In Mexico Taking Care of Business Bites

la mordida todavia existe en MexicoBribery and political corruption are hardly unique to Mexico. According to Wikipedia, both are perceived to be greater issues in countries like Somalia, Angola, Sudan, Chad, and much of the Middle East than in Mexico. Yesterday’s blog, however, touched on the problem of corruption in Mexico and how it almost invariably supports big business interests. In the course of my morning online surfing (the wind is up, I’ll kite later), I happened across the following op-ed piece by Mexican poet, environmental activist and United Nations diplomat Homero Aridjis, illustrating the challenge faced by a nation to rein in what has become an accepted part of their culture.

La mordida,” the term in Spanish used for bribe literally means “the bite.” If, like me, you wonder where all this backroom dealing and monetary massaging started, Les Shulman, Mexico editor for Bellaonline, explains in his excellent article on the subject:

Although this institutionalized form of bribery dates back to the Spanish Colonial era (and wherever the Spanish colonized in the Americas), this insidious practice became entrenched in Mexico from 1929-2000 during the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s (PRI) near monopolistic political control of the country. The PRI’s long, virtually unopposed reign created a national culture which allowed for and perpetuated a lack of oversight in public life which permitted the widespread corruption to become, at all levels of government, the traditional and customary way of getting things done.

When the PRI’s reign ended in 2000, there was nation-wide hope that it would mean an end to what amounts to a 240 billion-dollar-a-year tax-free industry. The case of the Cabo Cortez developers receiving environmental permits through bribery is not all that unusual and reflects that described by Aridjis below. These and many other less notorious examples receiving little or no coverage by the media prove that 12 years have not been enough to change a culture entrenched from 71 years’ practice. It is, I believe, the challenge and the responsibility of the current generation of young Mexicans entering the workforce and political arena to change the face of their nation to one less blemished by corruption.

The Sun, the Moon and Walmart

Walmart bribes it's way into nationally significant Mexican lands

by HOMERO ARIDJIS

Translated from the Spanish by Betty Ferber.

From New York Times op-ed, Monday, April 30, 2012

A child in Mexico soon learns that corruption is a way of life, and that to get ahead in school, work and politics, “El que no transa, no avanza” — loosely, “You’re not going anywhere if you don’t cheat.”

When I was in junior high school, my history teacher sold us lottery tickets, promising that the more we bought, the higher our grades would be. The winning number, he said, would coincide with the National Lottery winner. I happened to buy that number and received the highest grade, but because he kept the tickets, I never got the money.

Years later, as president of an environmental activist organization called the Group of 100, I was offered visits to Las Vegas (chips provided), cars (drivers included), cash and even prostitutes in exchange for staying silent. But my most uncomfortable experience was in 1988, when I met with the secretary of Fisheries to protest the killing of dolphins by tuna fishers. He asked me, “What’s your problem?” “I don’t have any problems,” I replied. “How can I help you?” “Make the tuna fleet stop killing dolphins.” He reached for his checkbook. “Let’s talk money, how much do you want?”

So the news that Walmart may have paid $24 million in bribes for permits to open stores in Mexico was no surprise to me. When President Felipe Calderón declared he was “very indignant,” I thought of Claude Rains in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

Walmart already had a history of controversial behavior in Mexico. Most notably, in November 2004, despite widespread opposition, the company opened a 72,000-square-foot store within the boundaries of the 2,000-year-old city of Teotihuacán, which features the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon (“the place where men became gods” — or consumers?). Walmart has also built a supermarket on forested land in the resort town of Playa del Carmen, in Quintana Roo — though the permit for the building later turned out to have been granted for another site, on the island of Cozumel. The question now is who allows this, and in exchange for what?

Will the federal investigation discover how many Walmarts were built on the quicksands of corruption? Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City, is carrying out his own investigation, but considering that his brothers have been Walmart executives, I don’t have much hope that the truth will emerge. The other day I visited a Walmart, and one of the teenage packers, who are unsalaried and work for tips, confided in me that they had been forbidden to say anything to the press about their employer. They were told to consider themselves lucky to have a job at all.

In this country, corruption exists at all levels, from magnates to street vendors. It seems easier to get something done with a bribe than to fill out myriad forms and wait in lines to confront evasive civil servants. According to a recent study, companies shell out approximately 10 percent of their earnings to corrupt officials. In the last 30 years, the Mexican economy has lost more than $870 billion to corruption, crime and tax evasion.

The consequences of this corruption are clear. When devastating earthquakes hit Mexico City in 1985, an alarming number of shoddily constructed public buildings — schools, hospitals and government offices — were destroyed. Our school system has been hijacked by the politically powerful teachers’ union, and around 90 percent of the budget is eaten up by teachers’ salaries, though many on the payroll work for the union or hold political office instead of teaching.

Extortion and protection rackets flourish alongside drug trafficking. President Álvaro Obregón, who was assassinated in 1928, once said that “no general can resist a 50,000-peso cannon blast,” a precursor to today’s “plata o plomo” — silver or lead, the drug cartel’s offer to officials of a bribe or a bullet.

Clearly, putting an end to corruption — to kickbacks and nepotism, to crooked judges and policemen, to delinquent bureaucrats and drug lords — is Mexico’s greatest challenge. In 2000, when the left-of-center Institutional Revolutionary Party lost the presidency and its 71-year grip on power, there were hopes for reform, but it remains to be seen whether increased democratization will lead to lessened corruption.

This January, when a 341-foot-tall quartz-clad tower known as the Estela de Luz was inaugurated to commemorate 200 years of independence from Spain, Mr. Calderón called it “an emblem of a new era for Mexico.” And yet, the tower was finished 16 months late, at three times its planned cost. An investigation has begun; public servants have been charged with criminal offenses; protesters call it a monument to corruption.

The truth is, we have created a corrupt system that preys on both Mexicans and foreigners — how can we be outraged when an American company exploits it? At the same time, how can we hope for Mexicans to put an end to corruption when one of the most powerful and allegedly law abiding companies in the United States gives in to the same temptations? As a former governor of Chihuahua once said, after being accused of corruption, “If we put everyone who’s corrupt in jail, who will close the door?”

This essay was encountered on author Dick Russell’s website

Mexican President Calderon Sides with Cabo Pulmo

Cabo Pulmo Vivo protects Cabo Pulmo National ParkThe President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, just announced the cancellation of all permits for the mega-development Cabo Cortez. This was a massive development, on a scale the likes of Cancun which was planned to begin construction next to the northern boundary of Cabo Pulmo National Park. I got goose bumps when I received the instant message telling me that it was cancelled. And again when I read the notification from Greenpeace Mexico that arrived seconds later in my email inbox.

This is a huge success in the history of conservation in Mexico, perhaps worldwide. The forces promoting this development are big fish, sharks one might say, in the international world of development. They had the backing of many Mexican government officials, not the least of which included the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, responsible for issuing the permits that originally gave the project the go-ahead.

Earlier this year, in an historically unprecedented move, the Mexican Senate called Elvira Quesada onto the carpet to answer to charges that he issued the permits fraudulently. That is when many of us involved in the movement to save Cabo Pulmo from this threat, began to see a light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. While many local conservation organizations, including the one I co-founded, Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo, A.C.(ACCP), fought to get the project cancelled, it is without a doubt the tireless and diligent efforts of Greenpeace Mexico that brought the message of “Cabo Pulmo Vivo” and “No a Cabo Cortes!” to the hordes in Mexico City and beyond, collecting 220,000 signatures in support of the cause. Similarly, WildCoast, an international coastal conservation organization based in San Diego and Ensenada, worked in the trenches of grassroots activism and launched a media campaign that brought international attention to the plight of Cabo Pulmo.

Today is a banner day in the world of conservation and grassroots activism, but while celebration is in order for this historically unprecedented move by the Mexican government to protect its natural heritage, we must remain vigilant. In his speech, he makes it clear that it was the nature of the development and the inability of its proponents to demonstrate that it would not impact the park that led to its cancellation. He was clear that in the government’s opinion, development and the protection of natural resources are not incompatible. There is always the possibility that another developer will swoop in with another idea for the land. Hopefully the necessary support for a conservation easement or the creation of a land-based reserve will be garnered by those working so hard to keep Cabo Pulmo Alive.

The relatively tiny community organization of ACCP also deserves a great deal of credit for working so hard on a shoestring budget from their isolated location in a teensy off-the-grid desert village to protect a World Heritage Site for the rest of us. They plan to meet this evening to vote for a new executive board, but I suspect that meeting will metamorphose into a celebration of this David versus Goliath victory. I for one plan to be there to help them celebrate.

President Calderon’s announcement to the Press this morning (Spanish language only).