Electoral Democracy Has Yet to Shake Mexico's Corrupt Bureaucracy

Electoral Democracy Has Yet to Shake Mexico

Alejandro Gertz Manero, Vicente Fox's former National Secretary of Security, points to the dramatic rise in drug use and crime in his country as proof that the reforms have gone only half way.

In a period of skyrocketing crime and drug use, only a fraction of the crimes are reported to authorities because people view the legal system as too corrupt to rely on, Alejandro Gertz Manero told a lunch meeting at UCLA March 15. Gertz Manero for decades has been one of Mexico's top crime fighters. He served as Mexico City's chief of police, 1997 to 2000, after which he was appointed by incoming President Vicente Fox to the national post of Secretary of Security, where he was in charge of all of the country's law enforcement agencies. At present Alejandro Gertz Manero is president of the University of the Americas in Mexico City. His visit to UCLA was sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations and the International Institute.

Gertz Manero traced today's problems to the political system inherited from the PRI, the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party, which had ruled Mexico continuously from 1929 to 2000. "Security and justice in Mexico is an old issue," he said. "We always knew that Mexican police were not very moral. No one trusted in the police or in justice, but the system worked."

To some degree the dictatorial government of the PRI kept a lid on the potential consequences of the widespread corruption. "In Mexico since the 1930s the political system was very tough, antidemocratic, but a very efficient political system." However, "it destroyed its own basis."

The Downhill Slide of the PRI

The beginning of the end, Gertz Manero said, was the government's decision to fire on student demonstrators in the famous Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City in 1968. "After 1968 they tried to change the view of themselves, but not the reality. The economy was getting weak. To try to look like a modern democratic system but not to be that was very expensive." The national debt ballooned from some US$4 billion in 1970 to more than $40 billion in 1980. The country's domestic and foreign debt reached US$170 billion in 2004.

"The government lost the capacity to pay what was needed for the poor," Alejandro Gertz Manero recounted. "In 1982 we saw the first increase in the crime rate in history. Unemployment was rising. Then there was another jump in 1987, and the worst came in 1994, when there was a 40% increase between 1994 and 1995."

The system, he said, couldn't deal with the mounting debt, unemployment, and population growth. Poor people began turning to consuming drugs, not just transporting them through the country to the United States. "In 2000 we had 500 cases of drug crime in Mexico City. In 2004 we had 5,000 cases. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women began to consume drugs, and the only way to get money for drugs is stealing."

Gertz Manero said there are now 4.5 million crimes a year committed in Mexico. "90% of those are stealing or are related to stealing. And 90% of those are for less than 8,000 pesos [about US$727]. Mostly this is for drugs."

He summarized the trajectory by saying that there had been a "system that couldn't work anymore," it beget mass unemployment, which led to mass drug consumption, presided over by "a political system that tried to change but just on the surface."

For the future, Gertz Manero pointed to "very successful experiments" that began in 1996. "The electoral system was taken out of the hands of government and put in the hands of regular people." In 1997 there was a democratic election in Mexico City that unseated the PRI. This was followed by the ouster of the PRI from the presidency in the national elections of 2000 that installed Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN from its Spanish initials).

The Underlying Bureaucracy Hasn't Changed

The remaining obstacle, Alejandro Gertz Manero said, is that too much of the old system remains entrenched in official agencies at all levels. "You can't make democracy with antidemocratic tools. If the police are corrupt and no one believes in the public prosecutor crimes will not be reported. Only 1.5 million of the 4.5 million crimes are reported to the police by the people. This gives you an idea of the lack of confidence. And 92% of the 1.5 million crimes that are reported are not prosecuted. That system obviously doesn't work."

The main task for the future, the former Security Minister said, is to protect people's wealth and persons, to have justice and security. Economic growth, he insisted, will not work unless built on that foundation. "Congress wants to make laws for casinos but they are not very interested in justice. They don't care about 105 million people and 4.5 million crimes. If we change that, the progress of our country will be enormous and that is our goal."

In a lively question period Alejandro Gertz Manero looked at various options for his country. When asked about the outcome of the next presidential elections, he said that while he favored opening up the elections to more than the three large parties that now have an effective monopoly, it is also possible that the country could move backward and return the PRI to power.

Gertz Manero on the "Plan Giuliani" and William Bratton

One questioner asked Gertz Manero what he thought of the decision of Mexico City in 2003 to hire former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to develop a plan to reduce crime in the Mexican capital. The former police chief of that city replied: "Giuliani was called by the Mexico City government to help the Mexico City police. He wasn't the one who made the change. William Bratton, now the chief of police of Los Angeles, he was the one who made the change in New York. He went first to the metropolitan system to change it and then to the police. Mr. Giuliani, he's a politician. He went three times to Mexico City. He saw the city; the city saw him. The media saw him. And he said three or four logical common-sense things, and he charged $4 million, and that's it! You have to go to work in a real change. That was for the Mexico City government to show that they have very good relations with the United States."

He was asked if his country should raise taxes. No, he replied, the existing taxes should be better spent. Here one member of the audience jokingly accused him of emulating Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gertz Manero responded that the situation in Mexico is quite different from California. "60% of the economic activity in Mexico is illegal. The government can raise money not by raising taxes but by making the 60% pay something."

Professor James Wilkie, head of UCLA's Program on Mexico, asked for the former minister's comment on the lack of basic legal rights in Mexico: "There is no trial by jury, no right to confront one's accusers in court." Alejandro Gertz Manero conceded that the Fox administration has not succeeded thus far in changing these undemocratic court procedures inherited from the seventy plus years of the PRI administration. "But we are going to the Congress this year with judicial reform and we can still win these."

Published: Tuesday, March 15, 2005