Pubdate: Sun, 28 Mar 1999
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Section: Outlook
Page: C1
Copyright: 1999 Houston Chronicle
Author: Sam Quinones


MEXICO CITY -- Mexico, drugs and corruption are again on the agenda,
this being March, when Congress debates Mexico's annual certification
as an ally in the war on drugs.

As usual, some U.S. politicians are calling Mexico corrupt and
unworthy of being certified. But they overlook the causes of Mexican
corruption and the real solutions. Mexico is a weak drug-war ally not
simply because it is corrupt, but also because it lacks strong local
institutions that could form a front against drug trafficking.

Members of Congress throw up their hands when it comes to Mexico.
Their message is always the same: Mexico must "do something about
corruption" -- as if Mexican officials are too simple or nefarious to
know they ought to fire dirty police commanders.

Mexico has been certified every year since the process began in 1986,
largely because America's second-largest trading partner would be in
crisis otherwise. If that happened, Mexico's government would do even
less to fight the corrosive effects of drug trafficking than it does

But Mexico's critics are right: Its government is corrupt from top to
bottom. It is a bad ally.

The certification debate does nothing to change that. It provokes only
cosmetic changes -- the firing of an officer here, the arrest of a
drug lord there. But it could be used to encourage Mexico to make deep
structural reforms that might allow local institutions to thrive.

In Mexico, endemic corruption and anemic political institutions are
inextricably linked. The reason has to do with the nature of the
Mexican regime, led by the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI,
which, at 70, is the world's oldest authoritarian government. Key to
its longevity is its understanding of human nature. The PRI has never
had an ideology. Rather, the PRI has simply bought people's loyalty
like a nationwide Tammany Hall. Its members have been allowed to
wallow in the public trough and break the law with impunity. So, for
instance, thousands of street vendors clog downtown Mexico City
sidewalks because, over the years, the PRI has allowed them to set up
illegally on public property. Instead of paying a permit fee, the
vendors are expected to vote PRI, attend PRI rallies and be a bloc of

In Mexico, corruption is the political lifeblood and part of the
political culture. Annual threats from the U.S. Congress won't change

Meanwhile, the PRI-government -- until recently the two were
indistinguishable -- has done everything for the people. Some people
call it Papa Gobierno -- Father Government. So if poor schoolchildren
need free lunches, the food is prepared in Mexico City and flown or
trucked to far-off provinces. Such measures ensure that only the
PRI-government commands loyalty.

In doing so, the PRI-government systematically has denuded Mexico of
any institutions that could check its power. And thus, today, every
institution that could form a bulwark against the agile and powerful
drug cartels is crippled or inexperienced. Only the central government
has the resources to fight traffickers, but incompetence and
corruption have made it thoroughly ineffective.

Municipal governments, for example, have been underfunded for decades.
They received 4 percent of tax revenues, while the states received 16
percent and the central government retained 80 percent. That formula
improved in 1997, but only slightly.

Thus, most Mexican city governments are paupers. Moreover, they lack
expertise. Each city's administration changes every three years. There
is no civil service. By law, a mayor cannot be re-elected, and
traditionally all his staff leaves with him. All of this breeds
corruption and incompetence.

Nezahualcoyotl, a massive working-class suburb of Mexico City, is a
case in point. PRI ran the city for decades. When the first
opposition-party mayor, Valentin Gonzalez, took over in 1997, he found
that of the 3,000 city workers, 500 did nothing but collect paychecks.
They had been put on the payroll by one local PRI leader or another to
buy their loyalty. (These ghost employees are so common in Mexico that
they have a name: aviadores, aviators, who fly in every two weeks for
their checks.) The water system hadn't been repaired in 25 years, and
roughly half the city's residents paid no taxes.

I recently visited Jorge Cruz, the police chief of Navolato, in the
Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa. Last year Cruz was a high school
chemistry teacher. His 210 officers have 111 pistols and 13 working
patrol cars among them. They are rationed eight bullets a day.

Stories like these are routine. Local governments that cannot pave or
patrol their streets, or plan strategies to attract industry and jobs,
will never become strong allies in fighting drug traffickers.

A narco-culture flourishes in northern Mexico precisely because of
such governmental incompetence. In many areas, the drug runner is the
great social hero. Young children yearn to run drugs, seeing it as the
only route to riches and glory. Meanwhile, the government is often
viewed as a corrupt do-nothing. It's no surprise that some drug lords,
such as Rafael Caro Quintero in Sinaloa, ingratiate themselves with
the local population by stepping into this vacuum and building roads,
health clinics, churches and basketball courts.

PRI paternalism has also withered the civic muscles of Mexico's
business class. In the United States, business executives routinely
volunteer their expertise and connections to raise money for, say, a
new hospital wing or computers in schools. In Mexico, the government
has discouraged business people from civic involvement, wanting to
keep that role for itself.

After years of unaccountable single-party rule, the list of arthritic
Mexican institutions includes the judiciary, prosecutors, the
Congress, state legislatures, the media, charities, grass-roots
groups, unions and the Catholic Church, which was illegal for decades
and is only now finding its social role. Each could be a dike against
the tide of drug smuggling, but isn't. The list of wasted allies in
the drug war should also include the Mexican people, who have learned
to expect solutions only from the government.

Mexico is moving toward modernity and democracy. The United States
should help it along, and not just because it needs Mexico in the drug

In the post-Cold War era, Mexico is becoming our England -- our most
important economic ally. It is becoming the brawn to our brain. As the
world divides into economic blocs, we discover that a key member of
ours has local governments that must ration street lights and bullets.

One solution would be for the PRI to lose the presidency in 2000. For
years, the United States supported the PRI because it guaranteed
tranquillity -- which Americans prized in Latin America during the
Cold War. But the party has bequeathed monumental governmental
deficiencies to Mexico that now also affect the United States.

Mexicans must do what's necessary to reduce corruption and strengthen
local institutions. But U.S. officials can help. Above all, they need
to find a way of speaking to Mexico that focuses on solutions. They
might shift the debate to talk of strengthening local Mexican
governments and devolving powers to municipalities. They might find
ways to visit and help Mexican cities experimenting with new ideas in
local governance. Many of those cities, not coincidentally, are in
northern Mexico, where the influence of the U.S. example is great. The
United States ought to use that example to better effect.

U.S. officials might discuss the need to change Mexican law to allow
re-election -- especially for the Mexican Congress -- as necessary to
fighting the drug war and modernizing government. There will never be
oversight of the sprawling and corrupt federal anti-drug police forces
until Mexico's Congress members have the power and accountability that
comes with re-election.

U.S. officials might spend more time talking to opposition parties.
They should get to know Mexican federal and state legislators. The
U.S. Congress still deals with Mexico as if it were a world away. Key
legislators from both countries should be on a first-name basis.

U.S. officials might look beyond the central government and talk with
business grass-roots groups and churches to look for ways to help
strengthen them.

These must be lasting efforts -- not just taken up every March --
because they will take a long time to accomplish.

Mexico needs more than annual American tantrums. To fight the battles
of the 21st century together, both countries need Mexico to make its
system accountable and modern by reviving its local institutions.
Working for that goal would be a real first step toward doing
something about Mexican corruption.

Quinones, a free-lance journalist based in Mexico City, was a 1998
recipient of an Alicia Patterson fellowship.

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MAP posted-by: Patrick Henry