Transparency and the Struggle for Accountability in Mexico

On Thursday, May 9, I went to the National Endowment for Democracy to listen to a presentation entitled “Transparency and the Struggle for Accountability in Mexico,” featuring Irma Sandoval-Ballesteros, with comments by Eric Hershberg. Dr. Sandoval-Ballesteros is an international expert on the issues of transparency, accountability, and political economy, having published numerous works on these topics. She is also an associate professor at the Institute for Social Research and director of the Laboratory for the Documentation and Analysis of Corruption and Transparency at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Dr. Hershberg is the director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University.

“Mexico is a country of much potential,” Dr. Sandoval-Ballesteros stated. She proceeded to show data that corroborated her statement. In 2012, Mexico’s GDP (in billions of US$) was 1,177.116 – making it the second best economy in Latin America. In terms of the world economy, it is positioned in 14th place. Despite the country’s promising economic performance, there is an obstacle lurking in broad daylight: corruption. The speaker proposed a new “structural” approach to effectively combat this issue.

The speaker supplemented her discussion of the rampant corruption in the country with statistics from Transparency International. Mexico’s ranking in the Corruption Perceptions Index (2012) was 105 out of 176, giving it an overall score of 34 out of 100. (For more information, visit I was surprised to hear it was ranked as the 2nd most corrupt country in the region in 2012, coming in after Haiti. I would have expected other countries in the region to occupy at least the top five positions.

The premises of her “structural” approach were the following: 1) The solution to combat corruption is democracy, not “modernization,” 2) Corruption is rooted in the dynamics of state-society relations (i.e., corruption is about institutions, not culture), and 3) The privatization of public functions creates new accountability challenges (the state must promote ethics for private actors/companies). The traditional approach to combat corruption has been based on the KLITGAARD formula:

C = M + D – A

Corruption equals monopoly plus discretion minus accountability.

 In lie of this formula, the speaker proposed a new equation based on the structural approach:

C = AP + I – CP

Corruption equals abuse of power plus impunity minus citizen participation.

The adverse effect of economic and political “liberalization” has been an increase in corruption, according to Dr. Sandoval-Ballesteros. Wealth is concentrated in fewer hands (thus leading to more inequality), and vote buying has led to more electoral fraud.

Last year’s presidential elections declared Enrique Peña Nieto as the victor. The youth has been highly critical of the president, claiming the election was rife with fraud, and lambasting him as part of the “system.” While the speaker was not as critical as the youth, she did not have any positive comments regarding his presidency thus far. She claimed that the president has proposed to dissolve several of the New Democratic Institutions, such as the positions of the Secretary of Public Function and the Secretariat of Public Security. If such proposals and institutional reforms are successful, the country’s progress towards improving its transparency in governmental affairs and accountability will be diminished. Independent agencies, citizen participation and investigative journalism are pivotal to further the country’s path toward transparency.

Privatization may have been the solution employed to combat corruption in the ‘90s, but it has proven to be ineffective, Dr. Sandoval-Ballesteros contended. The transfer of control from the state to other powerful actors has not benefitted the state and society as a whole; rather, certain beneficiaries (for example, Carlos Slim – the wealthiest person on the planet) have reaped the rewards.

Dr. Hershberg concurred with Dr. Sandoval-Ballesteros in that Mexico has much potential. However, he disagreed with her for the reasons it has yet to achieve its capacity. He discussed the four stages for enacting public policies, and said the government has been unable to follow through the steps. Also, society’s capacity to hold institutions accountable is feeble – something that must be improved upon to increase transparency in the country.

The presentation was highly relevant to the overall region, as corruption is not only rampant in Mexico. Personally, I think representatives from the governments of all Latin American countries should make it a priority to attend events that propose solutions. Increased dialogue and cooperation is necessary if the region is to prosper (both economically and socially) in the future.

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