The previous federal government’s main anti-poverty strategy not only failed to achieve its key objective to end hunger but also swallowed up more than 1.6 billion pesos (US $79.5 million) that is unaccounted for, statistics and audits show.
The National Crusade Against Hunger (CNCH) was announced by former president Enrique Peña Nieto in December 2012 and officially launched the following month at an event in Chiapas.
Its ambition was large: eradicate hunger in Mexico.
But recent statistics show that almost six years after the initiative was implemented, there are still more than 20 million Mexicans who don’t have access to enough food.
And now a new analysis of data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi) and the federal Secretariat of Health reveals that deaths from malnutrition or related illnesses increased in almost four of every 10 municipalities covered by the CNCH in its first phase.
Conducted by a team of journalists from two media organizations – Milenio and La Silla Rota – and an analyst from the non-governmental organization Data Cívica, the study shows that at least 33,668 people died in Mexico from malnutrition between 2014 and 2017 and just under half of those deaths occurred in municipalities where the CNCH was in place.
Deaths from malnutrition, which according to the World Health Organization refers to deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients, went down in 209 — 47% — of the 444 municipalities where the CNCH was implemented in 2013.
However, deaths rose in 173 municipalities, or 39% of the those included in the crusade, and the mortality rate from malnutrition remained the same in 62 municipalities or 14% of the total.
All told, 53% of municipalities where the CNCH was implemented saw no improvement in the rate of hunger-related deaths.
While 77.8% of the people who died from malnutrition between 2014 and 2017 were elderly, 311 children aged 12 or younger also died in municipalities where the anti-hunger crusade was in place despite one of its five main objectives being to eliminate childhood nutrition.
Marasmus – a form of severe malnutrition seen in countries where famine is present – claimed the lives of 160 people in municipalities covered by the CNCH.
Statistics from the social development agency Coneval also show that the percentage of people with inadequate access to food fell by a similar figure in municipalities where the crusade wasn’t implemented as those where it was.
In the former, the figure fell by 3.1% between 2010 and 2015 (no new data will be available until the 2020 census is conducted) to 20.9% of the population, whereas in the latter the number of people with inadequate access to food dropped by an only marginally better 3.3% to 22.3% of the population.
In 31% of the municipalities where the CNCH was implemented, residents’ capacity to access food became worse in the same five-year period.
A contributing – or perhaps primary – factor in the failure of the crusade against hunger to achieve its main goal is that funding allocated to the initiative likely didn’t reach its intended target in many cases.
Between 2013 and 2016, the government agencies charged with implementing the CNCH failed to explain how 1.63 billion pesos – 71% of the initiative’s entire budget – was used, according to the Federal Auditor’s Office (ASF).
The ASF has filed 13 criminal complaints with the federal Attorney General’s office (PGR) against the Secretariat of Social Development (Sedesol) and the Secretariat of Agriculture (Sagarpa) with respect to 917 million pesos (US $45.6 million).
Five criminal complaints stemming from a 2013 audit, including one relating to 845.5 million pesos, allege that Sedesol, the Autonomous University of México state and the Autonomous University of Morelos participated together in an embezzlement scheme.
The federal secretariat, which between 2012 and August 2015 was headed by Rosario Robles, awarded contracts to the universities to implement CNCH programs but auditors found a range of classic examples of corruption: services paid for were not provided, overpayments, the use of shell companies and fabricated financial documents, among other irregularities.
The ASF also uncovered conflicts of interest, such as the case of Hugo Manuel del Pozzo, who was the legal representative of a company that was supposedly subcontracted by the México state university to provide CNCH-related services as well as the same university’s financial director.
Del Pozzo was arrested last year for allegedly diverting 16 million pesos paid by the Oaxaca government for a contract not related to the CNCH.
Another main crusade goal was to boost food production and the income of small farmers, an objective that Sagarpa was charged with achieving.
However, the secretariat has not explained how it used 59 million pesos allocated for that purpose between 2013 and 2018.
A criminal complaint filed by the ASF in August says that an audit of the 2013 Sagarpa accounts detected that 362 farmers to whom the Secretariat of Agriculture said it had provided financial or material aid were in fact dead.
Auditors also found that Sagarpa had paid excessive prices to acquire materials that were distributed to farmers as aid.
Former Sedesol chief Robles, who has also been implicated in other alleged corruption schemes, said she didn’t dispute the statistics cited by the Milenio/La Silla Rota/Data Cívica investigation in relation to deaths from malnutrition but nevertheless defended the CNCH.
“I believe that the crusade was a great interdisciplinary effort by [government] secretariats. We reached 30,000 locations where no public policies had reached before,” she said.
“[The key objective] wasn’t achieved but hunger decreased and that’s something that is very important,” Robles added.
The former cabinet secretary conceded that a single death due to malnutrition represented a failure of the CNCH but stressed that three million people who were in situations of extreme poverty now have food to eat including “children who went to school without anything in their stomachs [and] women who took food out of their mouths so that their children had something to eat.
The investigative team pointed out to Robles that Coneval statistics showed that in fact only two million people had seen their access to food improved under the CNCH and that millions more remain in the same precarious situation as before and therefore have nothing to celebrate.
“Accept that at least,” the investigative reporters said to the ex-secretary. “No, yes, of course, of course,” Robles responded.