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LATIN AMERICA

“I stole, yes, but just a little”

Mexican mayor’s confession show that anti-corruption measures have made little progress

Hilario Ramírez Villanueva in an image from a YouTube video.
Hilario Ramírez Villanueva in an image from a YouTube video.

Hilario Ramírez Villanueva is the owner of a mango packing house. He likes to walk around his hometown of San Blas, on the Pacific coast, in a cowboy hat with his shirt unbuttoned all the way down to his navel. He was dressed just like that on the afternoon of June 8 when he stood up before 50 residents at an electoral event. These men and women were bored with the previous speaker, the former mayor. But now they were listening to Ramírez utter a sentence that would make its way into the footnotes of Mexican history books. He stood on stage and, with a microphone in hand, said: “They have criticized me because I really like money. Who doesn’t? [They also say] that I stole from the mayor’s office. Well, yes, I did steal from it. I stole from it, I stole from it, I stole from it but – just a little – because it was pretty poor. It was nothing more than a little shaving off.”

“I stole from it, but just a little.” The sentence, which was captured on video and posted on YouTube, sent a shock down the country’s spine. First, it triggered laughter and then it unleashed a scandal and now, more than a month later, it has led to disillusionment. Ramírez, who ran as an independent candidate, regained the mayor’s seat with 40 percent of the vote. “As you can see, things didn’t go so badly for me. And that’s because they know that the thing about stealing was not true, that I am a man of the people, that I dedicate myself to doing good, that I help the poor and that there are few people like me,” Ramírez boasts in an interview with EL PAÍS. Unlike in 2008, when he won and arrived at his investiture on a thoroughbred estimated to be worth $250,000, this time the mango packer celebrated his victory by handing out 20-, 50- and 100-peso bills to whoever approached him, whether he knew them or not. For many Mexicans, this picture represents the political degradation in the country.

One out of every seven Mexicans says the justice system has failed them

“He’s a horrible character and that says something about us and about our permissiveness with certain behaviors,” says Juan Pardinas, director of the Instituto Mexicano de Competitividad, an economic think tank. “We have made legal progress but we still have to bring an end to impunity. Without punishment there is no accountability. And here, for the time being, the United States justice system is the one who really goes after them. It’s like we have outsourced justice to them.” His opinion reflects that of many people and their sentiment comes from an experience that they endure with bitterness: one out of every seven Mexicans says the justice system has failed them. The result is loss of confidence in public authorities. According to Mexico’s statistics bureau, 90 percent of citizens say the police is the most corrupt organization, followed by politicians (84.4 percent) and the Prosecutor General’s Office (78.4 percent).

Promises to stop this decline are followed up by complete silence. The last and loudest declaration was a call for the creation of a national anti-corruption commission in November 2012. The initiative was meant to clean up corruption in the public administrations. Almost two years later, the proposal is still stuck in Congress and does not appear on any of the parties’ agendas. Their rosters are filled up with measures concerning energy and telecommunications reforms.

Some progress has been made through hand-to-hand combat. A breath of fresh air is blowing through Mexico and figures who once seemed untouchable are falling. This government’s first prey was Elba Esther “La Maestra” Gordillo, the leader of the powerful national teacher’s union. She served time in prison in 2013 for misappropriating $200 million. The arrest of this woman, a compulsive shopper who could buy 10 pairs of Jimmy Choo shoes or diamonds worth $350,000 from Tiffany’s in one go, was seen as a warning signal from President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Other high-ranking officials have fallen in her wake. “There is no anti-corruption party,” Pardinas says. “They are all affected by it. Even the National Action Party (PAN), which was famous for being incorruptible, lost that reputation after it took power.”

The most notable figures who have fallen have been the governors because of the power the Mexican federal system entrusts in their offices. And, among them, Tomás Yarrington shines like a black pearl. The former governor of Tamaulipas state on the Mexican-American border, who ran for president on the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ticket, became a fugitive from the law after the United States ordered his capture for bank fraud, money laundering, accepting bribes from the Gulf Cartel, and even cocaine trafficking. While on the run, the elegant Yarrington opened a Facebook page where he insists on his innocence and declares himself a victim of political persecution.

Figures who once seemed untouchable are now falling

The neighboring state of Coahuila has also seen its governor flee. Jorge Torres, a PRI member, is wanted for money laundering. The face of this once-powerful figure is now posted on the website of the US’s Drug Enforcement Administration, next to the sour faces of a motley crew of fugitives. The reward, it says, is negotiable.

Others have not had time to escape. In the eastern state of Michoacán, the cradle of self-defense goups, Jesús Reyna, PRI member, state secretary and former interim governor in 2013 during the virulent skirmishes with the drug cartels, was arrested and jailed because of his ties to the Knights Templar, whom he was supposedly hunting down. His boss for many years, Governor-elect Fausto Vallejo, stepped down a few weeks ago, citing “health reasons,” just after his son was discovered to have links to the same criminal organization.

The list is long and it reaches into the spacious offices of the administration from top to bottom. Newspapers uncover some new case every day and there is a dismissal or resignation. But the discontent remains. “Mexico has made progress on transparency,” says Eduardo Bohórquez, director of the Mexican bureau of Transparency International, an organization that ranks the country at the same level as Niger on its corruption watch list, number 106 out of 177 nations. “Cases that were once hidden have been uncovered. Now they talk about them. They publish them. But there is a missing step because people continue to act with impunity. There needs to be a credible threat of sanction. There are dismissals, disqualifications, fines, but it’s rare to see a prison sentence.”

The solution lies in strengthening the judicial system and in creating credible punitive measures. That’s the way to rebuild confidence in politicians – a class of people San Blas mayor Hilario Ramírez calls “suckers who have forgotten about the people.” Not like him. He has already announced a huge party for his birthday on February 22, 2015. He promises an appearance by the popular Banda El Recodo, meat from 50 animals and 50,000 cartons of beer. That’s exactly five beers per San Blas resident. It is his way of doing politics in “honorable” fashion.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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