Can Francisco Barrio Break the Culture of Corruption?

This Cabinet member has the toughest job in Mexico

Francisco Barrio admits that he misses the open desert of his native Chihuahua. But when President Vicente Fox invited him to come to Mexico City and join his cabinet last December, this norteño could not refuse. Barrio, 50, has taken on one of the toughest jobs in the new administration: anticorruption czar. Barrio brings the can-do attitude of Mexico's north to his work, yet he is clear-eyed about what he can accomplish: "We won't be Finland. But we want to see a measurable reduction [in corruption]."

Corruption is a fact of life for all Mexicans, whether it involves a bribe to a traffic cop or a "fee" to a school that should be free. Kickbacks pad government contracts. Crooked judges let drug dealers and other criminals walk free. Mexico ranked a lowly 59th out of 90 countries in the annual corruption survey by Transparency International. Barrio estimates that corruption shaves as much as 9% off Mexico's gross domestic product.

Like every President before him, Fox has vowed to combat corruption more forcefully than his predecessors. But as a political maverick who ended 71 years of one-party rule, Fox is taking a new tack. Presidents typically jail a few prominent figures at the start of their term. Fox has yet to do that. Instead, he tapped Barrio to undertake an overhaul of the Federal Comptroller's Secretariat (Secodam), an agency long regarded as ineffectual. A longtime member of Fox's center-right National Action party, Barrio earned a reputation for clean government as Chihuahua state governor in the 1990s. His mandate now is not just to hunt down wrongdoers, but to design measures to prevent future corruption.

Barrio has already dispatched almost 700 auditors to pore over the books throughout the government bureaucracy. Last month, for example, Barrio's auditors discovered that employees at state-owned oil monopoly Petróleos Mexicanos were selling subsidized marine fuel as industrial diesel, a scam that was netting $100,000 a day. Barrio also zeroed in on the customs service, where he says some 100 top officials have been fired.

He is ferreting out shady business practices, too. His agency has coordinated a crackdown on illegal imports from Asia. A probe of garment assembly plants found that some 2,000 companies were importing fabric duty-free, supposedly for reexport, and instead selling it on the domestic market. "Fox is giving renewed hope to furthering investment because of what he's doing with corruption," says Charles A. Hayes, Chairman of Guilford Mills Inc., a Greenboro (N.C.) textile maker that operates in Mexico.

APATHY. The biggest problem Barrio faces is apathy. "[People] tell you it has always been like this, that it's natural," says Federico Reyes Heroles, president of the local chapter of Transparency International. That's why Secodam has kicked off an ad campaign that features an apple with a bite taken out of it, a reference to a mordida, the slang for a bribe. Barrio is also working with Transparency and several Mexican universities to devise indexes that measure corruption at the state and federal levels.

Barrio doesn't hesitate to enlist outsiders' help. The Federal Electricity Commission and the Bank Savings Protection Institute have both signed on to a new Secodam program that has independent monitors scrutinize public bidding processes. Meanwhile, a proposed freedom-of-information law will give the press and citizens' groups a powerful new weapon. "We want to create a climate that increasingly rejects corruption," says Barrio.

Some argue Barrio's focus on prevention isn't enough and that he needs a few high-profile cases. "It's important politically to see that the `big fish' go to trial," says Gustavo González-Báez, Mexico director for Decision Strategies Fairfax International, a corporate investigative firm. Some analysts believe that the Fox cabinet is divided over how to handle potential scandals left from the previous administration. Still, Barrio must be doing something right. These days, he travels with a bodyguard. When you're fighting corruption, if you don't make enemies, you're not doing your job.

By Elisabeth Malkin in Mexico City

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