Corruption is a chronic and systemic disease throughout the whole Latin American region. Transparency International´s Corruption Perceptions Index paints a clear picture: 81% of the countries from the Americas have a score below 50 out of 100.
From Brazil to Venezuela, and Panama to Mexico, corruption scandals have become an all too common occurrence in Latin America. But the other feature that defines the region is impunity, which comes as a result of a weak and fragile state.
After each scandal, instead of getting to the root of what is a systemic problem, leaders and policy-makers instead focused on weeding out one or two bad apples, as though that would make a difference.
But in Mexico, civil society tried something different.
The Mexican case
According to research from the Mexican Statistics Agency, Mexicans see corruption as one of the most important issues facing the country, second only to insecurity. It has become the main topic of discussion in political campaigns and the priority for organized civil society.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2016 found that Mexico’s weakest link is its institutions, and corruption is the most problematic factor for doing business. This presents a significant barrier to social stability and economic growth.
However, at the beginning of the current political administration, the fight against corruption was a vague campaign promise. Without much conviction, a proposal was presented by the president to Congress: the idea was to create a National Anticorruption Commission (NAC), as part of a wider legislative package – known as the “Pact for Mexico” (Pacto por México) – that was negotiated between the three biggest political parties.
Many civil society groups and academics rejected the president’s proposal, arguing it was too narrow in vision and failed to grasp the complex phenomenon of corruption. Among the most important weaknesses pointed out was that it consisted of a sole entity, incapable of coordinating efforts between the many state and federal entities, and already lacking in autonomy from other branches of power.
Instead of an overarching commission, experts and academics proposed the creation of a National Anticorruption System (NAS), a coordination entity to bring together institutions that were already in place and that had the capacities to impede corruption, but had been operating without clear coordination, autonomy or resources.
Instead of being an institution commanded by a “czar”, the NAS would be an entity regulated by a board. But perhaps the most radical idea was that the NAS board would be presided by a citizen and not by a state agency. A body integrated by five independent citizens would preside over the anticorruption system.
Alternative leadership fighting corruption
The fight against corruption implies at first a complex legislative agenda that is necessary to disrupt the status quo of the political elite. As such to many in Mexico at this time, the idea of leaving the timing and the content of this important agenda in their hands was no longer an adequate solution.
An alternative leadership began to emerge from civil society, to put pressure on the political elite and to put forward solutions to these systemic problems.
By May of 2015, Mexico had approved the full creation of a NAS in its constitution. Once the NAS reform was declared, at least seven more secondary laws were required in order to build and regulate the anti-corruption system.
Mexico’s civil society groups, academics and activists gathered to design one of the laws, using a bill presented by citizens that requires congress to legally discuss the content if it is backed by at least 110,000 signatures (0.13 % of the electorate). Support for the bill must be provided physically (no electronic signatures) and must be accompanied by each person’s full name, detailed information and their original signature.
The law was nicknamed “Ley 3 de 3” (Law three out of three), as it demanded that public servants mandatorily publish three declarations: asset declaration, declaration of possible conflict of interest, and proof of fiscal standing.
The campaign to gather the necessary signatures was launched. From the start, students, employer unions, movie theatres, financial institutions, hotel chains, restaurants, citizens and many other businesses became proactive allies in building collective action. Highly influential Mexican radio and TV anchors talked about it on their daily shows. Activists, academics and columnists discussed it endlessly.
One month later, on 17 March, the movement delivered 309,476 signatures to the senate to be validated. The national support for the initiative was such that signatures kept growing and the movement was able to deliver a total of 634,143 citizen signatures in less than a month – over five times the original number required.
Once validated by the National Electoral Institute (INE), the initiative was passed by the senate and a group of civil society representatives were invited to participate in the dialogue to discuss and define not just the specific law proposed, but the whole anticorruption legislation package.
The significance of alternative leadership in systemic change
The number of signatures gathered for the “Ley3de3” is historic in Mexico´s political history – not only because of the numbers of people mobilized, but because it represented the de facto destruction of a monopoly that often corrupt political parties had on the national political agenda.
As footage of the ley3de3 debate was aired, and people followed along on social media, politicians looked uncomfortable. For the first time, parties needed to publicly reveal their true positions about complex issues such as the organizational structure of the NAS, the coordination and relationships between various authorities, sanctions under the new administrative responsibilities regime, transparency in declarations and a new model for the Administrative Tribunal.
On 17 June this year, both Houses of Congress approved two new general laws and reformed five others after long deliberations, sessions and a sum of efforts from political parties to change the content of the citizens’ initiative.
The new anticorruption system is now based on three pillars: a coordinated and widespread system of internal audit and control, as an effective tool to prevent corruption; a very strict and comprehensive regime of administrative responsibilities to stop the expansion of the phenomenon; and a strong new criminal regime to make justice a normal practice.
Anticorruption reforms and innovative policies should naturally be bottom-up ideas. However, conceiving new ideas is a meaningless process without the proper leadership to push them forward.
The fight against corruption is a multilateral responsibility, and it needs a new kind of creative and positive leadership from different sectors of society to ensure systemic change. The Mexican case is interesting, not because the problem is solved, but because a new type of leadership emerged to set a different agenda.