Overregulation of government activity, including state economic activity, provides ample opportunities for corruption at all levels. Paradoxically, even the system put in place to deal with corruption under the Secretaría de la Función Pública (SFP), or comptroller general, has increased the opportunities to engage in it. In order to enhance transparency and efficiency at the public sector level, in 2008 the government launched a national contest to identify "the most useless procedure." While efforts like these are critical to enhancing the participation of citizens in public affairs and holding public officials accountable, the government's agenda on transparency is still not comprehensive or effective enough to adequately cut red tape and the attendant petty corruption.
Federal law mandates annual asset declarations for officeholders and bureaucrats, but this mechanism is not enough to sever the connection between public office and private gain, which remains a strong feature of Mexico's political culture. Civil servants themselves determine whether their asset disclosures can be made public, and a majority chooses not to release them, sometimes arguing that such personal information could make them targets for kidnappers. The SFP is supposed to check all declarations, but in reality it does not have the capacity to verify the data of hundreds of thousands of civil servants. Officials can also make use of devices like offshore bank accounts to hide bribes and contracting kickbacks, practices that seem to be rather common. Between sophisticated techniques, judicial corruption, and the political calculations involved in investigation and prosecution, when it comes to the prosecution of high-level politicians and the military, impunity is the most likely result. Despite widespread suspicion of corruption within upper echelons of government, the last top official to be convicted on criminal charges was former governor Mario Villanueva in 2001.
Mexico has signed and ratified various international conventions related to battling graft. Even though the OECD has found that Mexico has taken effective steps to educate government and private business officials on corruption in international business transactions, the country's score in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index was a mere 3.6 out of 10, representing no improvement since 2003.
In the last 10 years, Mexico has begun to develop institutions to address corruption and transparency, including the SFP and the Federal Superior Auditor's office (ASF), which is overseen by Congress. These institutions have considerable independence and allow civic participation in the pursuit of government transparency. In 2008, a plan was assembled to give preventative power to federal administrators aimed at strengthening processes of identification and investigation of corruption; improving coordination among public agencies; and enhancing the participation of citizens in anticorruption matters. Public sector whistleblowers have an adequate protection system, but this is not necessarily the case for those employed in the private sector. The same institutional weaknesses that contribute to high levels of corruption, such as the lack of coordination between the courts and other justice-sector institutions, prevent corruption victims from receiving adequate redress.
Since 1997, the Tax Administration Service (SAT) has combated tax evasion and related acts of corruption, producing encouraging results. Over the last five years, there have been 4,056 denunciations that resulted in the removal of 1,567 public officials. Moreover, the perception of graft among SAT officials has declined by 55 percent since 2002. However, problems persist, as the SAT's chief officer acknowledged at a recent congressional hearing. He said that around 70 percent of the SAT's personnel hold positions that are susceptible to corruption, and that most problems occur at customs.
Allegations of official corruption are rarely investigated or prosecuted without prejudice. The exception has been President Calderón's bold move to tackle corruption in the federal police forces, the defunct PFP and the AFI, as part of his counternarcotics campaign. Since 2007, the government has suspended more than 280 officers, including commanders from all 31 states. Investigators arrested the former chief of the federal anti–organized crime unit for allegedly accepting US$450,000 from drug cartels in return for information and arrested or fired 35 members of an elite antidrug unit accused of spying for the cartels. The Mexican media frequently reports on corruption scandals. However, Mexico's status as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the Americas, combined with the concentration of media outlets in a few business groups, creates multiple constraints that render inconsistent the media's usefulness as a bulwark against corruption.
Mexico has taken important steps to improve access to information, including the passage of an internationally respected law on the matter in 2002 and the creation of an independent body to oversee its implementation, the Federal Institute for Access to Information (IFAI). Citizens have the right to access basic government records, and there are effective means to petition government agencies for public information; the IFAI has developed INFOMEX, an online system for soliciting information. However, access to information in the executive branch is easier and faster than in the legislature and judiciary, where requests can take over a year to process.
Congress can amend the federal budget, and there is a separate legislative committee and two commissions that provide oversight of public funds. In practice, however, several problems affect transparency during the budget-making process. For example, the oversight panels, which are subject to political interference, rarely initiate independent investigations into financial irregularities. Mexico's ranking on the Open Budget Index for 2008 is 54 out of 85, placing it in the group of countries that provide "some" information about the budget-making process.
The federal government has a legal duty to publicly announce the results of procurement decisions and regulations. However, in practice, important information on public spending is not published in a detailed and accurate manner, especially with respect to the use of multimillion-dollar trust funds known as fideicomisos.
Major procurements require open and competitive bidding. There is also a legal framework for unsuccessful bidders to instigate an official review of procurement decisions. The web-based Compranet system allows public access to procurement rules and contracts within a reasonable time period, and the information can be organized by sector, agency, tender number, and date. International donors, such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), have accepted the use of Compranet for national and international bidding in IDB-financed projects in Mexico. Foreign assistance is managed by the foreign ministry, or Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (SRE). Following disastrous flooding in the states of Tabasco and Chiapas in 2007, the SRE and the UN Disaster Assessment in Mexico established the Information Management Center to improve the coordination and monitoring of foreign aid. This represents an important step toward fairness and proper administration of such assistance.
- In order to promote policy continuity and encourage accountability to voters, Mexico should end the ban on immediate reelection of legislators.
- Mexico should rely more on institutional reform than military pressure to combat organized crime. The bulk of resources dedicated to the war against organized crime should be spent in the civilian sphere, focusing on law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Penitentiary reform should combine the construction of new prisons with increased training, vetting, and compensation for guards.
- Police reform, regardless of the structure chosen in terms of balance between federal, state, and municipal forces, must include extensive background checks, human rights training, and regular performance evaluations.
- The Mexican government should work to establish institutional mechanisms of cooperation with both its southern and northern neighbors to strengthen border controls, including joint projects to modernize and increase the efficiency of the customs service, an agency critical to stanching the flow of weapons and chemical precursors into Mexico.
- In order to strengthen protections against human rights abuses as well increase military accountability to civilian oversight, trials of military members accused of violating the rights of civilians should be conducted in regular courts.
- Greater efforts must be made to protect journalists from intimidation and attack by organized crime, starting with efforts to end impunity for attackers. Congress should pass the proposed constitutional amendment to federalize crimes against freedom of expression, and greater resources should be provided to investigators of crimes against journalists.