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Drug Money Worsens Corruption in Mexico

  • Greg Flakus

Corruption has been a problem in Latin America since colonial times. Citizens have been largely tolerant of petty corruption, such as small bribes to bureaucrats and police over minor disputes or offenses, but the stakes have been raised greatly in recent decades by the billions of dollars generated in the illicit drug business. The impact has been especially strong in Mexico.

Official corruption has been an almost constant source of frustration for Mexicans. The country is still dealing with the scandal that followed the privatization of banks in the 1990s. More recent scandals have involved corrupt officials in local and state governments.

Most Mexicans experience the problem on the street level with corrupt policemen who often demand a mordida or bribe in exchange for dismissing a ticket. But this is petty stuff when compared to the millions of dollars that drug traffickers distribute to corrupt police officials every year.

Mexican criminal justice expert Jorge Chabat says drug money has made its way into every corner of the law enforcement apparatus.

"Police corruption is a very old problem. It was there before drug trafficking, we have to say that," he said. "It is a legacy from the colonial period, and in Mexico we have not been able to solve that problem. This problem has been aggravated by the presence of drug trafficking, because they have a lot of money and they can corrupt anybody. Even the army has been corrupted. Not to the same degree as the police, but even the army has been corrupt."

Chabat says Mexico needs to build institutions to support more effective law enforcement and reduce corruption.

"You need to make a police reform, a very deep police reform. You need to make a reform of the legal system and you need to make a reform of the prison system," he added.

But Chabat concedes, this is not a task that can be accomplished quickly. He says it will take more than a decade under the most optimistic scenario.

Professor Celia Toro of the Colegio de Mexico's Center for International Studies says better police will come with a better legal system and a more supportive public.

"Police need the support of society and the support of the tribunals, otherwise, I do not see why someone should be a police," she said.

She says Mexico's corrupt police and criminal class have always had a symbiotic relationship, but that the rise of powerful drug-smuggling organizations has helped create a new class of lawless people.

"Ex-military, ex-police and ex-cartel people - there are hundreds of them," she noted.

She says these people operate in a violent and dark world of their own.

"They probably don't even realize what they are doing," she added. "It has become a way of life and this is what is very dramatic. This is not only a delinquency crisis, this is a whole class of people, a whole group of people, that have learned to live outside the law."

According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Mexico is the main source of marijuana smuggled into the United States and is the major route for most cocaine coming north from Colombia and other South American nations. The illicit trade produces tens of billions of dollars that support small armies of drug cartel gunmen as well as corruption.

Attempts to address the problem have had limited success so far, but Jorge Chabat says a concerted government effort could dramatically reduce the impact.

"Probably, you will never solve the problem 100 percent, you will always have some levels of corruption, but what we have now is that corruption is the rule. The goal is that corruption is the exception," he explained.

The results of Mexico's recent presidential election offer little hope of any concerted reform effort in the months ahead. The losing candidate is protesting the very close result. No matter who eventually emerges as the winner, Mexico's government, like its populace, will be divided. This could hinder efforts to deal with the problem of drug-traffickers and the corruption they foster.