How Mexico Became So Corrupt

From Sicily to Tijuana, how monopolies and governments perpetuate one another.

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A protester gestures next to traffic police outside Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) in Mexico City on July 4, 2012. The placard reads, "Comrades, to your trench, to the theatrical trench. Because this is a festival, the people have awakened and will fight for their people." (Edgard Garrido/Reuters)

Grupo Televisa, the world's largest Spanish-language media company, is famous for its logo, a gold-colored eye gazing at the world through a television screen. According to The Guardian, this logo "captures the company's success at controlling and dominating what Mexicans watch".

In a country where newspaper readership is tiny and the reach of the Internet and cable is still largely limited to the middle classes, Televisa -- and its rival TV Azteca -- exert a powerful influence over national politics. Through its scores of stations and repeater towers, the former accounts for roughly two-thirds of the nation's free-to-air television; most of the rest belong to Azteca.

Accused for decades of politically slanted news coverage, Televisa represents another rarely spoken fact: modern Mexico has never functioned without corruption, and its current system would either collapse or change beyond recognition if it tried to do so.

Just before the 2012 elections, Mexican news magazine Proceso and The Guardian released evidence of a series of shady deals struck between Televisa and the nation's powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (the "PRI").

In return for multimillion dollar payouts, the network provided the PRI's candidate a special "public awareness campaign" that gave him glowing coverage on its flagship news and entertainment shows; "hushed" criticism on the network's talk shows; and "subliminal" promotion to strengthen his overall image.

In its typically artful way, the PRI had managed to secure a lock on the nation's airwaves.

Although the exposé provoked widespread student protests for weeks leading up to the election, it barely made a blip in the results. The PRI's candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, won by a landslide.

In the aftermath, Peña Nieto immediately clinched a deal -- again, in typical PRI fashion -- called "Pact for Mexico," a set of 95 vague proposals that gathered together powerful actors from every political party under one broad tent.

***

In the early 1960s a psychologist named Douglas McGregor observed two basic theories of management. Theory X assumes that most people are naturally indolent and seek to get away with something for which they are not entitled. Theory Y assumes the reverse -- that most people are basically honest and hardworking and, if provided with reasonable expectations of satisfactory performance, strive to achieve it.

It may come as no surprise that Mexican companies are overwhelmingly theory X organizations.

Why this is true is deeply rooted in the nation's past. One telling sign is the way business came to rely on government; not just in terms of policy decisions (which affect business in every nation) but personal relations with government officials.

Since the nation's founding, few private fortunes were made without colmillo ("fang" or cunning), the owner's ability to cultivate ties to the right officials and master the art of "mutually convenient" relationships.

In this scheme, the mindset of politicians drove (and was driven by) the mindset of business leaders: wary, secretive, suspicious, and cynical. Each group deeply distrusted the other, yet both intermingled in the same tight-knit social and business circles.

An entire foundation supported this symbiosis: classism, Catholicism, a gulf between pre-Hispanic and European values, strong authoritarian and elitist traditions, and, of course, corruption. On all sides, trust was minimal. Most transactions were made between family, friends and neighbors.

In time, the sense of "us versus them" gave rise to deep-seated paranoia, subtle and often unspoken expectations to keep outsiders outside -- the knowing wink, the sealed lips.

***

Across the Atlantic, this same deep mutual distrust morphed into an entire way of life; what the Sicilians call omertà -- a rigorous code of silence and non-interference in the illegal acts of others.

Back in the 1920s, a famous Italian official named Cesari Mori was appointed prefect of Palermo, the capital of Sicily. Mori was a model police officer, later chosen by Mussolini to lead his national campaign against organized crime.

For years, Mori lived in Trappini on the western part of the island. In his writings, he claimed to have "penetrated the Sicilian mind" which he found to be:

"Simple and kindly, apt to color everything with generosity of feeling, inclined to deceive itself, to hope and believe; ready to lay all its knowledge, affection and cooperation at the feet of a powerful figure who assumes their legitimate need for justice and redemption," according to Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia.

The key to the Mafia's success, he argued, was its ability to understand this complex dynamic and exploit it.

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Lawrence Weiner is a business consultant and teacher living in Mexico City.

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