A CHILD in Mexico soon learns that corruption is a way of life, and that to get ahead in school, work and politics, “El que no transa, no avanza” — loosely, “You’re not going anywhere if you don’t cheat.”
When I was in junior high school, my history teacher sold us lottery tickets, promising that the more we bought, the higher our grades would be. The winning number, he said, would coincide with the National Lottery winner. I happened to buy that number and received the highest grade, but because he kept the tickets, I never got the money.
Years later, as president of an environmental activist organization called the Group of 100, I was offered visits to Las Vegas (chips provided), cars (drivers included), cash and even prostitutes in exchange for staying silent. But my most uncomfortable experience was in 1988, when I met with the secretary of Fisheries to protest the killing of dolphins by tuna fishers. He asked me, “What’s your problem?” “I don’t have any problems,” I replied. “How can I help you?” “Make the tuna fleet stop killing dolphins.” He reached for his checkbook. “Let’s talk money, how much do you want?”
So the news that Walmart may have paid $24 million in bribes for permits to open stores in Mexico was no surprise to me. When President Felipe Calderón declared he was “very indignant,” I thought of Claude Rains in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”
Walmart already had a history of controversial behavior in Mexico. Most notably, in November 2004, despite widespread opposition, the company opened a 72,000-square-foot store within the boundaries of the 2,000-year-old city of Teotihuacán, which features the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon (“the place where men became gods” — or consumers?). Walmart has also built a supermarket on forested land in the resort town of Playa del Carmen, in Quintana Roo — though the permit for the building later turned out to have been granted for another site, on the island of Cozumel. The question now is who allows this, and in exchange for what?
Will the federal investigation discover how many Walmarts were built on the quicksands of corruption? Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor of Mexico City, is carrying out his own investigation, but considering that his brothers have been Walmart executives, I don’t have much hope that the truth will emerge. The other day I visited a Walmart, and one of the teenage packers, who are unsalaried and work for tips, confided in me that they had been forbidden to say anything to the press about their employer. They were told to consider themselves lucky to have a job at all.
In this country, corruption exists at all levels, from magnates to street vendors. It seems easier to get something done with a bribe than to fill out myriad forms and wait in lines to confront evasive civil servants. According to a recent study, companies shell out approximately 10 percent of their earnings to corrupt officials. In the last 30 years, the Mexican economy has lost more than $870 billion to corruption, crime and tax evasion.
The consequences of this corruption are clear. When devastating earthquakes hit Mexico City in 1985, an alarming number of shoddily constructed public buildings — schools, hospitals and government offices — were destroyed. Our school system has been hijacked by the politically powerful teachers’ union, and around 90 percent of the budget is eaten up by teachers’ salaries, though many on the payroll work for the union or hold political office instead of teaching.
Extortion and protection rackets flourish alongside drug trafficking. President Álvaro Obregón, who was assassinated in 1928, once said that “no general can resist a 50,000-peso cannon blast,” a precursor to today’s “plata o plomo” — silver or lead, the drug cartel’s offer to officials of a bribe or a bullet.
Clearly, putting an end to corruption — to kickbacks and nepotism, to crooked judges and policemen, to delinquent bureaucrats and drug lords — is Mexico’s greatest challenge. In 2000, when the left-of-center Institutional Revolutionary Party lost the presidency and its 71-year grip on power, there were hopes for reform, but it remains to be seen whether increased democratization will lead to lessened corruption.
This January, when a 341-foot-tall quartz-clad tower known as the Estela de Luz was inaugurated to commemorate 200 years of independence from Spain, Mr. Calderón called it “an emblem of a new era for Mexico.” And yet, the tower was finished 16 months late, at three times its planned cost. An investigation has begun; public servants have been charged with criminal offenses; protesters call it a monument to corruption.
The truth is, we have created a corrupt system that preys on both Mexicans and foreigners — how can we be outraged when an American company exploits it? At the same time, how can we hope for Mexicans to put an end to corruption when one of the most powerful and allegedly law abiding companies in the United States gives in to the same temptations? As a former governor of Chihuahua once said, after being accused of corruption, “If we put everyone who’s corrupt in jail, who will close the door?”
Homero Aridjis, a former ambassador, is a poet, a novelist and the author of the anthology “Eyes to See Otherwise.” This essay was translated by Betty Ferber from the Spanish.