Mexico’s Government Is Blocking Its Own Anti-Corruption Drive, Commissioners Say

Sophisticated spying technology sold to the Mexican government for the purpose of tracking terrorists and criminal networks has instead been deployed against dozens of journalists, academics, human rights lawyers and anti-corruption advocates, a potential violation of Mexican law.

But when Mrs. Peschard and others called for a simple briefing on the issue, she said she was voted down by every representative of the government agencies.

One of the representatives voting on whether to discuss the hacking scandal was Arely Gomez, the attorney general in office when the government was using the surveillance technology.

“I would say there is in fact coordination on the committee,” Mrs. Peschard said with a dry laugh. “It’s them against me.”

In a statement, Mr. Peña Nieto’s office acknowledged that any “illegal intervention of communications” is widely viewed as a pressing issue. But, it said, Mexican law does not treat spying as a “corruption crime,” so government representatives had argued that it should not be handled within the new system.

Mrs. Peschard and other commission members say they have tried, unsuccessfully, to check on other cases that have raised troubling questions for the Mexican public.

Last December, the United States Department of Justice announced that Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction behemoth accused of paying nearly $800 million in bribes to government officials across Latin America, had given about $10.5 million in “corrupt payments” to Mexican officials to win public contracts. The department said $6 million of that money had gone to a single “high-level official of a Mexican state-owned” company.

Court documents in Brazil contend that Emilio Lozoya, the former head of Mexico’s state-owned oil company and a close ally of the president, received bribes directly from Odebrecht. Mr. Lozoya helped to run Mr. Peña Nieto’s 2012 presidential campaign.

Mr. Lozoya has denied any wrongdoing.

Deepening the intrigue, the government fired a Mexican prosecutor who had been looking into the use of illicit money in the president’s campaign — just days after the prosecutor said that Mr. Lozoya had secretly pressured him to be cleared of any wrongdoing.

Mrs. Peschard and other commission members said they repeatedly asked for briefings on the matter. The government denied that any such request had been made. But in separate interviews, several commission members cited letters they had sent to the attorney general’s office requesting an update on the case.

Each time, they said, they were told there could be no briefing because an investigation was underway, prompting them to wonder how they could do their jobs if sharing information about investigations was prohibited.

After consistently being blocked, Mrs. Peschard and the others decided on another approach. When local news reports revealed that nearly $200 million had been embezzled through the nation’s public universities, the commission sent requests to 99 government departments, asking for the information directly.

Only one government agency has responded so far.

In another instance, the commission tried to establish a single account to disburse money for earthquake victims — to ensure that the funds could be rigorously accounted for. Once again, it was told to stand down.

Since the commission is not technically part of the government, the president’s office says, it cannot coordinate government resources.

For many Mexicans, the new anti-corruption system — and particularly the power of citizens to coordinate it — showed that the government, when pushed hard enough, might finally combat the impunity that defines much of life in Mexico.

But many civil society leaders, including some who helped engineer the creation of the anti-corruption system, say they have fallen prey to a familiar trick: The government creates a panel to address a major issue, only to starve it of resources, inhibit its progress or ignore it.


Juan Pardinas, a chief architect of the anti-corruption system, says now that it is “basically broken.”

Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

“The Mexican government feeds us placebos and we believe they will cure us,” said Juan Pardinas, the president of the Mexico Institute for Competitiveness and one of the chief architects of the anti-corruption system. “I drank the Kool-Aid and I passed the jar to a lot of people, believing it was a path to change.”

Mr. Pardinas has been one of the most prominent public voices fighting corruption, its corrosive effect on democratic institutions, and the lives it sometimes claims. He ultimately became a target of the spying technology purchased by the Mexican government to surveil criminals and terrorists.

“I killed myself for three years to achieve this, and it’s basically broken,” he said of the anti-corruption effort. “Well, maybe the system isn’t broken. It’s actually working perfectly to allow impunity.”

The anti-corruption drive is still missing its independent prosecutor, arguably the most important person in the entire operation. The selection has been frozen in the legislature, which was already up in arms over the president’s contentious choice for attorney general: Raúl Cervantes, a close ally of Mr. Peña Nieto and the main lawyer for his party during the 2012 campaign.

After a long battle in Congress — and news articles about properties and a Ferrari owned by Mr. Cervantes, registered outside of the capital to avoid higher taxes — his name was withdrawn.

Beyond that, many Mexican states have still not enacted the mandatory systems meant to duplicate the federal anti-corruption effort on a local level.

One of the commission members, Mr. Perez de Acha, says he has sued the states that have not set up their anti-corruption systems, which were supposed to be in place by July 19. He has also sued the Senate to force the appointment of the 18 anti-corruption judges.

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

Other commission members agreed.

“I’m not going to give up,” said one of them, Mariclaire Acosta. “There is no quick fix here.”

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