by Austin Bay
July 26, 2016
The word "impunity" haunts President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico. It may well scar his historical legacy.
For angry and disenchanted Mexican citizens across the political spectrum, "impunity" means two things simultaneously. It signifies the deep and embedded injustice within their nation's governing institutions and society. When shouted by protestors, it expresses deep distrust of and disgust with political and economic leaders who cannot -- or worse, will not -- combat it.
How bad is the "impunity" Mexicans despise? In February, the Center for Impunity and Justice Studies published an "impunity index" that indicated only 4.46 percent of reported crimes in Mexico resulted in convictions. The report estimated that only 7 percent of crimes in Mexico are actually reported, which meant 99 percent of committed crimes were not punished. Why? Mexican citizens told investigators that it took a lot of time to report a crime -- which is a way of saying police and judicial branches were unresponsive to average citizens. Citizens also lacked faith in these authorities --another way of saying they lacked faith in institutional and organizational leadership. The study's statistics have been criticized, but the reasons given for citizens' reluctance to report crimes are beyond dispute.
When he ran for president in 2012, Pena claimed his leadership marked a sharp change in Institutional Revolutionary Party (known as PRI). For seven decades prior to 2000, PRI politicians and their cronies looted Mexico. Pena swore the "new PRI" he represented had reformed. He promised to reform government institutions and eliminate corruption.
It sounded good, until 2014, when the country learned that wealthy media and business moguls had helped Pena and his wife acquire luxury properties. An embarrassed Pena defended the acquisition as legal. It cost him personal credibility. He was now just another PRI politician on the take.
Insisting he was honest, Pena promised to pass and implement genuine anti-corruption legislation. This month, on July 18, Mexican legislators passed a package of laws establishing the National Anti-Corruption System. Increasing public trust in Mexican governmental institutions is the overall goal. The new laws establish a code of conduct and accountability procedures. They require transparency in government contracting, to include bid procedures. Officials must reveal personal assets, conflicts of interest and tax returns. However, several critics complain the laws do not really require officials to fully disclose personal dealings. The government can restrict access to these documents.
How the reforms affect crimes like the alleged fraud committed by PRI politician and former governor of Nuevo Leon state Rodrigo Medina remains to be seen. In early June, prosecutors charged Medina with conspiring in a $200 million land scam that involved attracting a car manufacturer to the state. The deal was complex. The new laws may hinder similar crimes. The Nuevo Leon land scheme was already illegal, but oversight may make future scams more difficult.
The new legislation will not erase the Iguala mass kidnapping which ensures impunity will stain Pena's legacy. In September 2014, the mayor of Iguala (Guerrero state) and his wife ordered corrupt police to make certain 43 student protestors did not disrupt a political fiesta. The police and a local drug gang allegedly murdered those students. Iguala's mayor and the Guerrero's state governor were both PRI politicians.
State and federal government agencies responded lethargically to the disappearance of the 43 students. Initially, authorities classified the students as missing, as there were no bodies.
It wasn't until January 2015 that federal investigators concluded that the missing students had been murdered and their bodies incinerated. Relatives of the victims claimed cover-up. Evidence has since surfaced that a local Mexican army unit failed to act on news that the murders were imminent. The army denies it.
Though some 80 people were ultimately arrested for complicity in the crime, the Iguala massacre exemplifies the horror of systemic impunity. Government officials ordered the deed, and the perpetrators thought they would go unpunished. Little wonder Iguala has become a national symbol of government corruption and incompetence.