Life in a state of corruption

Mexico will elect a new president on July 1. I confess to following the campaign about as closely as I’m following the general election in Turkey on June 24, which is not too closely.

Even so, I’ve been impressed how the leading candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has lit up a populist brush fire by vowing to fight corruption and what he regards as an entrenched corporate and political mafia throttling Mexico’s national life. Polls point to a comfortable victory by AMLO, as he is called by the media and his followers.

What exactly he’ll do is still foggy but it’s been threatening-sounding enough to scare the horses of the industrial and business establishment. One alarmed CEO even sent a letter to all his employees predicting doom if AMLO is elected. A new Castro, Chávez, or worse.

From what I’ve read, including a long piece in the New Yorker by Jon Lee Anderson, AMLO has zigzagged in his populism, as any clever politician would, revving up some supporters one week and reassuring others the next.

Besides, promises to fight corruption, extortion, tax evasion, impunity, lawlessness and police abuses—the list goes on and on—are meaningless perennials in Mexican politics. Think of them as promises to put a kilo of carnitas in every pot and new Nissan Tsuru in every garage.

AMLO, we wish you luck. 

And corruption of all types and at all levels, from corporate money laundering down to the seemingly essential practice of having to pay bribes to cops and other public officials—an age-old tradition known as mordidas, or “bites”—is an inescapable fact of life in Mexico, as pervasive as smog in the capital or the sewage smell wafting from San Miguel’s make-believe storm drainage system.

Indeed the amounts of money in play are such one could fantasize that if AMLO were to recoup just a small amount—make it five percent—it would be a revolutionary accomplishment, akin to a Mexican Age of Aquarius.  (Hit the link and turn on the speakers on your computer for full effect. Feel free to sing along.)

Following is a local corruption sampler for the uninitiated, compiled during our twelve years in Mexico:

• So we take our old Nissan Frontier truck for its semiannual emissions test, and it fails. We’re told it needs a new catalytic converter that’ll cost about two-hundred-and-fifty dollars. How can that be when there are umpteen rattletrap cars and pickups chugging around town spewing blue smoke? How did they pass inspection?

Our mechanic Omar, seconded by our gardener Felix, offer a solution: He’ll take the truck to a more understanding inspection center he knows about, where the problem will be solved for a far more reasonable sum, of say, two-hundred-and-fifty pesos, or about thirteen dollars.

• A silly expectation that we brought from the U.S. is to receive a receipt for professional services, such as a visit to the doctor or the vet, or printed checks at a restaurant.

Here you usually pay cash, the provider puts the money in his pocket, and if you insist, his secretary will give you a “receipt” with the name of the doctor and the amount paid, handwritten on a three-by-three-inch Post It note. (For larger amounts, such as a stay at the hospital charged to a credit card, you will get a itemized statement).

Likewise, most restaurant bills come as handwritten scratch on a blank piece of paper. Some vendors will offer a “discount”, coincidentally equivalent to the Value Added Tax, if you pay cash.

Long and short: This is all part of a virtually universal runaround by vendors to avoid paying taxes. Extrapolate that to the national level, and it adds up to real money.

• A friend who lives out here in the country was waiting for an electricity hook-up by CFE, the government owned electric company. He waited and waited until a helpful CFE installer offered a quicker solution in exchange for, hmm, a small contribution. My friend went along, and he got his connection.

• A truck rear-ended my car about a year ago. I called the police—bad idea!—and we waited, for almost four hours, for more police cars to arrive and a “solution” to slowly materialize.

I thought the truck owner would pay me for the damage, until I saw him pull one of the cops aside and hand him a tight bundle of something. If you say “mordida!” you get an “A.”

The said cop then told me that if I pressed charges, my practically brand-new vehicle would be impounded for at least six months while the dispute was “resolved” by the State Attorney’s Office. I called the insurance agent, who told me to get back in my car and get the hell out of there.

• A mystery man dressed like a traffic cop stopped us once in Nuevo Laredo and wrote some sort of a ticket on account of my making an illegal left turn, and not wearing a seat belt (I had unbuckled it while searching my wallet and license!)

I would have to pay a fine of three-hundred-fifty pesos (cash, no credit cards please) at a nearby OXXO convenience store (similar to a 7-Eleven). As I paid the “fine” the cashier at the OXXO, rolled her eyes and looked at me pitifully: “You poor gringo pendejo.” No receipts or written tickets, of course.

• Now let’s talk about bees. About a year after we moved to this house, a swarm of bees moved into our chimney. We stopped by the local Department of Civil Defense, which is supposed to handle such crises. I gave them directions to our house and was told this was a free service.

A chipper young guy showed up a few days later, with a bucket of some noxious chemical that he poured down the chimney. He then told me there was three-hundred-and-fifty peso charge for the chemicals. “I thought it was free!,” I said. Then I felt the familiar nibble of a mordida, on my left cheek, if I recall correctly.

• Felix and some friends hitched a ride back from town on the bed of a pickup truck that was stopped for some sort of traffic infraction. The cop brazenly asked for a pretty hefty mordida, which the driver said he couldn’t afford. Without hesitation, the cop suggested to take a collection among the hitchhikers on the back. They passed the hat, came up with the money. Problem solved.

How to unscramble such a culture of top-to-bottom corruption is a task impossible for any one human being, so I’m not holding my breath for AMLO. But to the extent he holds out any hope at all, I wish him well.

And if he succeeds, move over Virgin of Guadalupe: Mexico will have a new patron saint.

6 thoughts on “Life in a state of corruption

  1. My personal favorite is while I was getting my fideicomiso, the judge asked for a mordida of about US$200 to sign it, which I refused to pay. I explained that I needed the fideicomiso to renew my FM3. I asked the judge to write a letter to Migracion explaining that I didn't have proof of residence because I wouldn't pay the bribe. He agreed. Unfortunately, my Notario told him that wasn't a good idea. I would have framed that letter.


  2. So few days to go and AMLO is so far ahead it seems inevitable. I think it is a good thing, Mexico has tried the other parties and there is little difference so let's give the man a chance. My more conservative Mexican friends do not agree with me.


  3. That is a good one! And it illustrates the problem perfectly. If you can't trust the judicial system to protect you, where does that leave you? Thanks for your


  4. Your conservative friends are probably friqueados (freaked out) about the possibility of an outsider crashing the political/economic party now controlled by insiders. Thank you for your


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s