miércoles, febrero 22, 2012

Coming Home to Corruption

Coming Home to Corruption
by Maria Pallais /

Mexican authorities fired 10 percent of the federal police force in 2010, in an effort to clean house. / REUTERSMéxico 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 he would never 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 customs or not. He would push a button: if it flashed green, he would be free to go; if red, an official would open 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 cabs.
“There were signs put up by the authorities saying, ‘This cab may be violating the law,’ and, ‘Take only authorized taxis.’ And 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, he admitted.
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.
According to Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index for 2011, Mexico ranked 100, worse than Colombia, Jamaica, Panama and Romania, and down from its position as the 72nd most transparent nation in 2007 and 2008. The non-profit anti-corruption organization ranked Finland the least corrupt country in the world while Somalia and North Korea tied for worst place.
A recent study by the Global Financial Integrity Project, a Washington-based non-profit, estimates conservatively that corruption has cost Mexico some $500 billion over the last decade in illicit outflows of money. The figure does not include the proceeds of the country’s most lucrative criminal enterprises: drug trafficking, kidnapping or smuggling people across the border.
Foreigners are keenly aware of the violent daily battles fueled by organized crime in Mexico — the drug gangs that rule entire neighborhoods and cities, the murders along the border with the United States, the kidnappings that lead wealthy Mexicans to send their children abroad. But underpinning these violent extremes 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 Treviño-Rangel was rediscovering, woven into the fabric of daily life.
His disorienting return home offers a rare window into the gradual erosion of expectations, the mental tricks and the acrobatics of reason, by which millions of citizens in countries the world over grow accustomed to accommodating blatant corruption. So struck was Treviño-Rangel by this mass surrender to the absence of integrity that he coined a name for it — “corruption fatigue syndrome” — when corruption becomes so pervasive in a society that ordinary citizens give in to it rather than fight.

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 one day. A few days later, a “no littering sign” was posted by the authorities, but the bag remained untouched. Since then, whenever pedestrians walk by that spot, they throw garbage, paying no heed to the sign — either in defiance of it, or actually thinking it is the neighborhood garbage dumping grounds.
“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 commented ironically. “I have learnt 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.”
In another corner of Treviño-Rangel’s apartment, there is Skinny Margarita (Margarita la Flaquita), who arrives early every morning in her truck. 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, she’s got the whole street sequestered. At midday, she approaches restaurant owners –her clients–, with whom she has a “private contract,” 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 The Dead One (El Muerto) arrives to take over for the night shift.
“It’s a totally illegal exchange of dealership,” 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. I do tip her for it handsomely,” he confessed, with a complicit smile.
“But, mind you, she and ‘The Dead One’ watch our dark streets with no lampposts at night, a service the city and its police should, but don’t provide.” What’s more, Margarita has personally caught four thieves in five months. “She identified them and called the police immediately,” Treviño-Rangel said.
Buying or renting pirate movies is routine in Mexico. Few people actually rent legitimately. Instead, they buy or rent pirated copies at street corner shops. “All my Mexican friends, including those who are officially human right defenders, full-time activists, see piracy as something absolutely normal. Once, I accompanied one of them to a market to buy pirate movies. He asked for the “original” version. The most contradictory thing I had ever heard: a pirated movie cannot have an original version!”

How Cheating Becomes Normal

Today, six months after his homecoming at Benito Juárez Airport, Treviño-Rangel is no longer angry. Instead, he has become an expert on corruption and, as a sociologist, he identifies three dominant reactions to corruption among Mexicans.
The first group, he said, cheat regularly and don’t know another way of life. The second group–a majority, in Treviño-Rangel’s view–see themselves as bystanders and quietly take advantage of the system whenever they can. Lastly, there are some who feel uncomfortable with corruption and complain about it from time to time, but have concluded they can’t win.
“We have a whole vocabulary that attempts to normalize corruption,” said Treviño-Rangel. “For instance, ‘That is how we do things here. It could be worse. Everybody does it. As long as it does not affect me,’ and so on.”
Mexican humor has contributed to that vocabulary. Take the popular Mexican saying “Hidalgo’s year,” mistakenly traced in the popular imagination to Miguel Hidalgo de Costilla, one of Mexico’s Founding Fathers.
In reality, the phrase has its roots in what one drinker tells another as the bottle of tequila runs down: “Chingue su madre el que deje algo” (loosely translated: damn the one who leaves something behind). And “algo” rhymes with Hidalgo. So, Mexicans apply the phrase to a president’s final year in office, a time when voters expect government employees to steal and leave nothing behind for their successors.
Lo and behold, 2012 is “Hidalgo’s year” for Mexican President Felipe Calderón.
“I have leftist friends who are convinced that (the Mexican system) allows ‘Hidalgo’s year’ and corruption in general, because it is actually an ‘odd way to redistribute wealth,’ far from illegal or corrupt,” commented Treviño-Rangel, shaking his head and staring in disbelief, as if at some absent culprit.
Although he sometimes gets tired of the constant need to insure he is not getting fleeced, Treviño-Rangel does feel at home in México (he had missed the food and the language). Finishing his thesis on Transitional Justice in Mexico, he, too. has succumbed to corruption fatigue syndrome. The sense of helplessness dulls his moral sensitivity, and he suspects, that of his entire nation.
“Our potential response against corruption is gradually destroyed,” Treviño-Rangel said.

Nepotism After the PRI

That sense of resignation was so familiar to José V., a senior civil servant, that it could have filled a line on his job description. At the federal government agency where he worked for over a decade, José found himself surrounded by a web of bribes, kickbacks, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage and embezzlement. Somewhere along the way, familiarity with the backroom deals became a point of pride.
“You take it as a sign of trust from your boss,” José confessed to 100Reporters. Sometimes, José’s boss would rely on underlings to take union officials or others out for a night on the town.
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, a career civil servant, was recently laid off from his government job. “At first I felt upset and betrayed,” he said. Ultimately, though, he seemed resigned to the Wheel of Fortune turning on him. “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.
He now works in the private sector, and contends that despite the pervasive nature of corruption, each individual retains an internal moral compass. “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.”
Alas, the reality is that in Mexico, the Wild West of the XXI Century, a popular saying reigns in most people’s hearts and minds: “El que no transa no avanza” (Whoever doesn’t cheat gets nowhere).
In an informal survey of university students and their parents at a recent social gathering in Mexico City, for instance, nearly all admitted having bribed a transit cop after being “pushed around” on at least one occasion.
In a 2007 survey by the national daily Reforma, 21 percent of Mexicans surveyed said they had paid a bribe in the previous 12 months. Overall, Mexicans ranked their country 6.5 on a 0-10 scale of corruption, up from 6.0 in 2001. The poll confirmed the findings of the World Values Survey that same year, regarding pervasive changes in what people want out of life and what they believe in.

New Faces, Old Ways

In 1977, Sergio Aguayo –today an academic and a writer at the Center for International Studies at El Colegio de México– was a young employee at an important federal ministry.
Shortly after he began work, he showed his boss a list of telephone calls he had made from his office to his wife in Barcelona. He wanted to pay for them, since the calls were personal. His boss told him to drop the issue: “Don’t complicate things for me,” he told Aguayo. “Just forget it. Nobody will notice.” Aguayo left the ministry shortly afterward.
Corruption worsened after elections in 2000 put an end to the 70-year rule of the Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, Aguayo said in a recent interview with 100Reporters. The left-of-center party was defeated by the more conservative National Action Party, or PAN, and the country entered a period of weak democracy.
Edgardo Buscaglia, who investigates the impact of legal and judicial frameworks on economic development for several international organizations in the United States and in Europe, said given the PRI’s longevity, “the state had a much better grip on the system before the PAN won the executive seat, when all control mechanisms crumbled like a house of cards.”
Legislative changes that followed PAN’s ascension to power followed the rules of “crony capitalism” coined by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, an economic model in which the government gives preferential treatment to a privileged few, allowing them to increase their wealth without facing undesirable competition. Crony capitalism in Mexico, as elsewhere, covers favoritism in the distribution of legal permits, government grants, special tax breaks, and other unwritten advantages.
For instance, between 2000 and 2005, Mexico’s 50 most important businesses paid 141 pesos (a little over $10) in annual taxes while someone who made 10,000 pesos a month (less than $1,000), paid 1037 pesos (about $100), Aguayo wrote in his 2007 book, Vuelta en U (U Turn, Taurus Editorial). This means that in one month a middle class worker paid more in taxes than the leading companies did in five years.
“It is offensive but legal,” Aguayo wrote. “What (big companies) do is hire armies of accountants and tax specialists to maximize the opportunities provided by the tax legislation approved by all political parties.”
According to Aguayo, government spending on programs for the poor increased by 45.3 percent during Fox’s term, while tax breaks for the rich doubled. That means, proportionately speaking, that government favored the rich more than the poor.

If slowly and mildly, occasionally corruption does get punished. During the last week of November 2010, for instance, an investigation which began three years ago detected a scheme by 60 people –including 18 judges– that defrauded the state-owned electric company, CFE, of 1.32 billion pesos ($93 million).
Buscaglia considered the case a fluke, and predicted it would not result in convictions. “The absence of a functioning judicial system eliminates major rulings for now,” he argued in a recent interview with 100Reporters.

Silver or Lead

At the end of 2010, the Attorney General’s office in the northern state of Chihuahua declared itself incompetent to investigate 6,000 homicides tied organized crime in Ciudad Juárez. It asked the federal government to intervene, which responded with technicalities and passed the ball back to state authorities. The paralysis is a sign of his country’s “institutional collapse,” Buscaglia said.
The cycle feeds on itself: Paralysis leaves judges and other civil servants vulnerable and fearful, rendering those who operate outside the law yet more powerful.
In 1995, more than half of 900 armed criminal gangs had agents or former agents among them. That same year, 70% of all kidnappings were committed by former police officers. By 2011, the situation was widely believed to have deteriorated. Last year, government called out the military for a recent crackdown on the drug cartels. Police were arrested alongside drug lords.
Today, the police are easily bought, in part because in many cities, they earn even less than street vendors. On the website InSight Crime, Patrick Corcoran, a reporter, observed that in Mexico, “an underpaid officer could double or triple his salary by simply agreeing to look the other way.” A Council on Foreign Relations report argued that police agencies in Mexico “suffer from dangerous and deplorable working conditions, low professional standards, and severely limited resources.”
In fact, police will bribe criminals and extort tourists and have been known to give victims the option of “plata o plomo,” which means they can either accept a bribe or be killed. Often, they work with drug cartels to protect them, and sometimes ignore their reported crimes and do not bother to investigate. At times, they imprison innocent citizens to cover up their dirty work, according to a Criminal Justice Decree Guide report.
Faced with the plethora of corruption scandals surfacing on a near-daily basis in today’s Mexico, one might conclude that purported improvements to civic institutions are little more than tweaks to insure that everything stays the same. And one might be right, according to both Aguayo and Buscaglia.
Aguayo argues that to tackle corruption, Mexico will need “an organized citizen’s group with clear goals and financial resources, and a government willing to risk acting honestly.
“The ideal place is Mexico City and the time, 2012, because elections make opinion-makers more susceptible to pressure,” he said.
Buscaglia’s formula is more radical: the state has to be “professional” again and regain the control it lost to criminal gangs like the drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva, who is now dead. His heirs and colleagues are moving to control the political system behind the scenes, fronting candidates for municipal office and buying politicians, Buscaglia said. They control some of the country’s richest businessmen, who act as “bastard children” of a corrupted system.
Hannah Arendt, writing of Nazi Germany, famously described the ‘banality of evil.” The Holocaust was not so much the work of larger-than-life monsters, she wrote, but of ordinary people becoming inured to monstrous routines. Albeit less catastrophic than the Holocaust, a sort of “banality of evil” also takes place in Mexico, according to Treviño-Rangel.
These days, he sees corruption in his country as a common practice among most individuals, deeper than a strictly bureaucratic or governmental issue.
Unlike Aguayo and Buscaglia, the sociologist believes that corruption becomes endemic through “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,” and who justify it all with commonplace motives like professional ambition or job security.

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