Sunday, March 01, 2009

Why newspaper exposés have little impact in México

Every day I read Mural and Público Milenio, two of the most important newspapers in Guadalajara, and I´m instantly depressed.

The amount of corruption, self-dealing, inefficiency and mismanagement in the public sector chronicled by these two newspapers is staggering. What´s depressing is that despite the publication of this information, almost nothing happens.

One newspaper editor here explained to me that the news media themselves are considered suspect by the public. Readers tend to assume that the owners of the newspaper or media outlet are using an exposé for political reasons, to punish enemies.

At the same time there are no ambitious procecutors or legislators ready to hold the villains accountable. The few citizens groups pressing for change are relatively ineffective.

A system with little accountability
People here don´t view the government and public money as theirs. They view it as the private playground of the politicians. Seventy years of rule by a single powerful party, the PRI, provided a kind of stability and the appearances of democracy but no real citizen involvement and no responsiveness. People don´t complain to their congressman or councilman. They don´t see the elected officials as their representatives. Voters are apathetic.

Long before drug money exacerbated the corruption, the political system was self-contained, self-sustaining. The courts, the public prosecutors, the labor unions, the police, the congress and the executive branch are all part of this system whose purpose is to share power, influence and money among themselves. The head of the teachers union, which gets enormous sums from the government, feels free to buy 59 Hummers for her local organizers, and there is an outcry, a bunch of lame excuses and then...nothing.

Nobody wants to rock the boat because their own private source of money and influence might be tossed overboard.

During the 2003 mid-term elections, after the PAN party had overthrown the PRI monopoly, this quote in the New York Times from a writer and painter, Enrique Canales, seemed emblematic:

''The control of the political bureaucracy, the teachers, the police, the bus drivers, that hasn't changed,'' he said. ''The PAN tries to clean up the system, but 85 percent of the people in it remain PRI-istas. So the changes that the PAN proposes do not show up at the local level. People don't see a difference. People don't see a change. It will take two decades to change things.''

Corruption indexes
Various indexes try to measure the corruption in Mexico -- Transparency International among them. By one estimate, corruption consumes 8-12% of Mexico´s GNP, but that doesn´t really capture the inertia of the system.

Failed state

The Pentagon has referred to Mexico as at risk of becoming a “failed state” because large areas of the country are controlled by druglords who own the politicans, from governors to state legislators to police chiefs and, in some cases, journalists. Mexican President Felipe Calderón strongly denies this characterization.

Update March 24: A leading Mexican journalist writing in the New York Times says talk of Mexico as a failed state is a wild exaggeration not based on the facts.

However the leader of a Mexican citizens group pointed out that organized crime has its own system of charging taxes (protection) in many parts of the country.

The Wall Street Journal had an in-depth piece recently on the growing power of the drug cartels in Mexico.

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