López: government running scared. López: government running scared.

Government blocking anti-corruption efforts

Members of citizens' commission claim government is not cooperating

The Mexican government is refusing to cooperate with attempts to look into some of the biggest corruption scandals it has faced, according to a report today in the New York Times.

The Times’ assertion is based on claims made by each of the five members of a citizens’ commission charged with investigating corruption cases including the government’s use of spyware to monitor its critics, the embezzlement of billions of pesos by government agencies in a scheme dubbed “The Master Fraud” and allegations linking bribery to the awarding of government contracts.

Members of the commission — established as part of the new National Anti-Corruption System (SNA) — say that the government is blocking any serious investigations into its actions.

The claims sharply contradict President Enrique Peña Nieto’s public rhetoric that his government is committed to combat the corruption scourge and his creation of the SNA that went into force in July, albeit without a prosecutor to lead it.

When Peña Nieto promulgated the secondary laws of the system amid fanfare in July last year, he said that the day “will be remembered as a new era for democracy and the rule of law.”

But over a year later little progress has been made in the fight against corruption or the resolution of existing cases, and lawmakers have failed to name any one of the 18 corruption-fighting judges the system is supposed to have.

One member of the citizens’ commission who also worked for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) the last time it held the presidency in the 1990s, believes that the Peña Nieto government is running scared.

“They are panicked that maybe we will go too hard and unravel something, find individuals responsible for corrupt acts,” José Octavio López told the Times.

“They are used to appointing someone they control,” he added.

The PRI today is supposedly a more modern and transparent incarnation of the party that ruled Mexico uninterruptedly for more than seven decades until 2000, and whose name became a byword for corruption.

But beyond the scandals it has also notably come under fire for its handling of the investigation into 43 disappeared rural teaching students. Three years after the event, it remains unclear exactly how the students disappeared, one security analyst observed in September. Many accuse the government of a cover-up.

The so-called “White House scandal” involving the purchase of a multi-million-dollar mansion by the president’s wife from a government contractor further tarnished Peña Nieto’s reputation. He made a public apology for the incident and said that it “damaged the institution of the presidency.”

Another member of the citizens’ commission describes the anti-corruption system as “a bad joke” and said that the sense of optimism he had when it was launched has now well and truly dissipated.

“I was naïve when the system launched. I believed and had hope that it would work,” Luis Manuel Pérez de Acha, a tax lawyer, told the Times.

“I know now that they are sabotaging everything that we are trying to do,” he added.

The commission’s capacity to act independently is compromised because all significant decisions are made collectively by seven government agencies, commissioners say.

While in theory the citizens’ commission is meant to lead the anti-corruption fight, it is heavily outvoted in the decision-making process. Its president, who also presides over the entire anti-corruption system says that the power she should have has effectively been usurped.

“I’ve been given all of the responsibility with none of the power,” Jacqueline Peschard said.

The federal government denies the allegations, saying that it has fully supported the commission’s work but the latter had misinterpreted the job it is charged with doing.

Rather than investigating corruption, the role of the citizens’ commission is to set policy and coordinate the agencies that actually have a legal responsibility to prosecute crime, the government argued. But Peschard says they have been prevented from doing that as well.

A probe into the hacking scandal that the Times first reported in June was hindered because the commission was outvoted when it requested a government briefing on the matter. An independent anti-corruption group was left to expose that the Attorney General’s office (PGR) paid US $32 million for the spyware to a front company.

Instead of coordinating other government agencies, Peschard said that they conspire to coordinate her.

“It’s them against me,” she said.

Under Mexican law, spying is not a “corruption crime,” the government countered.

It was similarly obstructed when trying to look into the alleged payment of bribes to former Pemex CEO Emilio Lozoya by Brazilian company Odebrecht when its requests for briefings were again rejected.

The commission tried a different approach when investigating the 3.4 billion pesos (US $182.5 million) allegedly siphoned through public universities in the master fraud embezzlement scandal by sending requests for information directly to 99 government agencies. To date, only one has responded.

It was also blocked when it tried to establish a single account to manage funds for earthquake relief in order to improve accountability.

The time for the commission to act during this administration is running out, with next year’s presidential election just seven months away.

Former Finance Secretary José Antonio Meade announced Monday that he would seek the PRI nomination after Peña Nieto had earlier revealed that he would step down from his cabinet. Many analysts say Meade is the party’s best chance of retaining the presidency precisely because he is untainted by corruption scandals and he does not even officially belong to the party.

But many also likened the announcement to an old party tactic known as el dedazo, in which the president hand picks his successor.

Yet despite the difficulties they face and the looming election, commissioners say they remain committed to their task.

“We can’t sit with our arms crossed,” Pérez de Acha said. “We have constitutional legitimacy.”

Source: The New York Times (en)

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