–when corruption becomes so pervasive in a society that ordinary citizens give in to it rather than fight.

The arbitrary document check: how police in much of the world raise low base salaries. / REUTERS

Taking Care of Business

Treviño-Rangel has to look no farther than the street outside his window to see a map of corruption’s daily workings.

On one corner, he recalled, someone dropped a bag of cement. A few days later, a “No Littering” sign was posted by the authorities. But the bag remained untouched. Since then, whenever pedestrians walk by, they throw garbage, paying no heed to the sign — either in defiance of it, or actually thinking it is the neighborhood dumping ground.

“In order for the official garbage truck driver to take the bag of cement away, he has to be tipped. It is heavy after all,” Treviño-Rangel said with exagerrated deference. “I have learned to keep my garbage at home until he shows up, at which point I take it out myself and hand to him with a tip, of course.”

On another corner, Margarita la Flaquita (Skinny Margarita) arrives early every morning. She is the self-appointed supervisor in charge of barricading public parking spaces with heavy containers and cans of different sorts, so that people not authorized by Margarita and her gang are unable to park.

In one hour, Margarita has sequestered the whole street. At midday, she approaches restaurant owners -her clients- with whom she has “private contracts,” so that when customers arrive in their fancy cars, the valet has a place to park their vehicles.

Margarita leaves promptly at 7 p.m., at which point El Muerto (The Dead One) arrives to take over for the night shift.

“It’s totally illegal,” Treviño-Rangel told 100Reporters.

Asked why he and his neighbors accept it, he answered, “We tolerate her and her gang because, for instance, when my friends come to visit, Margarita provides them with a safe parking space, free of charge.

“Well, almost free,” he confessed, with a complicit smile. ” I do tip her for it handsomely.”

[su_column size=”1-2″ last=”0″ style=”0″]With lampposts broken – and no one in the government fixing them, El Muerto stands guard over  the streets at night. Margarita personally called the police on four thieves in five months, Treviño-Rangel said.

Six months after his homecoming at Benito Juárez Airport, Treviño-Rangel is no longer angry. Instead, he has become an expert on corruption, and has identified three dominant reactions to it among Mexicans.[/su_column]

[su_column size=”1-2″ last=”1″ style=”0″][su_box title=”The Tricks of Language”]Not just people’s attitudes, but their language and humor accomodate corruption, like vines around a tree. Read more at Laughing ‘Til it Hurts[/su_box][/su_column]

The first are those who cheat regularly and don’t know another way of life. A second group–a majority, in his view–see themselves as bystanders and quietly take advantage of the system when they can. Lastly, there are some who feel uncomfortable with corruption, complain about it from time to time, but have concluded they can’t win.

New Party, Old Tricks

That sense of resignation was so familiar to José V., a senior civil servant, it could have occupied a line on his job description. At the federal government agency where he worked for over a decade, José found himself surrounded by bribes, kickbacks, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage and embezzlement. In fact, familiarity with backroom deals became a point of pride – and job advancement.

Sometimes, José’s boss would rely on underlings to take union officials or others out for a night on the town. “You take it as a sign of trust from your boss,” José said to 100Reporters.

Jose recalled when “Martita” (Martha Sahagún, former president Vicente Fox’s wife), who was legendary for her lavish jewelry, designer outfits and quietly tough nature, would ring up his boss. In exceptionally polite Mexican style, she would tell him to either hire or fire someone. “It was an order. No questions asked.”

José was recently laid off from his job, but took the loss philosophically. “I got hired as a professional, not a politician, but they had to let me go so that a politician could take over my post,” he said.

Each person, he said, decides where to draw the line.. “You have to accept it and go along with it many times,” he said, “but you don’t necessarily have to incorporate into your personal life.”

At a recent gathering of university students and their parents in Mexico City, nearly all admitted having bribed a transit cop after being “pushed around” on at least one occasion. Those little bribes can add up to big money. A recent study by the Global Financial Integrity Project, a Washington-based non-profit, estimates that corruption has cost Mexico some $500 billion over the last decade in illicit outflows of money. That’s without even counting the country’s most lucrative criminal enterprises: drug trafficking, kidnapping or smuggling people across the border.

[su_column size=”1-2″ last=”0″]Corruption worsened after elections in 2000 put an end to the 70-year rule of the Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, and the country entered a period of weak democracy, said Sergio Aguayo, a writer at the Center for International Studies at El Colegio de Mexico. Once PRI lost its iron grip, an era of “crony capitalism” was ushered in. For instance, between 2000 and 2005, Mexico’s 50 leading businesses paid a little over $10 in taxes a year, while a person earning less than $1000 a month faced a tax bill of $100 a month, according to Aguayo’s research.[/su_column]

[su_column size=”1-2″ last=”1″][su_box title=”The Legacy of Little Kings”] Historians trace Mexico’s persistent corruption to the Spanish colonial era, to kings intent on controlling their far-flung holdings, and viceroys who took themselves for local lords. Read more in Blame the Past.[/su_box][/su_column]

Mexico’s institutional collapse?

Occasionally corruption gets noticed. In November 2010, a three-year investigation detected a scheme by 60 people -including 18 judges- to defraud the state-owned electric company, CFE, of $93 million. Yet, no convictions have been forthcoming, and may never. The case has been kicked back and forth between state and federal authorities – a sign of the country’s non-functioning judiciary that only gives criminals more leeway.

Moreover, it’s hard to who is lawful and who is not. Last year, when the government called out the military to crack down on the drug cartels, police were arrested alongside drug lords.

In many cities, police earn less than street vendors. They can double or triple their earnings by simply agreeing to look the other way. A Council on Foreign Relations report argues that Mexican police “suffer from dangerous and deplorable working conditions, low professional standards, and severely limited resources.”

Police will bribe criminals and shake down tourists. They have been known to give victims the option of “plata o plomo,” silver or lead: pay or die with a bullet. They have been found to work with drug cartels, fail to investigate reported crimes and imprison innocent citizens to cover up their dirty work, according to a Criminal Justice Decree Guide report.

Some argue that the only way for corruption to end is for citizens to fight back. Aguayo, the academic, argues that “Mexico will need “an organized citizens’ group with clear goals and financial resources, and a government willing to risk acting honestly.” The upcoming 2012 Mexico City elections provide an opportunity for change because, he said, “elections make opinion-makers more susceptible to pressure.”

That may be a tall order given how commonplace corruption has become, said Treviño-Rangel. The problem lies in “people with ordinary human qualities: people who don’t really grasp the immorality of what they are doing or seeing; people who do the same things their peers are doing.”

Maria L. Pallais

Maria L. Pallais

Maria L. Pallais, a member of 100Reporters, has worked as a writer and editor for Vision, a reporter for the Associated Press, an assistant field producer for CBS/60 Minutes, a correspondent for the CNN World Report, a stringer for El País, and chief international editor for Notimex, the Mexican news agency.
Maria L. Pallais

Latest posts by Maria L. Pallais (see all)


  1. Most of Mexicans I know have developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with corruption, they make jokes about it and this phenomenon repeats itself throughout Latin América, is like if we are in love with the “modus operandi” because is easier, cheaper, faster and on top, is funny; you know, a few bucks and the problem will disappear, the knot will be untied and you will be free to continue with your business. Of course this way of thinking and behavior are unacceptable and the negative ethical implications are evident, we can not give up in the search of order, because  the many of us who cannot reconcile ourselves to the idea that honesty and morality has no future, still hope to overcome the multitude of difficulties that besiege us, such as the dramatic and even tragic nature of our political structures, where instead of moving ahead toward doing away with corruption, we have become like rabbits transfixed before a boa constrictor.