Mexico's Faltering Fight Against Corruption

The wrong way to declare assets.

Photographer: Gilberto Villasana/AFP/Getty Images

Corruption in Mexico is not just a legal and moral problem. It is an economic one. The annual cost amounts to 5 percent of gross domestic product, according to one report, which also found that almost half of business owners said officials have sought money in exchange for contracts or business opportunities. Worse, those who are caught have rarely been punished: Only 1.5 percent of corruption cases lodged in Mexico end in conviction. (In Singapore, in contrast, the share is 80 percent.) In fact, many Mexicans say they're more concerned about government corruption than even security and the economy.

The sooner Mexico's leaders take charge of the battle to clean up government, the sooner they can ease people's concerns -- and those of their friends and neighbors abroad. It's been almost a year since Mexican citizens secured the passage of a series of constitutional reforms to limit corruption -- an achievement rightly hailed by President Enrique Pena Nieto as a "paradigm shift." But, unfortunately, the president's own Institutional Revolutionary Party is now holding up laws that are needed to make those reforms stick.

Pena Nieto's administration has made admirable health and energy reforms. Yet rampant corruption still casts a pall over commerce and undermines public support for future economic liberalization. The president needs to push his party to pass the bills, even if it means calling the legislature back for a special session.

The so-called "three out of three" bill -- which Mexican civil society groups drafted and put on the legislative agenda after gathering more than 600,000 signatures of support -- would require public officials to declare their assets, tax returns and private interests. Among other measures, this legislation would give more power and autonomy to a special prosecutor and create a framework for coordinating the government's overall anti-corruption effort.

Mexico's two biggest opposition parties have backed the bill. But the PRI has balked at marking it up in open session, has sought to water it down (proposing, for instance, that officials in some cases be able to duck prosecution for misusing public funds by making restitution), and has argued that the requirement for public disclosure might spark witch hunts. And this has delayed the change Mexico needs.

Corruption feeds not just domestic outrage but also the kind of toxic distortions about Mexico that Donald Trump and other outsiders peddle. Defending Mexico's reputation abroad will become easier when the government begins to lead, not hinder, the fight against corruption at home.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.