Roots of Corruption

By Richard N. Baldwin T./

A friend of mine where I work tells a joke about Mexican corruption: “Did you hear that Mexico is now the second most corrupt country in the world?” Response: “That’s great. Who is now first?” Answer: “Well, it was México, but we were able to bribe our way to second place.”

Of course, that demonstrates that there are two sides to corruption: the briber and the bribee. And who is the guiltiest?

To listen to any news source in the US, from press to broadcast and to cable, all paint México as a totally and hopelessly corrupt country. And this is supposed to be news. On the other hand, ask any Mexican, including our president if there is corruption in México, and the answer is, of course there is.

But to look at this in a little depth, remember that I stated recently that Mexico and the US evolved from two completely different starting points. For England, the colonies were a business venture.

England had a surplus population and an economy that could not provide enough employment. And they needed raw materials to support their factories. Very early in the colonial period, private companies were formed to exploit what amounted to royal land grants. This, of course, was a royal source if income. As far as the natives were concerned, they were only obstacles to the grand plan. Something to be removed. From a religious standpoint, most considered the natives as subhuman. The end result was a little hard on the natives.

In order to boost English migration to the colonies, a number of tricks were used. The penal system was altered for higher and stiffer penalties. When you were found guilty of something you had a choice: 20 or 30 years or get a paid for trip to the colonies (one way). In addition was the indentured servitude way to finance the trip yourself. What this amounted to was a legal form of slavery. The terms of your debt were constructed to make it difficult, if not possible to ever repay the loan. But in all of this, they all brought something with them that marked the US as something different: English Common Law, derived from the Magna Carta. And after the revolution, this remained the bedrock of US law. In fact, the Mayflower Compact, written by the Pilgrims, was one of the first legal documents promoting this system of laws. So, the English migration changed the area into something completely different and with very little native input.

The colonization of México by Spain was different. From the outset, it was a partnership investment: the Church and the Royal house of Spain. The king wanted gold (unavailable in the English territory), in other words, plunder. The Church, on the other hand, wanted souls. Convert the natives to Christianity and they became viable humans with souls. Yes, there was a form of an actual national slavery during the colonial period, but in the end, many more of the natives survived. And the natives were educated by the Church and valued by the king as necessary for the Mexican colonial system.

The Spanish brought Roman Code law without the niceties of the Magna Carta. Later this developed into the Napoleonic Code, which codified the Roman Code law, but was designed to perpetrate the rule of a dictator. But, as happens many times, an imported culture tends to freeze while the originating land continues to develop and change while the new country remains as before.  So was the case with the Mexican legal system. While Europe updated much of the Code Law over time, México kept such concepts as the presumption of guilt and a court system that is nonfunctional in today’s world.

Another example of imported cultural values is that in the colonial days, civil servants were paid at a very low rate. But it was expected that those desiring services contribute to those providing the service an additional “fee”. Why should someone without a dog have to be taxed to pay for the dog license bureau? In modern times this concept is absurd, but the thinking continues and is now known as the mordida, the “little bite”. While many, if not most of our government services are straight forward, our police system has yet to join the 21st century. They are underpaid, under trained and at the State and local levels, totally ineffective.

I remember the Dallas Morning News sending a reporter to the México City police academy after applying for a police job. There was one course that could only be described as Bribery 101. It taught the finer points of collecting bribes from the public. Talk about the Police Academy movies!

At the federal level there are ongoing efforts to correct this. Even to forming a new police training facility and gradually raising the pay levels. But México is a federal republic and the federal government is limited by the constitution on how much direct control they can have at the local levels. Also, one of the first acts the new president Calderón made was to raise the pay level of the Mexican army substantially.

I hope that you didn’t mind the history lesson, but I thought it would be good to put some of these things into prospective. The objective is to show some of the subtitle differences between our two countries.

My next column will be devoted to comparisons between México and the US on corruption details.