Mexico has historic chance to fight corruption, says Baker Institute expert

David Ruth

Jeff Falk

Mexico has historic chance to fight corruption, says Baker Institute expert

HOUSTON – (March 25, 2019) – Campaigns against deep-seated corruption have been a normal part of elections and new presidential administrations in Mexico. The country’s new president, Andres Manuel López Obrador, has assumed office at a unique time in the history of the nation with respect to anti-corruption efforts, according to a new issue brief from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Credit: University

“True to the historic pattern, former President Enrique Peña Nieto promised changes, championed reforms and jailed some leaders of the prior administration — yet in the end, he left a legacy of corruption and impunity that far surpassed his predecessors and set the stage for the election of … López Obrador in July 2018,” wrote brief author Stephen Morris, nonresident scholar in the Baker Institute’s Mexico Center.

But the environment in Mexico for an incoming president is quite different now, said Morris, who is a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University.

“Much of today’s situation is the result of the corruption, impunity, scandals and, ironically, the anti-corruption reforms that took place under Peña Nieto,” he wrote. “Combined, these factors present the new government with challenges and great opportunities in the fight against corruption.”

First among the opportunities is that this is the first time a president has assumed office when corruption is considered Mexico’s most important public issue, Morris said. According to exit polls by ‎Parametría, corruption surpassed crime and the economy in July 2018 as the “most important issue in the election,” with 29 percent of respondents citing it as their main concern.

Second, for the first time in many years the new president takes power with not only the support of a majority of voters but, perhaps more importantly, majority support in both houses of Congress, Morris said. Of the 128 seats in Mexico’s Senate, López Obrador´s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) controls 59 while its ally in the We Will Make History alliance, the Workers Party (PT), has six and the Party of Social Encounter (PES) has five. Of the 500 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies, MORENA has 256 seats, the PT has 28 and the PES has 30.

A third exceptional component of the López Obrador transition is that, for the first time, a new president comes to power with a newly crafted anti-corruption system already in place, Morris said. Unlike past administrations, the new government inherits the National Anti-Corruption System (SNA) created in 2015-16.

“A final distinction of note — and yet another product of the developments in corruption and anti-corruption during the Peña Nieto sexenio — is that López Obrador assumes the presidency when anti-corruption initiatives in Mexico for the first time encompass the presence, expertise, mobilization capabilities and autonomy of civic society organizations and government agencies dedicated to combating corruption,” Morris wrote.

Corruption won’t be eliminated in six years

The first challenge for López Obrador’s government is to understand the scope of the public´s demands regarding corruption and to utilize and maintain their support, Morris said.

“While the public wants an end to corruption, it is not entirely clear what type of corruption they are concerned about or how they want the government to proceed,” he wrote.

In the same vein, the government’s battle against corruption is jeopardized if its actions conflict with what the public demands, Morris said.

“In this regard, for example, López Obrador’s proposed ‘zero point’ approach — which focuses on investigating future corruption while overlooking crimes of the past — may undermine public support,” he wrote.

Morris said a second major challenge relates to the massive task of implementing the SNA.

“Fundamentally, this requires the development of state capacity, such as the strengthening of oversight agencies, the training and staffing of the new special anti-corruption counsel´s office and new administrative tribunal and the creation of state anti-corruption systems, among other tasks,” he wrote.

Mexico also faces the huge challenge of changing the culture within administrative offices so that public officials cooperate with anti-corruption investigations, Morris said.

“According to Ernesto Canales Santos, the former anti-corruption special counsel in the northern state of Nuevo Leon and first anti-corruption counsel in the country, this internal culture presents immense obstacles to the implementation of the new system,” he wrote.

A third problem facing the new government is managing anti-corruption initiatives in coordination with civil society groups and autonomous government agencies that have more power and independence than ever before.

“As noted, prior presidents did not face this environment, thus allowing them to control the scope of anti-corruption efforts to protect their own interests,” he wrote. “Today, any government anti-corruption initiative will have to coexist with nongovernmental mechanisms of accountability.”

Morris concludes, “Of course, his (López Obrador’s) government will not be able to eliminate corruption in six years.

“However, if within that period it can at least point to a clear reduction in the levels of corruption, dismantle corrupt government networks, free the state from the control of outside forces, produce a government that is seen as serving the public’s interests rather than those of its leaders and begin to change the culture to one predisposed to collaborate with anti-corruption investigators and denounce corruption — or to one where individuals no longer seek a corrupt avenue to ‘arrange’ things with the government — then it will indeed be a major transformation for Mexico, a change that will bear fruit in many areas of government and society.”


For more information or to schedule an interview with Morris, contact Jeff Falk, associate director of national media relations at Rice, at or 713-348-6775.

Related materials:

Issue brief:

Morris bio:

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Follow the Baker Institute Mexico Center via Twitter @BakerMexicoCtr.

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Founded in 1993, Rice University’s Baker Institute ranks among the top three university-affiliated think tanks in the world. As a premier nonpartisan think tank, the institute conducts research on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy. The institute’s strong track record of achievement reflects the work of its endowed fellows, Rice University faculty scholars and staff, coupled with its outreach to the Rice student body through fellow-taught classes — including a public policy course — and student leadership and internship programs. Learn more about the institute at or on the institute’s blog,

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.