Ventanas Mexico

Books and resources for life in Mexico

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Corruption in Mexico, "We Are All Corrupt"


If you ask an average American what Mexico's biggest problem is, you will most likely hear narco-trafficking.  Ask the average Mexican living in Mexico what that country's biggest problem is (even here in the state Sinaloa, home to one of the country’s most violent drug cartels) and he'll likely tell you “ corruption." 

With many blogs under my belt about what I love about Mexico and aspects that I hate about life in America, it only seems fair to broach a negative aspect of Mexico, now that I’ve lived here long enough to understand it beyond the bogus traffic ticket and subsequent bribe (mordidas)

How vulnerable are you to corruption in Mexico as a part-time resident?

As an expat, the extent to which you will feel the effects of corruption will likely be nominal. The best piece of advice I can give you is to live in an area a good long time before engaging in any commercial transaction. How long you need to do so will depend on your ability to make trustworthy Mexican contacts.

Reputation is key in a country with fewer legal protections. You will need some time in an area to research the reputations of agents and brokers.  If starting a business, many expats who start businesses find Mexican partners which tends to make hurdles easier to clear.

Your instincts become much sharper when you have spent some time in your Mexican town. You no longer misconstrue good English and a polo shirt as honesty.

I’m not saying that without an extended period of time in Mexico you will be ripped off.  For example, thousands of expats buy homes in Mexico every year without a glitch practically as soon as they park their car. I’m only saying that the chances of being ripped off decrease to the extent that you have built local relationships and know your terrain.

A bigger problem for Mexicans

Mexicans have to deal with corruption a good bit more than any retired expat. Unlike drug violence, corruption affects every single Mexican at some time in their lives.

In the spirit of understanding a distinct difference between Mexican culture and our own as expats or potential expats, it’s worth taking a look at the subject to better understand The Mexican Experience.

Corruption is at every level

When you hear talk of “corruption at every level,” in Mexico you might think that means every level of government, local and national. That’s incorrect. Corruption is common at every level of the society and culture itself.  

Traveling in Mexico, you will now see "Anti-corruption" signs and even television campaigns educating Mexicans that they cannot have it both ways; expect ethical behavior from officials that they don’t practice themselves,

corruption in mexico

It's not just the police officer. It could be a school admissions officer too.

This message will take a long time to sink in, if it ever even does. Like how many Americans feel about entitlements in the U.S., everyone in Mexico hates corruption until they can benefit themselves, like those bribes to get a child into a certain school or accepted into a graduate school.

Recognition is growing among younger Mexicans that corruption in Mexico embodies a circular relationship between the government authorities who practice corruption and the everyday corruption practiced and justified by Mexicans themselves.

One study aptly defined the problem as being on three levels, the  “corrupción de ellos” (Their corruption), the “corrupción de nosotros” (our corruption) and “corrupción de todos.” (everyone’s corruption).

La corrupción de ellos (The corruption of others, “their” corruption)

When Mexican talk about corruption, they are almost always talking about the abuse of power for personal gain by the government and authorities.

The (roughly translated as always) National Survey of the Quality of Government Services (The Encuesta Nacional de Calidad e Impacto Gubernamental or ENCIG) estimates that 30,097 incidents of corruption occur for each 100,000 citizens, with the largest percentage (55.2%) springing from contacts with public safety authorities, like the police.

The remaining incidents were equally divided percentage-wise among dealings with public prosecutors, authorities involved with opening a business, and appearing before judges in labor disputes.

To put what that means in a more human perspective, I’ll use a sad example. Sad because corruption often impedes the efforts of citizens in Mexico who would seek to improve their communities.

An honest, capable doctor with a good following of supporters wants to build a medical clinic to serve the poor. There are ordinances and permits that must be secured first. He goes to the designated government official and presents his case.

The official is very impressed with his plan and says "Yes. I will help you build your clinic,” (except he says it in Spanish, which makes anything sound better). The official instructs him how to submit the necessary paperwork.

With the doctor’s good name and reputation behind the project, the official tells him the government is likely to support it. They work together. The proposals are prepared and money is granted.  After which the government official pockets the money (How this part is orchestrated is beyond me) and goes on his way.

Many a time a private citizen has sought to improve their neighborhood, only to be thwarted by corruption or neighbors suspicious of their intentions.

From time to time, a groundswell of public outcry over an obvious delito like seeing not new streetlights after a much-publicized federal grant for more streetlights does work from time to time.

Many times, however, the press isn’t much help. They too are frequently either bought off directly or consider an omission as a chit to be collected from the official upon at a later date.

The president of Mexico himself has confessed that "not a single sector of Mexican society is free of corruption"

La corrupción de nosotros (Our Corruption)

From a sociological standpoint, everyday corruption on the part of private individuals is justified as a form of leveling the playing field, a “weapon of the poor.” Here Mexicans blur the distinction between what is corrupt and what is simply ingenious, as reflected in the phrase “el que no transa, no avanza,”  (He who can’t make a deal doesn’t get ahead.”)

According to surveys by Mexico’s own government agencies, street-level corruption is at an incredible level. In surveys, people openly confessed to tilting market scales (86%), pretended to have a disability to receive charitable assistance (85%), sold cars without admitting its defects (83%), and used a neighbor’s internet or phone line (73%). In one survey 27% admitted to paying a bribe in the course of a year.

The same people surveyed, when asked, said they considered themselves honest. According to the survey, they are tolerant of this type of behavior even though they recognize it’s not quite right. Studies indicate that most Mexicans only consider such practices corrupt if committed by authorities and public servants.  

Only 28% of those surveyed considered these behaviors as a societal problem. Rather most consider it a form of social justice. The ethical limbo and circular nature of corruption in Mexico is well illustrated by this type of response in the survey.

“Le he pagado a policías para que me dejen ir, pero, en mi defensa, me detuvieron sin causa”, explicó. (translated: I paid the bribe to the police to let me go. In my defense, they stopped me without cause,” he explained.)

Now, who among us has never felt we were given a traffic or parking ticket without justification?  For all we know, this driver really was breaking the law.  

Corruption is seen by many Mexicans as a justifiable response to social injustice, a socially acceptable way of re-distributing wealth in the context of extreme economic inequality.

Without a doubt, government corruption has a much greater impact on Mexicans’ lives than individual acts between citizens. As a result, 34% of Mexicans think that the government has principal responsibility to combat corruption, while 28% believe that society has to change, and 21% believe that society and institutions need to work together.

Public educational campaigns are beginning to pay off. There is a growing public recognition of the social impact the abuse of power, whether by government officials or individuals who engage in academic bribery, bribery to speed up bureaucratic processes and commercial piracy.

corruption in mexico

"Inform yourself, organize and participate."

Like all public campaigns, whether it be our own about drunk driving, domestic abuse in the U.S. or corruption in Mexico, both governments recognize that the first tiny step in reform is education.

To that end they have started with a simple definition of what corruption is:  “The abuse of a position of power, be it public or private, to obtain a benefit at the cost of the collective good.”

Surveys show younger Mexicans have a growing self-awareness of the relationship between their personal ethics and societal ethics.

corruption in mexico

La corrupción de todos (Everyone’s corruption)

“La corrupción de todos” is a collective shrugging of shoulders, that the problem of corruption in Mexico is inevitable and unsolvable, the by-product of thousands of years of Mexican history (although they love blaming the Spanish conquistadors too) that cannot be remediated.

Day-to-day, it’s just easier for most people to go along with it the same way you accept the practice of tipping, especially when it comes to simple “tramites” like permits; car plates, immigration and import permits. Money talks. Favor-exchanging, abundant.

Akin to the cynical attitude many Americans take on issues such as gun violence, most Mexicans believe that corruption in Mexico cannot be solved - just like some Americans think that as long as there are crazy people, there will be mass shootings.

Nor do many necessarily think that day to day, street-level corruption needs solving. For one thing, who starts first?

“Let the first person who has not participated throw the first stone,” said one Mexican researcher, “We are all corrupt.”

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About the author:

Kerry Baker is author of three books. The first, "The Interactive Guide to Learning Spanish Free Online" offers you lesson plans and links to the best free Spanish teaching tools on the web, organized by skill set and level. Over 300 websites were researched to enable you to create a unique lesson plan every day. 

Boredom is the biggest obstacle to learning a second language. Keep it fresh by using new tools all the time; music, newspapers, grammar lesson or articles.

The second book, "If Only I Had a Place," gives you the inside track to renting long-term in Mexico. Realtors would have you believe it's just the same as in the U.S. Mexican landlords will tell you things like pre-paying several months rent in advance is the norm. Neither are correct. More than how-to-rent, this book provides the philosophy that will help you get the most luxurious places for less, year after year. 

The Mexico Solution: Saving your money, sanity, and quality of life through part-time life in Mexico” is her most recent book.