Three's a Charm: Anti-Corruption
Initiative Brings Change to
Fed up with paying bribes, illegal fees, and other forms of extortion, the people of Mexico rallied behind a campaign that started online but united in-person to push back against rampant corruption.
Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad (IMCO) brokered a collaboration with other think tanks, business associations, and NGOs to launch the anti-corruption initiative, “3de3,” and empowered citizens to pressure Mexico’s congressional members to demonstrate greater transparency and achieve lasting reform. IMCO’s efforts were rewarded Nov. 8 during Atlas Network’s Freedom Dinner when it was awarded the prestigious $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award.
IMCO was one of six finalists competing for the award that is named for the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The award annually honors his legacy by identifying and recognizing the most exceptional and innovative contributions to the understanding of free enterprise, and the public policies that encourage prosperity, innovation, and human fulfillment via free competition.
“Ending corruption and fostering respect for the rule of law where it does not exist is exceedingly difficult – and extremely important,” said Brad Lips, Atlas Network CEO, on IMCO’s selection as the TFA recipient. “Congratulations to IMCO for creating popular demand for this change and seeing it through.”
Rule of Law in Name Only
When Daniel Anthony traveled to Mexico City, he had but one question: What is the story of institutionalized corruption in Mexico?
Atlas Network’s vice president of marketing and communications had not even arrived at IMCO’s offices before he received his answer. While settling into the back of a taxi, his driver Miguel Angel lamented that he often has to pay an off-the-books fee just to wait in line for passengers at the airport’s only official taxi pick-up spot. Even after paying off the right guy, Miguel Angel has to jostle his way into a spot.
Anthony traveled to Mexico in June 2017 to meet with several IMCO staff members, representatives of Mexican civil society organizations, journalists, and politicians to gauge the full impact of IMCO’s anti-corruption initiative, characterized by its “3de3” (3for3) campaign. One of those meetings involved an interview with Carlos Loret de Mola, a prominent journalist, TV anchor, war correspondent, and friend of IMCO. When asked Anthony’s all-important question about the story of corruption in Mexico, Loret de Mola gave the example of Juana, a typical Mexican mom on the outskirts of the city center. Juana, he said, often feels forced to regularly pay her garbage man 20 pesos to ensure its removal. The trash collectors, in turn, bribe the local deputy director of waste removal in the municipality to receive the best routes, which provide the best pick of the litter. The deputy director, in order to shore up his scheme, bribes the director of waste removal, who bribes the president of the municipality, and onward and upward the system goes, infiltrating the government and engaging most every aspect of daily life. It’s an unfortunate legacy of the country’s historical political patronage system. Each rung up the ladder supports those above it while being rewarded for doing so.
Mexican citizens earning average incomes lose as much as 14 percent of their wages to corruption, and as much as 33 percent of the income of families living on minimum wage is spent on bribes and illegal fees just to receive basic services, according to Transparencia Mexicana’s “National Index for Corruption and Good Government.” Corruption long has been synonymous with the rules of just conduct for Mexico’s government. From 2000 to 2013, at least 41 governors of Mexican states were accused of corruption. Only 16 were criminally investigated, and just four were arrested. Meanwhile, all nine U.S. governors who faced similar accusations in that same timespan were prosecuted. In such an apathetic atmosphere, where “getting things done” involves illegally greasing the wheels in plain sight, it was widely considered to be politically impossible to enact change.
That was the case until IMCO dared to change what was considered politically possible. This is the story of how – for the first time in modern Mexican democracy – a credible and effective anti-corruption legal infrastructure has come to life.
Daring to Change
Max Kaiser, IMCO’s anti-corruption director, details the influence of Mexico’s brand corruption.
“When corruption and impunity become the norm, as they have in Mexico, three things happen: they expand, corrode, and become embedded in the system. Corruption expands when politicians realize that fellow public servants are obtaining illegal benefits, without facing consequences. Corruption corrodes institutions when an important part of their staff becomes more focused on obtaining private illegal benefits than on serving the public. And corruption becomes embedded in the system when an institution normalizes corruption as a regular characteristic of its procedures and activities.”
In an effort to induce transparency and accountability in the Mexican government, IMCO launched its anti-corruption reform initiative in 2015 by establishing an online platform in partnership with the Mexican Chapter of Transparency International, where members of Congress and Senators could provide three documents: 1) annual declarations of their assets, 2) possible conflicts of interest, and 3) proof of fiscal standing (taxes paid). These three documents were nicknamed the “3de3,” (or 3for3). A few months later, IMCO launched a parallel campaign targeted at candidates running for office, identifying those who had submitted their 3de3 declarations and providing contact information to the public for those who did not. It became such an effective public accountability tool that the National Electoral Institute promoted the 3de3 platform as a means to provide informed voting in 2015 and 2016.
“[The] 3de3 aims to spark a two-fold change: improving the efficiency of legislation to fight corruption, and channeling citizens’ anger in a constructive way to strengthen existing institutions,” says Juan Pardinas, director general of IMCO. “For the average Mexican, it opens up a new way to participate in the configuration of the political agenda, without being part of the political elite.”
The 3de3 campaign gained so much momentum that 27 of 32 governors submitted 3de3 declarations, as had nearly 3,000 candidates and civil servants. Widespread buy-in from Mexican citizens, coupled with substantial media coverage, encouraged IMCO to translate its initiative into legislation by capitalizing on the passage of reforms in May 2015 that created the National Anti-Corruption System. The Mexican Congress had one year to produce and pass secondary laws for the system. IMCO also sought to take advantage of a recently enacted civil participation law to propose its own legislative package that would give the National Anti-Corruption System teeth, establish it as a truly independent body, and incorporate the 3de3 as a legal requirement. However, submitting a citizen-sponsored bill to the Mexican Congress required 120,000 signatures, and no previous effort had been successful.
IMCO’s General Law of Administrative Responsibilities, or “Ley 3 de 3” (3 for 3 Law), which would codify the 3de3 as a legal requirement for all government employees, became the rallying point under which IMCO’s campaign took shape.
The challenge proved daunting. IMCO initially raised only 2,000 signatures and its critics appeared vindicated. At a crossroads, the organization was faced with a decision: give up the drive to submit a citizen-sponsored bill and focus its efforts elsewhere, or double down and keep collecting signatures. It chose the latter and pursued new strategic partnerships, one of them being with David Noel Ramírez, then-head dean of Tecnológico de Monterrey, one of Mexico’s top universities. In a YouTube plea, Ramírez asked his students and the broader community to sign the petition. His video gained traction as various groups flocked to join the campaign and gather petitions, including state-level partners and citizen groups small and large. Key to the campaign’s success were the partnerships IMCO established with Transparencia Mexicana, the Espinosa Yglesias Study Center (CEEY), and the Employers Confederation of the Mexican Republic (COPARMEX), Mexico’s largest national association of business owners with representation in all 32 Mexican states.
In the end, IMCO delivered 634,143 signatures in favor of “Ley 3 de 3” in April 2016 – far exceeding the number required for submission to the Senate. It would also become the first citizen initiative to make it through the Senate. IMCO’s coalition marked an unprecedented popular mobilization of civil society organizations, academia, businesses, citizen action groups, and media to demand government accountability in Mexico – and the Latin American region more broadly. This feeling was shared by Elizabeth Ramírez, director of the Office of Integrity and Transparency, USAID/Mexico, whom Anthony also met with on his trip.
“IMCO is a real strategic partner,” she said. “IMCO helps get all the parties to the table."
While the government green-lit IMCO’s petition collection efforts, it clearly did not want it to succeed. In June 2017, a widely circulated New York Times article announced that the Mexican government had been spying on Pardinas, his wife, and many other critics of the Mexican government, including Loret de Mola. The sophisticated spyware possessed the capability to turn their smartphones into “bugs” that could be controlled remotely and subjected both Pardinas and his wife to threatening text messages – one even threatened that there was a truck of armed men outside their home. Not to be intimidated, Pardinas and IMCO continued in their mission to bring about a better Mexico.
“IMCO rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘OK, this is going to be hard,’” Loret de Mola said. “I imagine they never thought it was going to be that hard, and that painful.”
But IMCO overcame.
“Juan [Pardinas] and Alexandra [Zapata, coordinator of the 3de3 project and IMCO’s director of education and civic innovation] have been under tons of pressure from governments at the local, state, and federal level,” Loret de Mola continued. “But they kept moving.”
Request Becomes Requirement
Undeterred by pushback from the government, IMCO plowed ahead with its 3de3 campaign. It also was heavily involved in drafting six other measures to strengthen the National Anti-Corruption System’s foundation. Within six months, all seven of IMCO’s draft laws were passed, which brought the National Anti-Corruption System to life. The momentum behind the national campaign created a sense of urgency that dominated the legislative agenda, and IMCO staffers regularly provided Congressional testimony during the lawmaking process.
The wave of anti-corruption legislation IMCO ushered through Mexico’s Congress is significant for many reasons.
“In sharp contrast with the common way in which laws and institutions are created in Mexico,” Kaiser explains, “the National Anti-Corruption System establishes institutions, procedures, functions, and capacities that were designed and proposed by stakeholders without an obvious conflict of interest in the subject.”
The National Anti-Corruption System defines 10 separate types of corruption and spells out accompanying punishments for each. It also establishes a collaborative group of government agencies with the full investigative power to prevent and fight corruption. It implements checks and balances in the investigation and prosecution processes with an emphasis on recuperating lost resources and holds the private sector just as accountable for its active role in corruption. Furthermore, it inaugurates a new culture of accountability, simplifies the method of filing complaints, protects whistleblowers, institutes a legal obligation on public servants to report corruption, and more.
"In sharp contrast with the common way in which laws and institutions are created in Mexico, the National Anti-Corruption System establishes institutions, procedures, functions, and capacities that were designed and proposed by stakeholders without an obvious conflict of interest in the subject." "...The National Anti-Corruption System establishes institutions, procedures, functions, and capacities that were designed and proposed by stakeholders without an obvious conflict of interest in the subject."—Max Kaiser, IMCO’s anti-corruption director
“The new anti-corruption laws are designed to break the cycle by creating better conditions for detection, investigation, and sanction of corruption, through three key improvements: comprehensive legal capacities for authorities, [defined] legal types of corruption for public and private agents, and a new system of incentives toward prevention,” Kaiser says.
Importantly, the body that was created to legally monitor the implementation of the new anti-corruption system – the permanent Citizen Participation Council (CPC) – is comprised of citizens rather than bureaucrats. Pursuant to the laws passed by the Mexican Congress, notable academics and leaders in civil society were nominated to participate in a selection process that was open for public application and were appointed to be members of the National Anti-Corruption System’s Selection Committee. This committee appointed all members of the CPC. Notably, Pardinas was tapped as a member and tasked with ensuring independence and circumventing political influence in the appointment process. In another unprecedented departure from politics as usual, the selection process of the CPC was so transparent that it live streamed all candidate interviews, and the leading role of civil society throughout this movement was cemented by conducting the swearing-in ceremony of all members of the CPC at IMCO’s office, and not in the Senate chambers.
All 32 states were given until July 18, 2017, to comply with the National Anti-Corruption System, and IMCO drafted a model state law to act as a template, with 13 states adopting at least 70 percent of IMCO’s suggestions. It also set up an “anti-corruption thermometer” watchdog tool, updated monthly, to track the progress of local legal frameworks and their degree of compliance with federal standards.
Reflecting on IMCO’s unprecedented success story, Loret de Mola lauds the effects of the organization’s advocacy.
“In Mexico, we talked a lot about corruption,” Loret de Mola said. “We raised the bar in terms of public conversation about corruption, but not until IMCO came into the picture did things start to happen.”
Politically Impossible Made Possible
At the inception of the 3de3 campaign in 2015, the concept of a “conflict of interest” in Mexico was seen as unavoidable or even a necessary evil. Now, it is expected of each politician and civil servant to make such declarations. IMCO first took up the cause of anti-corruption reform after it determined how inhibitive corruption was to Mexico’s competitiveness. It hinders economic growth, discourages entrepreneurship, and encourages cronyism, among several other harmful effects.
“Corruption is ultimately all about human rights,” said María Elena Morera Mitre, the wife of a formerly kidnapped businessman and founder of Causa en Común. “And IMCO's 3de3 helps the people make the connection between corruption and the costs of corruption. 3de3 is part of the essential steps needed to rebuild all of the systems in Mexico."
The 3de3 framework equally enacts a handful of obligations for all public servants — from low-level municipal workers to the president. This legal requirement provides Mexican citizens access to a basic level of government transparency concerning the economic interests and holdings of its public servants. Simultaneously, it represents the most comprehensive legal infrastructure to expose and fight corruption in the country’s history.
This system also represents the first time that everyday Mexican citizens were able to make their voices and their vision for governmental accountability heard directly. The success of the 3de3 campaign serves as an inspiration for the future of Mexican democracy and the role of civil society within it.
—María Elena Morera Mitre, the wife of a formerly kidnapped businessman and founder of Causa en Común
“In the context of pervasive disappointment in government and minimal engagement in public affairs, 3de3 has become tangible evidence that citizens, collaborating and working together, can enact change at the highest level in Mexico,” Zapata explains. “Moving forward, the 3de3 law and the institutional innovation that accompanied it will undoubtedly serve as inspiration for other sectors of civil society with the hope of pushing forward agendas that have been historically neglected by the political elite.”
IMCO’s relentless advocacy on behalf of all Mexicans will be lauded as a campaign that organizations can strive to emulate for years to come.
“In 10 years from now we want to see Mexico as a country where corruption is socially abhorred, it is effectively detected by efficient authorities, it is properly investigated and sanctioned, and individuals are held responsible for the crimes committed,” Kaiser concludes. “3de3 will be seen as the first step in the construction of the legal basis for institutional change, but it also will be regarded as the beginning of the change in social attitudes toward corruption in our country.”
"In the context of pervasive disappointment in government and minimal engagement in public affairs, 3de3 has become tangible evidence that citizens, collaborating and working together, can enact change at the highest level in Mexico." "...3de3 has become tangible evidence that citizens, collaborating and working together, can enact change at the highest level in Mexico."—Alexandra Zapata, coordinator of the 3de3 project and IMCO’s director of education and civic innovation
Loret de Mola, who provided the example of Juana, describes why she can have hope for the future.
“The National Anti-Corruption System brings it all down from the top … and that is a change of culture,” Loret de Mola says. “When Juana feels that she doesn’t need to give money anymore to have her trash picked up, that is going to be quite a different [Mexico]. It is changing now and it is happening now, all the way down to Juana. You see, Juana is irritated by corruption, not because the president has a nice house or the cabinet member is very rich, but because she has to pay this money. She supports 3de3 because she knows it starts up there. You can take down this system of corruption if you start with the people in charge of the country. That is what IMCO does. That is what the National Anti-Corruption System does.”
It is never easy to enact change at the highest level of any country, and IMCO’s citizen-led legislative initiative reminds not just Mexicans – but citizens of democratic countries everywhere – that shaping the apparatus of government is never truly out of reach.
Thank you to Guadalupe Mendoza and Jeff Cota for assisting in the editing of this story.
About the Templeton Freedom Award and the additional 2017 finalists:
Awarded since 2004, the Templeton Freedom Award is named for the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The award annually honors his legacy by identifying and recognizing the most exceptional and innovative contributions to the understanding of free enterprise, and the public policies that encourage prosperity, innovation, and human fulfillment via free competition. The award is generously supported by Templeton Religion Trust and was presented during Atlas Network’s Freedom Dinner on Nov. 8, 2017, in New York City at the historic Capitale. IMCO received a $100,000 prize, and five additional finalists received $25,000 prizes. The other finalists for the 2017 Templeton Freedom Award were:
- Beacon Center of Tennessee (Nashville, TN) for its Tackle the Hall Tax campaign
- Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) (Norcross, GA) for its Prisoner Reentry Initiative
- IMANI Center for Policy and Education (Accra, Ghana) for its IMANIFesto
- Instituto de Estudos Empresariais (IEE) (Porto Alegre, Brazil) for its Fórum da Liberdade
- Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy (MLI) (Ottawa, Canada) for its Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy project