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The Next Step in Mexico's Corruption Fight

The resignation of a controversial attorney general reveals the growing influence of Mexico’s civil society.
cervantes
ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

Mexicans are fed up with graft, though their elected leaders have been slow to respond. Now, thanks to an increasingly vocal civil society, there are signs that impunity might no longer be certain, and that corrupt officials can expect political consequences for their misdeeds.

“Mexico has awakened to notice that many of the dysfunctionalities of our government, which we had taken for granted, are grounded in systematic and ingrained corruption,” said Viridiana Rios, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. 

The most tangible example of this shift happened Monday, when Attorney General Raúl Cervantes, long a target of civil society ire, stepped down less than a year after taking office.

Cervantes had become a symbol of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) perceived resistance to transparency and accountability, and an obstacle to fully implementing Mexico’s National Anti-Corruption System (SNA). His departure opens the way for a non-partisan path forward, said Shannon O’Neil, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Markets and Democracy program.

“This is a win for civil society,” said O’Neil. “Cervantes was too personally tied to the president and too slow to investigate the many corruption scandals swirling around the country’s governors.”

Cervantes' proximity to President Enrique Peña Nieto created a conflict in his role as Mexico’s chief prosecutor. But Cervantes, a former PRI Congressman and Senator, was also likely to become the country’s first independent attorney general, a position created to separate partisan interests from the judiciary and that will come into effect next year. Existing rules would have given him “automatic pass” into the new position. This prompted frenzied civil society opposition, including in the form of the social media hashtag #FiscalCarnal, or “attorney general bro,” a reference to his relationship with Peña Nieto.

The resistance was such that, in September, opposition Congress members refused to officially open the legislative session until rules that would have allowed Cervantes to transition directly to the new role were changed. The stalemate lasted a week. Cervantes’ resignation Monday was thus viewed as a positive sign that the country will eventually settle on a non-partisan, consensus pick for its first independent attorney general. 

“His departure opens up a space for choosing a true technocrat for the position,” said O’Neil. “But opposition parties and civil society activists will have to push for an independent and strong jurist to ensure the new system begins to function as it should.”

Cervantes’ time as Mexico’s chief prosecutor was not without merit. Since assuming the role in October 2016, four state governors – three of them from the PRI – have been arrested for graft, though with some international help. Despite criticism that his office was slow to react to the unfolding Odebrecht corruption scandal, which has already ensnared public officials throughout the region, charges against at least three former high-ranking executives at national oil firm Pemex are expected in coming days.

Critics nonetheless maintain that Cervantes could have used his position in the new attorney general’s position to protect Peña Nieto and his cohort from any possible investigation after leaving office.

Cervantes had, of late, done little to dispel belief he was a figment of the old PRI, which over 71 years of one-party rule made high art of clientelism. In September, for example, Mexicans Against Corruption, a watchdog group, revealed that Cervantes had registered a Ferrari sports car outside of state lines in an alleged attempt to avoid additional taxes. (Cervantes, who owns a house in the state where the car was registered, chalked up the incident to administrative error.)

Whether or not he would have made for a more independent attorney general than his critics claim, Cervantes himself recognized that he had become a distraction. In his departing remarks on Monday, he said that his “name and supposed aspirations were used as an excuse” by Congress not to consolidate reforms to the justice system; he pleaded with senators to push forward, including by naming important roles within the SNA, without further delay.

There are no guarantees that Congress will act quickly now that Cervantes is gone. Mexican politics are deeply divided heading into the 2018 elections; some observers believe the next president could win with less than 30 percent of the vote. The parties may continue to drag their feet rather than come to an accord. Given the response to his previous suggestion, Peña Nieto may be inclined to stick with interim Attorney General Alberto Elías Beltrán, a former Cervantes deputy, for the foreseeable future.

“It will likely be up to the next Congress and president to decide the future of the anti-corruption system,” said O’Neil.  

That’s assuming Mexicans are willing to wait.

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Russell is a senior editor for Americas Quarterly

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: corruption, Mexico, SNA

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