Analysis: Corruption in Mexico

By ROBERTO CIENFUEGOS  |  March 23, 2004 at 4:54 PM
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MEXICO CITY, March 23 (UPI) -- In the midst of the worst corruption scandal in its 15-year history, Mexico's center-left Democratic Revolution Party, known as the PRD, which hoped to contest the upcoming presidential elections with President Vincente Fox Quesada of the National Action Party, or PAN, has lurched from one crisis to another.

The PRD's downward spiral began when the party's national president Rosario Robles resigned on March 10 after her romantic relationship with Argentine industrialist Carlos Ahumada became public. The case has thrown the former PRD president squarely in the center of a burgeoning political storm, darkening the party's future electoral prospects.

Robles' resignation ended a run of leftist militancy in the party, affecting key positions inside. Robles' problems were simply the latest installment in a saga of scandal afflicting the PRD. Ahumada's transgressions with Robles were primarily romantic, but late last month a number of videos began to surface that apparently indicate that Ahumada was bribing PRD officials in return for favors. The videos, shot by Ahumada, were to be used as insurance that his "clients" carried out his political wishes.

Prior to assuming the presidency of the PRD, Robles was mayor of Mexico City between September 1999 and December 2000, assuming the office when the PRD leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas resigned his seat to run for the presidency of Mexico for a third time, only to be defeated by Fox. Robles later took over the presidency of the PRD, but resigned after just 15 months, in August 2003, because of scandal and partisan politics.

Robles at the time said she had been the victim of "friendly fire" and a "dirty war," stating that she anticipated difficult times, which subsequently appeared. Robles tearfully admitted that it had been "a mistake" to get involved with Ahumada, but denied that she had favored him with contracts during the time that she was in government.

For Robles, her resignation from the PRD was "a squaring of accounts." She added: "The truth is that heads have to roll. I'm the one paying the price."

The scandals began in late February, when a video surfaced showing federal senator and leader of the Mexican Green Party Jorge Emilio Gonzalez allegedly accepting $2 million for helping developers get permission to build on a protected shorefront area in the Caribbean resort town of Cancun. It was the broadcasting of two subsequent videos that enmeshed the PRD in charges of corruption. The broadcasts disappointed Mexican voters, who had ousted the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in the 2000 elections after a 71-year monopoly of power largely because of the PRI's endemic corruption.

Three subsequent videos leaked to television stations and broadcast apparently showed two PRD members, Mexico City's former Minister of Finance Gustavo Ponce Melendez and Mexico City legislator Rene Bejarano, involved in illegal activity. The first showed Ponce Melendez betting enormous amounts of public funds in a luxurious casino in Las Vegas. After the video was shown, Mexico City's populist Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador promptly fired Ponce Melendez, who subsequently disappeared without a trace to avoid facing embezzlement charges. At the time of Ponce Melendez's flight, city prosecutors had already been investigating a $3 million fraud in Ponce's department. Mexican prosecutors accuse Ponce Melendez of corruption and possible involvement in money laundering as well.

The second video involving PRD politicians showed Bejerano, one of the mayor's closest allies, personally receiving $45,000 in cash from Ahumada. A third video also surfaced, showing Tlalpan's current PRD delegate Carlos Imaz receiving money from Ahumada.

Ahumada at first tried to brazen it out, filing a criminal complaint in late February alleging that PRD officials Bejarano and Imaz were in fact extorting money from him. Bejarano and Imaz denied attempting extortion, saying the funds were offered as campaign contributions and that Robles had been involved in setting up the meetings. Protesting their innocence, they said they had rejected Ahumada's demands to plant his own candidates in key city finance posts.

The scandal also threatens the political future of the PRD's most populist figure, Lopez Obrador, who has suffered a recent dramatic drop in popularity. The stakes for Lopez Obrador are high -- the PRD captured Mexico City's mayoral office when the first direct elections for the post were held in 1997. Previously the president chose the mayor personally. A few weeks ago, Lopez Obrador described himself in his bid for Mexico's presidency as a "politically indestructible" public figure. Lopez Obrador sourly observed of the mounting criticism, "They don't only mean to pluck the rooster. They want to take him out."

The bribery scandals surrounding Ahumada have reached all the way to President Vicente Fox's office. His government has been on the defensive since reports surfaced that the head of the federal intelligence service and National Action PAN Senator Diego Fernandez de Cevallos had met with Ahumada at a hotel on Feb. 20 shortly before the scandal erupted, when he formally ratified his complaint before a federal prosecutor. Ahumada is now in hiding.

While the scandals have most heavily damaged the PRD, the ripples of corruption seem destined to spread wider and wider, reaching all the way to Los Pinos, the presidential residence. While a number of politicians have lost their careers over the scandals, the real losers are Mexico's voters, who had voted in new parties in the hope of ending institutionalized corruption.

(Roberto Cienfuegos is a writer with Tiempos del Mundo)

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